By Colin Packham


Sydney (Reuters) - China removed the last remaining restrictions on imports of Australian beef on Friday and announced early-stage plans to co-develop a major mine, rail and port project, in contrast to a growing global trend of trade protectionism.


The policies - announced during a visit to Australia by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang - advance the trade relationship between the two countries at a time of rising tensions between Australia and its traditional ally, the United States.


"I believe it is time for China and Australia to enter into an era of free trade across the board, which means that we need to have free trade between our two countries in wider areas," Li told reporters in the Australian capital of Canberra on Friday.


Australia is one of several countries trying to salvage the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by encouraging China and other Asian countries to join the trade pact after U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the accord.

Li, the first sitting premier to visit Australia in 11 years, said China will now accept chilled beef exports from all licensed exporters. Previously sales were limited to just 11 authorized Australian sellers.

China is already Australia's largest trading partner, with business propelled by a wide-ranging free trade agreement the two countries signed in 2015.

The expanded access gives Australia an opportunity to take advantage of China's decision earlier this week to suspend meat imports from Brazil, the world's biggest exporter of beef and poultry, due to a scandal over sales of rotten and salmonella-tainted meats.

"Australian exports play a major role supporting China's growth," Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Friday. "Our high-quality clean, green agricultural produce supports China's food security."

Turnbull and Li attended a ceremony on Friday where China State Construction Engineering Corp Ltd <601668.SS> tentatively agreed to build a new port and rail line for a yet-to-be-approved iron ore mine in the state of Western Australia.

The memorandum of understanding is tied to a A$6 billion ($4.6 billion) mine, rail and port project in Western Australia's mineral-rich Pilbara region and includes privately-owned New Zealand firm BBI Group.

(Reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney and Sonali Paul in Melbourne.; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)