Australia and China ended a decade of negotiations with the signing of their wide-reaching free trade agreement in Canberra today.

The China-Australia FTA (Chafta) was inked by respective trade and commerce ministers Andrew Robb and Gao Hucheng, and will remove tariffs on 85% of Australian goods entering the Chinese market by the time of full implementation in 2035.

China is already Australia’s biggest trade partner – for both export and import – with bilateral trade flows exceeding US$166bn last year. Robb said that he expects two-way investment to grow significantly, pointing out that in the ten years since the Australian-US free trade agreement, bilateral investment leapt from around US$500bn in 2004 to just over US$1tn last year.

“The landmark agreement will lock in our existing trade relationship with our largest trading partner, and will be a catalyst for future growth across goods, services and investment. By itself it’s hugely significant but put the three together and you really have got a set of trade agreements with over 50% of our export markets,” said Robb at the signing.

The Centre for International Economics in Australia expects that Australia’s agriculture sector will be among the biggest victors, with dairy exports set to rise by some 59%. Meanwhile, Australian consumers can look forward to cheaper imports from China.

Australia has taken an aggressive approach to international trade since Tony Abbott’s Liberal government came to power in 2013, at which point he told parliament to “hand their hat on” signing as many FTAs as possible.

He has closed out agreements with Japan and South Korea, while an agreement with India is set to follow the one with China.

Australia is a key player in a number of trans-regional agreements under negotiation, most notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

“This is a momentous and historic day for our two countries. It will change our countries for the better, it will change our region for the better, it will change our world for the better. This agreement will give our nations unprecedented access to each other’s markets,” the prime minister said.

Indeed, the timing of Chafta’s signing will not go unnoticed in the US and around the Pacific Rim, as negotiations over the TPP – particularly the political legislation needed for it to pass in the US – continue to grab headlines for the wrong reasons, from a negotiating point of view.

“The government appears to have made unprecedented concessions on use of temporary migrant labour,” Melissa Parke, Labor Party

“Much of Asia (at least) has been watching in amazement as American legislators reject what most in this region see as common sense. Cutting off your nose to spite your face does not seem a sensible policy,” says Deborah Elms, CEO of the Asian Trade Centre, on the political debacle in Washington DC.

However, critics of the agreement claim that it gives “far too much away” on labour laws.

Melissa Parke, the Labor Party representative for Freemantle, Western Australia (and former UN lawyer) tells GTR: “In the China FTA, the government appears to have made unprecedented concessions on use of temporary migrant labour. A memorandum of understanding separate from the text of the trade agreement gives Chinese investors in projects valued over A$150mn additional rights to bring in temporary migrant workers without undertaking Labour Market Testing, allowing Chinese firms to bypass laws requiring advertising to first see if suitably qualified local workers are available to do the work. Union and industry groups are concerned about the impact on local employment and the potential for exploitation of workers who will be tied to one employer and may not have English language skills or health and safety training.”