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Australia says China free trade deal likely by end of year

BEIJING (Reuters) - China and Australia, which have been trying to set up a bilateral free trade agreement for years, are determined to sign a deal by the end of this year, Australia's trade chief said on Tuesday after talks with Chinese leaders.

But there has been little sign of a breakthrough despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott's expressed intent to seal an agreement before November.

Australian Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb said the deal with China was on track, but declined to give details of talks, saying he didn't want to "put his cards on the table".

"The conclusion was that it was doable this year. It could be completed, and that both governments are determined to bring it to completion later this year," Robb said after meeting with Xu Shaoshi, the chairman of China's powerful economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission.

"There is a negotiation, so anything can happen. But we're both confident and we went through in some detail what ground had to be covered, including agriculture," Robb told reporters.

Free trade talks have been stymied by Beijing's concerns over opening markets to Australian food. There are fears in Australia that an influx of cheap Chinese goods could threaten domestic producers facing a strong local currency and high costs.

China has expressed worries over Australia's stringent approval process on foreign investment by state-owned enterprises. Canberra, like many of China's trading partners, wants Beijing to improve access to key industries in which foreign investment is currently restricted.

Nonetheless, China's thirst for minerals has fueled more than 20 years of unbroken economic growth in Australia.

Robb was in China with Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey for the country's first annual Strategic Economic Dialogue with China, Australia's largest two-way trading partner.

Trade in goods and services between the two countries reached about $150 billion in 2013, according to the Australian government.

Abbott had said he hoped a deal could be reached before November, in time for Chinese President Xi Jinping's scheduled visit to Australia.

But some have criticized the prime minister for setting a timeline for clinching the deal, arguing that it gives China leverage in the negotiations, which began in 2005. Since then, Australia has started and finished deals with both Japan and South Korea.

Robb also expressed optimism about concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal with the United States and 10 other Pacific Rim economies in 2015.

"My assessment of U.S. politics ... is that it won't pass this year no matter what happens. I think the best window and the best opportunity will be in the first half of next year," he said.

Central to U.S. President Barack Obama's strategic shift toward Asia, the TPP would cut trade barriers and harmonize standards in a deal covering two-fifths of the world economy and a third of global trade. Many countries had hoped to complete the TPP last year, but talks stalled over Japanese tariffs on agricultural imports.

Beijing has painted Obama's "pivot" to Asia as an effort to contain the rising Asian power, which is not party to the TPP negotiations.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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