Australia and Hong Kong begin free trade agreement talks

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Australia and Hong Kong began talks to secure a free trade agreement, Australia’s trade minister Steven Ciobo said on Tuesday, that he said would focus on securing increased access for service providers and could be firmed up within a year.

Ciobo, who met Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Gregory So in Hong Kong, said that while tariffs on Australian goods are already set at zero, talks would focus on improving access for financial, education, travel, construction, mining, energy and transport companies.

Ciobo told Sky News that Canberra would “look and try to negotiate as comprehensive an FTA as possible over the next 12 months or thereabouts. If we can do it a little more quickly than that, that would be fantastic.”

Hong Kong is Australia’s eighth largest export market and 12th largest trading partner overall in 2015-16, Australian government data shows. Two-way trade in goods and services was worth A$15.3 billion ($11.4 billion) with some 600 Australian companies based in the Asian financial hub that returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Ciobo said the FTA with Hong Kong would be focused on securing significant access for Australian service providers, which remained underrepresented in trade.

“Services are basically four-fifths of the Australian economy but it represents only 22 percent or thereabouts of our national exports,” Ciobo told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio.

Reporting by Stefanie McIntyre and Colin Packham; Editing by James Pomfret and Jacqueline Wong