Topics: Dr Yang Hengjun; Israel; Iran-Pakistan

09:35 AEDT

19 January 2024


Thomas Oriti:  First this half hour, it’s now been five years since the Australian writer, Yang Hengjun, was taken into custody in China on suspicion of spying and the Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong says the Government will keep pressuring Beijing to release him. Dr Yang is an Australian citizen who was working in New York when he was arrested at a Chinese airport back in 2019 back when diplomatic relations weren’t exactly great. A Beijing court heard Dr. Yang’s trial in secret. He’s still awaiting a verdict and he’s denied working as a spy for Australia or the United States. Let’s get more on this now. We’re joined by Senator Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Senator, thank you very much for your time, good morning.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Tom. It’s good to be with you.


Thomas Oriti:  What’s your understanding, first of all of the conditions Yang Hengjun is being held in?


Simon Birmingham: Well the conditions are firstly, deeply concerning in the sense that Dr. Yang Hengjun as you said in your introduction has been held for an indefinite period of time – five years now – but indefinite sentencing period at this stage; unknown as to precisely what the charges were. So, the uncertainty that that creates for him, for his family, for his loved ones, is immense and the stress of course that that applies to not be aware of how long you will be detained, the duration and the conditions of that only creates a very deep period of stress. Australian consular officials have for some time been able to at least have occasional access to him and to seek to make representations in relation to his welfare. But we know there have been health concerns in recent times and so those concerns all of course only add to the pressure as to why there needs to be certainty brought to bear in this matter so that Dr. Yang Hengjun can understand how long he will be detained for and can see a prospect of being released.


Thomas Oriti: Yeah, sorry top interrupt there but as you say we have heard about I guess, physical and mental health concerns there from consular officials in recent times. Penny Wong says the Australian Government will continue to advocate for Dr. Yang’s interests and wellbeing at the highest levels, including for the appropriate medical treatment and to provide a consular assistance to him and his family. What do you make of those comments from the Foreign Affairs Minister?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it certainly does need to be the highest of priorities for engagement between the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and all other representatives of the Australian Government with the Chinese Government. It is unacceptable for an Australian citizen to be detained in these types of circumstances; for China to have created a circumstance where Dr. Yang Hengjun faces this indefinite, arbitrary detention. And that is why there needs to be constant pressure and awareness in relation to this matter. It’s why anniversaries such as this are important occasions on which political leaders should highlight and speak out about the detention and to make sure that Chinese officials understand the depth of concern across Australia that is felt for an Australian citizen detained in such a way.


Thomas Oriti: So sure, but it sounds like then you support what the Government’s doing and you think is, as though it’s applying the appropriate pressure at the moment.


Simon Birmingham: Well, it must continue to do so and as I said, it must be a top priority when the Prime Minister has any of his engagements just as for the Foreign Minister and others. And we have to be upfront and direct about these matters. It was concerning late last year when the Prime Minister seemingly failed to specifically raise Australian concerns about Chinese military interactions with an Australian naval vessel in international waters. The Prime Minister should have taken up those concerns directly with his counterpart, giving he had the opportunity to do so at the time, just as we should be upfront in the pursuit of cases such as Dr. Yang Hengjun’s.


Thomas Oriti: I mean the Prime Minister has been credited though with improving Canberra’s relationship with Beijing though and he travelled to Beijing in November as you know, but Dr. Yang remains in detention. But with those, you know, sort of thawing relations I guess even if you were in office, would you be doing anything else to secure his release at this point?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’d certainly be applying the maximum type of diplomatic pressure that we can. Of course, these are, and this is always the risk that Australians must be aware of wherever they are in the world, that the legal systems of other countries apply, not Australia’s and so they are risks that we all take when we travel internationally and we need to be conscious of that. But nonetheless the Australian Government has responsibilities to advocate. Certainly we would be doing so. We welcome the stabilisation that has occurred in the relationship to date, but that stabilisation cannot come at the expense of advocacy for Australian interests, be they the interests of the safety of our military personnel as I mentioned before, or an Australian citizen like Dr. Yang Hengjun.


Thomas Oriti: Senator Simon Birmingham is my guest. Senator, can I just ask you another issue this morning? Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has come out to say that he opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state once the conflict in Gaza comes to an end. Keen to hear your thoughts on that. I mean, are you concerned that we’re seeing a greater divide forming between Israel and its Western allies like the United States over this?


