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Australia-China Free Trade Still a Goal, but Little Progress Reported at Summit Meeting

Free trade is one of the major issues being discussed at Monday's East Asia summit in the Philippines. Phil Mercer reports from Sydney that progress on a free trade agreement between Australia and China is still slow going.

Trade with China is one of Australia's key issues at the second annual East Asia Summit.

The two countries have been in discussions about a free-trade agreement since May 2005.

While no final deal has been struck, the Australians have insisted that both sides are committed to making it a reality. After meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the Philippines Monday, Australian Prime Minister John Howard called the negotiations "a hard task" that has to deal with "sensitivities on both sides."

Still, Mr. Howard says trade relations between the two nations are already extremely good.

"It will take awhile, and even without a free trade agreement Australia has a spectacular trade relationship with China," he said. "It goes ahead in leaps and bounds, but we can always make it better and we're both going to work very hard to achieve that."

Bilateral trade between the two nations is worth more than $32 billion a year.

Australia's productive mineral and mining sectors are finding eager buyers across China, which is the world's fastest-growing economy. Sales of Australian uranium to China are expected to begin within weeks, after agreements were signed recently.

China is also one of the largest buyers of Australian coal. The two plan to work together to develop clean coal technology.

Mr. Howard and Mr. Wen are among 16 regional leaders, including those from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who are meeting at the East Asia summit in the southern Philippines Monday.

The leaders have discussed a range of issues, including the North Korean nuclear situation, terrorism, climate change and a host of bilateral and regional free trade proposals.