Topics:  Australia-China relationship; Chinese military operations; Meeting with Premier Li;  

04:15PM AEST
17 June 2024


Greg Jennett:  Simon Birmingham, great to have you with us on a very busy afternoon for everyone involved in Premier Lee’s visit. Now we’ve heard all the big words today. Renewed. Revitalised. Stabilised. What test will you apply to see whether anything enduring actually comes out of this visit?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, this is a welcome visit. And it’s important that this type of dialogue happens. And it was always counterproductive when China went through a period of refusing to engage in ministerial level dialogue, and that overlapped with a bit of a global strategy of so-called wolf warrior diplomacy back at that time. Now they appear to have changed some of those approaches, but we should be clear eyed. The strategic challenges remain and remain very significant in the way China conducts itself globally in the region, and some of the outstanding bilateral issues that are still there. This visit will be judged on the results in terms of progress against those residual trade issues, consular issues and other important matters as to how we engage with one another and in this region.


Greg Jennett: Okay, so those outstanding bilateral issues are limited, are they? To the list you just identified there, consular matters, the small number of trade disputes, lobsters I think principally and much else?


Simon Birmingham: Greg, as I said those issues of regional engagement, particularly our military-to-military engagement and what we have seen in terms of the conduct of China’s military in ways that have threatened the lives and the safety of our defence force personnel. It’s not just about Australia and Chinese military conduct, but it’s about Chinese military conduct across this region. Even whilst these meetings have been taking place in Canberra today, we’ve seen reports of yet another incident involving the Chinese military and the Philippines, disturbing and concerning reports. And these happen far too often because of approaches that are too aggressive, too risky, and create the prospect of potential escalation.


Greg Jennett: Thank you for highlighting that. Now, the Prime Minister did mention that there’ll be some new protocol on military-to-military communications. He didn’t go into a lot of depth, but you imagine that it is meant to deconflict in situations where Australian ships are exercising, or planes are flying through. I imagine lots of countries have those back-channel military to military communications and yet still have their unintended encounters. Does it give you confidence that Australia will have enhanced communications at that level?


Simon Birmingham: Well, President Biden struck some similar terms and protocols with President Xi in their meetings over the last couple of years. And it’s important, especially for super powers like the US and China, to have those back channel lines of communication between their militaries. But let’s be clear here as well, what we should want and expect is for China’s conduct and conduct of its military in the first place, to not be dangerous, not to be risky, not be creating those circumstances where a fear of escalation, where a fear of some type of miscalculation that leads to greater conflict could unfold. And whether that’s with us, whether it’s with the Philippines, whether it’s in Japanese territorial waters or indeed over Taiwan, all of these circumstances have presented undue risk that could and should be avoided.


Greg Jennett: You’ve highlighted the most recent of many confrontations with Philippines forces. You might also have noticed at the weekend, a law passed a couple of years ago became active, has come into force. It’s kind of a maritime trespass law, if you like, that the Chinese have written for themselves in the South China Sea and the East China Sea such that if a foreign intruder came into that area, they could, in the worst-case scenario, detain a foreigner for illegal activities for 30 or 60 days. Now, the mere existence of that law coming into force increases the possibility, doesn’t it, of miscalculation and risk?


Simon Birmingham: It does, particularly when there is a real risk that China will apply that law in ways that are inconsistent with international law. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea applies. There have been clear findings and rulings in relation to parts of Southeast Asia, and those findings and rulings should be respected and should be respected by China, as we would expect other parties to respect them too.


Greg Jennett: Would that make that law invalid then? Is it contrary to all norms of international Law at Sea?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m not going to pretend to be a scholar on international laws at sea, but I am very clear that the UNCLOS convention should be respected. The rulings that have been made in disputes already went against China and were clear in relation to the fact that Chinese claims are not recognised and not legitimate in some of these circumstances. China should respect that, and it would be of deep concern were they to use some new form of domestic law to seek to detain people or to intervene in ways that was contrary to those rulings under the UNCLOS convention.


Greg Jennett: Would you propose at the time at which we speak, you haven’t yet had an opportunity to talk to Premier Li, but would you propose to raise that issue specifically or others that you are raising here with us, with him?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Greg, I’ll be joining Peter Dutton for a meeting with Premier Li. We will be making sure that we cover as much territory as we can. Again, we want to convey a positive message in terms of engagement between Australia and China, and that we wish to see the positive opportunities for cooperation maximised, but also the expectations about how we manage differences and how we expect China to behave in the region and across the globe as a responsible citizen. That should be the wish of all parties. And whether it’s in relation to these matters, which we will certainly be stressing, as we have before, adherence to those UNCLOS findings and respect for them, which are important to our Southeast Asian partners, or whether it’s in relation to other attitudes where there should be no tolerance for Russian invasion and provocation of war or Iranian sponsored terrorism. There shouldn’t be joint military operations with those types of countries whilst they are provoking such global destabilisation.


Greg Jennett: All right. Well, thank you for sharing those thoughts. We’re going to let you go, Simon Birmingham because those talks await for you. Thanks again.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Greg. My pleasure.