Simon Birmingham: Well Australia’s had a long and consistent bipartisan position in support of a negotiated two-state settlement of matters. Now of course to negotiate that, security has to be one of the pillars of any successful settlement of those negotiations – security for Israel from attacks by terrorists being harboured in the Palestinian territories or alternate state, as well as negotiations of course around boundaries, settlements and a range of other matters that have proven to be very complicated and, to date, intractable between the parties. But the ultimate achievement of peace for Israel and Israelis, as well as for the Palestinian peoples, will require negotiation to reach terms that are acceptable to both parties. But that will have to start with having security and safety from terrorist attacks and obviously, that’s the current priority in the wake of the atrocities of October 7.


Thomas Oriti: Yeah, I mean, this is obviously a very sensitive topic, but what we do know is the situation is dire. I mean, I don’t think that’s controversial to say. Almost 25,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza according to the Hamas-run health ministry; 85% of the strip’s population displaced, as you say, of course, after those atrocities on October the seventh. This week the Government announced $21.5 million in humanitarian funding. Penny Wong, Foreign Affairs Minister, of course on a trip to the Middle East at the moment. Do you think the Government’s doing enough or should it be doing more?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there were a few matters there. I think the Government’s had inconsistencies between the language and actions at times. We’ve been concerned that the support for Israel’s inherent right to self-defence and to remove Hamas as a terrorist threat has been undermined by things such as the way Australia has voted at the United Nations in relation to ceasefire resolutions. When it comes to humanitarian aid and support, we of course wish to see humanitarian aid and assistance reach innocent civilians across Gaza and that it goes to those most in need. There are concerns about funding through UNRWA, an organisation that has, at times, been subject to suggestions that its funded or operated in ways where its funding has assisted terrorism or assisted or incited people who have extremist views, and they’re of deep concerns with if that is the case. And so, the Government needs to be clear as to what assurances it has, and certainty it has, that any funding going through that organisation will solely be used for humanitarian purposes. Of course, there are many other international organisations who do do worthy humanitarian work and assistance and as I said we welcome and support their efforts and initiatives to provide assistance to those who most genuinely need it.


Thomas Oriti: When you said inconsistencies a moment ago, I’m just keen to elaborate on that. Are you saying if you were in government, did you take exception to Australia voting in favour of a ceasefire in the war in Gaza at the UN a little while ago? Would you have done that differently?


Simon Birmingham: We don’t believe that resolution effectively reflected the reality of the situation there. Australia did vote for amendments to it which were ultimately unsuccessful. Those amendments had they been incorporated, might have made the final motion acceptable to Australia. But we should be clear that a simple laying down of arms that gives Hamas an opportunity to rearm, to regroup and to, as their goal is, to repeat the types of terrorist atrocities again, would be unacceptable. There has to be in any type of negotiated arrangements, be it for the longer term or in the shorter term, clear security and of course in the case of the shorter term, the release of hostages who continue to be held; the surrendering of terrorist equipment, infrastructure and personnel by Hamas. These have got to be outcomes if we are to see a ceasefire that can be enduring and provide for a peaceful outcome.


Thomas Oriti: Before I let you go, Senator, you know, we’re hearing about this tension between Iran and Pakistan. Nine people killed in Iran after Pakistan launched missiles strikes and it comes two days after Iran carried out strikes in Pakistan – obviously very volatile border country there. Just broadly speaking, before I let you go, how worried are you that we could see a much larger escalation in hostilities in the region in the days and weeks to come?


Simon Birmingham: We would always urge parties to exercise restraint; to be judicious in the use of military power, but in Iran we do see a state that is continuously a rogue operator in terms of its engagement, be its flouting of nuclear weapons conventions; be its funding and support for Hamas or for Hezbollah or for the Houthi rebels who are creating such a disruption in the Red Sea at present where Australia should be playing a bigger role. And so, regrettably, with Iran we see a repeat offender – a state that is a threat to the entire world through its operations and tragically, of course, that manifests itself in many different ways as it is in multiple fronts right now.


Thomas Oriti: Senator, great to hear your thoughts. Thank you very much for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks Thomas, it’s my pleasure.