Topics: Mr Albanese meeting with Xi Jinping; Australia-China relationship; President Biden meeting with Xi Jinping; Russian missile kills civilians in Poland on Ukrainian border;

07:35AM AEDT
16 November 2022


Patricia Karvelas: We will cooperate where we can and disagree where we must. Those were the Prime Minister’s words after a historic 32 minute meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping. And the two leaders squeezed a lot into those 32 minutes from Beijing’s trade bans to detained Australians. It’s a remarkable turnaround in the relationship after years of closed communication channels. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham joined me a short time ago. Simon Birmingham, welcome back to Breakfast.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Patricia. Good to be with you.


Patricia Karvelas: Do you give the government credit for pulling off what couldn’t be pulled off for six years, a meeting with the Chinese President?


Simon Birmingham: Well, yes, Patricia, it is a very good thing that this meeting has happened. Having a dialogue is always far preferable to having stand-off. There were many difficult decisions that in Australia’s national interest had to be taken over the last six years, decisions to strengthen the national interest tests around our foreign investment laws, decisions to strengthen the protection of our critical infrastructure, decisions in relation to how we manage foreign interference in Australia. And those sorts of decisions did cause difficulties in the relationship. It’s important the Government continues to stand firm on those matters of Australia’s national interest, as they have indicated they are doing. But it’s also important that we seize these opportunities, and it is welcome to see this meeting as it was also to see President Xi Jinping have his first meeting with President Joe Biden since Joe Biden took office nearly two years ago.


Patricia Karvelas: You mention all of those decisions. And you’re right, there’s bipartisanship on some of those key issues. But there was also, you know, really, really trumped up rhetoric against China that was seen through the domestic prism. Do you think some of that led to this very prolonged period of Australia being in the deep freeze and with the benefit of hindsight, in fact, that should have been dialled down earlier?


Simon Birmingham: Well Patricia, there were many different issues confronted during that time and there will be difficult issues in the future. Clearly, whether they be regional issues such as, such as actions within the South China Sea, be it of course COVID or the detention of Australians in very concerning and troubling circumstances. And so, all of those issues have created additional tensions on top of some of the important issues that I raised before and reforms that had to occur in Australia. No doubt there will be challenges in the future and the test will be how the new Government navigates those challenges. But where possible, I hope that we can maintain progress in terms of the stabilisation of the relationship and ensure that also where possible, Australia speaks with one voice. We saw not just challenges in relation to perhaps some of the coverage of these types of issues prior to the last election. But equally we saw what I would say is some politicisation of sensitive topics such as the Solomon Islands by the then Labor Party in opposition, all of these matters require careful handling-


Patricia Karvelas: But if you’re going to accuse them of that, do you also take responsibility for a lack of gentle handling on your side of the political fence?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, as I said, I want to make sure that we bring a sense of bipartisanship and acting where possible in the national interest-


Patricia Karvelas: The tone was really problematic sometimes, wasn’t it? It really inflamed rather than putting down the temperature here.


Simon Birmingham: We spoke many times and I think, you know, the tone that I always try to bring is one of calmly and responsibly dealing with issues as they come up. And that’s the approach that I certainly intend to continue to take.


Patricia Karvelas: Okay. What do you expect will come out from this first meeting? Do you expect China will back down on its tariffs imposed on wine and barley, for example?


Simon Birmingham: We can’t expect instant miracles, but the ultimate test of dialogue will be the outcomes that are received. And so Australians should expect over time, if this dialogue is successful, to see breakthroughs in relation to those trade barriers, the direct trade barriers you reference in terms of tariffs that are unfairly and unjustly being placed on wine and barley industries as well as all of the other trade barriers, more indirect ones that have been placed on our lives seafood sector, our forestry sector, our red meat sector and a range of others that have faced difficulties in accessing the Chinese market. So I would hope ultimately to see breakthroughs there. And of course, critically, the just treatment of Australians detained in China, Cheng Lei, Dr. Young and others facing difficult circumstances of detention there. Then of course challenges in terms of engagement within the region that we must continue to argue for China to respect international law, international rules and norms, be that in relation to the South China Sea or of course human rights matters to.


Patricia Karvelas: I spoke to former Ambassador Geoff Raby and he says that Penny Wong should now work towards a visit to Beijing. Do you back that?


Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. And I would hope that we will see this meeting followed up with increased ministerial dialogue. Out of President Joe Biden’s long three hour discussion. There have already been announcements around further visits to Beijing. There’s also progress in relation to the re-establishment of working groups between the United States and China. We should be mindful that the difficulties we have experienced in the Australia-China relationship are also difficulties that other countries have experienced. It is welcome news to see China make progress in these matters, and there’s some concrete progress in the China US dialogue and discussions that now looks like happening. And so I hope we will see similarly concrete progress achieved for Australia.


Patricia Karvelas: Geoff Raby also said that one of the important elements here is that by meeting with the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, that the Chinese President sends a really powerful signal to his own nation that business is open again and that they too can meet with Australians. Is that how you see it?


Simon Birmingham: I think we need to be careful not to overreach the likely initial responses in China, but certainly to expect to see continued dialogue and that that dialogue should achieve if it is meaningful dialogue progress in relation to these matters. So there is some way to go, and I acknowledge that. But as I said before, the test of dialogue will be whether it unlocks those trade sanctions, whether it yields progress for detained Australians, whether we are able to not just stabilise the relationship, but see China step back from the unfair actions that it has taken in recent years.


Patricia Karvelas: Joe Biden says US secretary Antony Blinken will visit China following the G20 meeting to firm up the discussions they had. And that’s a pretty key moment. How much do you think we can get to a position that looks the way it used do that the regularity of the meetings that used to be held happens again? Is that your expectation that you can get back to that normal?


Simon Birmingham: Well, our agreements with China, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership we have, do actually set out a pattern for engagement between senior ministers of both countries. And so a key thing for us in urging China to uphold the spirit and principle of those agreements, as well as the letter of them, would be the re-establishment of that regular pattern of dialogue between senior ministers. And that really is a critical expectation we should have with China that agreements entered into in good faith are honoured. Now, China has been in breach of that by not having that dialogue. Is also in breach in relation to the types of trade sanctions applied. And so, urging them to honour the commitments made is a very key thing for Australia. And again we’re seeing concrete progress in the China-US relationship which had been absent the last couple of years. And so Australia, I would hope, is able to follow in behind that sort of progress.


Patricia Karvelas: The Prime Minister did say he brought up human rights issues, including the situation of the two detained Australians. Is there any hope there could be some concessions made for them and any chance they’ll be released?


Simon Birmingham: So again, and in fairness to the families involved, I wouldn’t want to escalate hopes into unreasonable territory. But we should have clear expectations. And the test of dialogue is whether we do see fair treatment for those individuals, greater access for particularly in circumstances families to be able to engage and visit with them. These are reasonable things. Indeed. They’re things that even China’s Ambassador to Australia has indicated that he would be looking into, and I would urge him to be following up on these meetings and ensure that he does actually put pressure into his system for some of those basic rights to be acknowledged and delivered upon.


Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, there’s been a development this morning that could dramatically escalate the war in Ukraine. The Pentagon says it’s aware of a Russian fired rocket or missile hitting Poland near the Ukrainian border. Obviously, Poland is a NATO nation. This is this is this escalates the potential for the war. How concerning is this?


Simon Birmingham: This is deeply, deeply troubling news. The risk that comes from accident or misadventure in military exercises, which is something that was highlighted when China itself was firing live missiles over Taiwan not that long ago, is that if an accident occurs, it can result in a real escalation. I have no doubt that NATO will have many contingencies they’ve looked at in the eventuality of this type of incident occurring from Russia. But it shows just how dangerous a game Russia is playing. And I hope that with world leaders meeting at the G20, it will strengthen the resolve of every nation to send the clearest possible signal to Russia that it’s illegal and immoral war on Ukraine must stop and that the dangers it is posing not just to the world economy but to world peace through this war are too great for it to continue.


Patricia Karvelas: Obviously, because they are a NATO nation, there are options available to Poland to respond, but that would escalate the situation. Would you urge restraint?


Simon Birmingham: I think the world would urge restraint. But the most important restraint has to be from Russia. They are the ones undertaking illegal, unjust and immoral actions. They have been doing so nearly all of this year. And they need to cease. I am sure that NATO’s will calibrate any response carefully, thoughtfully. But there is also the opportunity with those world leaders at the table in Bali for a strong signal to be sent, and I hope that they are urged to do so. And in particular President Xi Jinping, who has additional influence over Russia and beyond that of many others. And I hope that he is able to exercise that. It was encouraging to see the commonality of statements between him and Joe Biden in relation to the use of nuclear weapons and that needs to also be followed up now with this dangerous concerning development in relation to Poland, with China and others stepping up their pressure on Russia for it to end.


Patricia Karvelas: Senator, thank you so much for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.