By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia hopes that an ambitious trade deal to be signed on Sunday between 15 Asia-Pacific economies will help improve the country's strained relations with China, Australia's Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said.
The China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal to be signed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could become the world's largest free trade agreement.
Covering nearly a third of the global population and about 30% of its global gross domestic product, the deal will progressively lower tariffs and aims to counter protectionism, boost investment and allow freer movement of goods within the region.
Australia's ties with China, its biggest trading partner, became frayed after Canberra called for an international inquiry into the source of the novel coronavirus, which erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
Trade disputes have hit a dozen Australian industries and threatened exports to China of agricultural products, timber and resources worth billions of dollars.
The ASEAN pact offers a platform that can lead to a positive change in relations, Birmingham said.
"The ball is very much in China's court to come to the table for that dialogue," Birmingham told The Age newspaper ahead of the conclusion of the ASEAN talks.
"It is crucial that partners like China, as they enter into new agreements like this, deliver not only on the detail of such agreements, but act true to the spirit of them."
Asked earlier this month whether China imposed restrictions on several Australian imports, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the measures taken by China were "legitimate, reasonable and beyond reproach."
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; editing by Jonathan Oatis)