Topics: Chinese navy incident; Albanese not transparent on talks with President Xi; Immigration detention decision; Optus

07:35AM AEDT
Tuesday, 21 November 2023


Patricia Karvelas:  A Defence Ministry spokesman says China did not engage in any activities that may have affected the Australian divers and warned Canberra against reckless and irresponsible accusations. The Prime Minister is under increasing pressure to reveal whether he raised the incident with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at last week’s APEC summit. It’s not the first time the defence force has had issues with the Chinese military in the region, and the deputy prime minister and defence minister, Richard Marles, has said he raised the issue with Chinese officials. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Minister. He joined me a short time ago. Senator, welcome to RN Breakfast.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Great to be with you again.


Patricia Karvelas: The Chinese say the ship followed international rules and they have completely denied allegations made by Australia. They say they are completely inconsistent with facts. Do you believe the Chinese?


Simon Birmingham: This is a very concerning and troubling episode and the fact that the Chinese government response is one of denial is doubly concerning. The reality is, there is nothing that is in Australia’s interests for us to have exaggerated or made up this incident. The Australian Navy and Australian Defence Force operates always with professionalism, and I’m confident that Australia’s version of events is a credible one and a strong one, and unfortunately it aligns with a pattern of behaviour in the way that China’s military engages across the region, be it in confrontation with the Philippines and South China Sea, be it in the way it operates across the Taiwan Strait or in this instance, in Japanese economic waters, and the concern and peril that it put Australian defence personnel in.


Patricia Karvelas: So, you’re saying the Chinese are not telling the truth?


Simon Birmingham: Well, regrettably, China doesn’t appear to be acknowledging the facts of the circumstances. And that is very regrettable, because if you’re not willing to acknowledge the facts, then it doesn’t speak well for your willingness to change your behaviour. And that’s really what we and so many other nations across the region need to see the Chinese military do, which is to change their operating protocols and their behaviour to be less confrontational. Because this type of confrontation and the behaviour we see in a range of regions only increases the risk of accident or miscalculation at some stage. And that, of course, in turn increases the risk of possible escalation with all of the devastating consequences that would bring to bear.


Patricia Karvelas: So, what consequences should there be for the Chinese denying that this happened? What do you expect the Australian government to now do?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I would hope that the Australian government makes serious representations to China. And given what appears to have been an inadequate response to date in not seizing the opportunity to raise it at the highest levels. The Albanese Government should now be making clear our concerns at the highest levels with China-.


Patricia Karvelas: T have to interrupt. What is a serious representation? Can you define it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this is about the way in which governments speak to one another and at what level they speak with one another. And simply conveying concerns at officials level might be fine if we were dealing with a one off incident that was clearly accidental. But when you see repetitive patterns of behaviour in terms of military activities, it’s appropriate that it be raised at ministerial or even leader level. And we all know that Prime Minister Albanese had the opportunity to raise it at leader level. And it appears from all of his statements that he did not, and that was a missed opportunity.


Patricia Karvelas: Let’s be clear, we don’t know. He says he won’t reveal details of private conversations he hasn’t said either way.


Simon Birmingham: Which is fascinating. Patricia, if you’ll let me, can I read from a transcript of the Prime Minister’s doorstop that he did when he was in San Francisco, and he said, “I had a much longer conversation with the President and with Wang Yi as well. He regards my visit there as being very successful…” On the prime Minister goes, detailing the nature of the conversation he had with President Xi Jinping. So, for him now to come back to Australia and say, I won’t reveal the content of conversations is quite disingenuous and in complete conflict with the evidence of what he actually said in San Francisco, which means Australians can really only deduce that he did not raise this incident that put Australian military personnel’s lives in danger.


Patricia Karvelas: So just to be clear, if we accept your assessment because, you know, I can only work in facts, and I don’t know is where I’m at. But you’re saying if we- you think that he didn’t raise it. If we accept your assessment, do you think he should seek now a conversation with President Xi to raise this?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the very minimum it should be raised at ministerial level. And it’s not even clear from the government’s response that that has occurred. And if China is denying, then Australia should be making clear and providing, if necessary, evidence in relation to the facts that occurred. And we should be seeking some acknowledgement from China that this occurred. If they say that it was a mistake and an accident, well, so be it. But apologies ought to be offered. But most importantly, for the safety of our region, we ought to be seeing a change in the way the Chinese military conduct themselves. Because, as I said at the outset, this is not a one-off incident. We’ve seen it happen to RAAF aircraft and in other Australian operations, and we see it far more routinely happen to other nations. And in particular, for some months now, we have seen repetitive patterns of aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea towards the Philippines, which again, Australia and partner nations across the region should be raising more consistently, and that a higher level with China to make it clear our concerns and to urge change in their behaviour.


Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham Chinese government rhetoric can be quite theatrical. Do you leave room for the possibility that the denial is just a face-saving gesture?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look you can put whatever spin on it people may wish to, but we should have raised it at the highest level at the earliest opportunity. I can’t interpret what the Chinese government is necessarily doing, but I can see very clearly that the Albanese Government should have seized the opportunity to raise. It should have been more transparent about when it was informed and what steps it took, and that the Prime Minister’s performance yesterday was disingenuous to kind of try to create ambiguity-


Patricia Karvelas: But he used pretty strong language, didn’t he? He used strong language to denounce it. Do you recognise that?


Simon Birmingham: It would have been far better for him to perhaps not have to use such strong language in public, but use strong language in private, and be clear and direct and forthright with China, and then to be open and honest with the Australian people that he had raised it. He’s happy to talk about all manner of other things that were raised in the conversation. And so it’s implausible to think that on this issue he wouldn’t come out and say, yes, I raised it, I put Australia’s concerns, I’m not going to talk further about the detail. That would be a reasonable response in making clear it had been raised. He hasn’t given that and that’s why it seems that Australians can only deduce he chose not to raise it.


Patricia Karvelas: Given that the relationship with China is only starting to be stabilised is the language perhaps just, you know, incrementally repaired is another way to describe it. We’re seeing better trade relations and one at least detained Australian obviously coming home, Cheng Lei. Is this a more diplomatic way of dealing with this country? I mean, the Coalition of course you were in office and progress stalled. We were in the deepest of deep freezes. Do you do you acknowledge that the relationship did go backwards and that there has been a stabilisation to this point?


Simon Birmingham: I think I have acknowledged and welcomed the stabilisation in interviews with you and others, and it’s welcome that China has resumed ministerial level dialogue after its ban on meeting and discussing with Australian ministers. And it’s welcome that we’re seeing some progress made along that line in terms of the removal of some of the trade sanctions that China applied as part of its attempted economic coercion against Australia. But in many ways, the mishandling of this is actually harmful because, as we just discussed, you now have the Prime Minister under pressure in Australia making public comments here in terms of the strength of condemnation of the actions, rather than having been on the front foot raising it proactively when he saw President Xi Jinping, and doing it, of course, in a respectful way, as Australians would expect. Not to come back-


Patricia Karvelas: And now you expect Penny Wong to raise it? That’s what you’re saying. Now it’s incumbent on her to now raise it.


Simon Birmingham: At foreign or defence minister level it would be appropriate to continue to pursue this. To make sure that the evidence is provided to China to demonstrate clearly the wrongdoing that occurred from their naval personnel, the danger that Australia’s naval personnel were put in, and of course, the need for this type of behaviour to cease and for China to change its operating practices.


Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, if I can just change the topic to another issue, the 93 people that have been released from detention, now the government is looking and getting legal advice on terrorist style powers to get the worst of the freed foreigners locked up again. Is that what you want to see happen?


Simon Birmingham: We do want to see people who pose a potential threat to the Australian community to be detained, and for Australians to be kept safe, and these are unique circumstances, but the government has at every stage, it seemed, flip flopped in its different approaches to it. Initially, it was only releasing one individual and awaiting the findings and the detailed reasons of the High Court. Then suddenly it was releasing a lot, but it simply had to, and there was going to be no prospect of legislation. Then we had legislation that was the toughest of all possible responses, the Government said. Yet within 24 hours, they had agreed to six different opposition proposals for amendments. And now we’ve got the Government looking at further alternatives. Whilst we want to see Australians kept safe and secure, we want to see action taken. But it is quite remarkable how flat footed and the flip flopping that we’re seeing from the government.


Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, and this is totally on another topic, but it’s really interesting. There is a lot of reporting, in fact, quite furious and busy that Gladys Berejiklian is a front runner to be the next Optus boss. Do you think that’s a good idea?


Simon Birmingham: I think that’s entirely a matter for Optus, Singtel, their owners and board, I’m sure Optus customers want to make sure that Optus has great leadership and Gladys is a dear friend, a fabulous leader. But I’m not going to seek to tell a telecommunications company who their CEO should be.


Patricia Karvelas: And that’s Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Foreign Minister who joined us a short time ago.