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Trump pushes for bilateral pacts, but multilateral deals aren't dead, trade minister says

  • President Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted that bilateral trade deals are the best way forward for his country
  • But Steven Ciobo, Australia's minister for trade, says his country still sees merit in bigger trading blocs

As President Donald Trump continues to push for one-on-one trade partnerships in Asia, Australia's minister for trade says his country still sees merit in bigger blocs.

"We are unashamedly pro a multilateral rules-based global trading system. We think it has served the world very well, notwithstanding that there are, of course, pockets where we have to make sure we have to redistribute benefits of those trade gains to everybody," Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Steven Ciobo told CNBC.

"We'll pursue multilateral, we'll pursue plurilateral, we'll pursue bilateral [deals]," he said.

Ciobo has been actively pushing for trade investment for Australia: "I've got eight deals underway at the moment. We think multilateralism is a very big part of it," he said.

But Ciobo did not discount the merit of having some bilateral trade partnerships, too.

Protesters hold placards against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) during a rally on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Lima on November 18, 2016.
Rodrigo Buendia | AFP | Getty Images
Protesters hold placards against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) during a rally on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Lima on November 18, 2016.

"Australia and China have one of the best bilateral free trade agreements in place that China has with any country," he said. Asia's largest economy is one of Australia's biggest trading partners.

Ciobo was speaking with CNBC on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation ministerial meeting, which has already seen significant discussion about the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP agreement was originally signed by 12 countries in 2016, but Trump withdrew the U.S. from the pact when he took office. That withdrawal put the future of the deal in doubt.

But now, the remaining countries are working to get a so-called TPP-11 in place.

Ciobo said that pact is not yet a done deal, the 11 member countries are coming closer to an agreement. "We're all pulling in the same direction so I'm hopeful we'll do this deal."

The Australian minister added that some sticking points remain around national interest concerns. But, he said, the chapters relating to market access have been settled.

"There are a lot of benefits from the TPP notwithstanding the U.S. decision to withdraw," said Ciobo.