Topics: PM trip to China; China-Australia relationship; CPTPP; Israel-Hamas conflict;

11:20AM ACDT
Saturday, 4 November 2023


Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along today. At the outset, can I note that the natural disaster appears to have struck in Nepal and our thoughts are with people there. We know that Australia as good friends of Nepal will stand willing, I’m sure, to help and provide assistance, and the Government will have all bipartisan assistance and support in terms of any assistance that does need to be provided.

Today, we’ll see Prime Minister Albanese leave Australia for China. The visit is a welcome one in that it denotes the fact that China has ceased what was a very counterproductive period of refusing to engage in ministerial level dialogue. The fact that China chose to resume that dialogue is something that we welcome. We want to see, of course, stabilisation in the relationship, honesty in the relationship, but also resolution of the various sanctions that China has applied against Australia and actions that China takes that are detrimental to Australia and indeed our whole region.

This is a visit where Prime Minister Albanese needs to demonstrate substance and strength ahead of symbolism or ceremony. It’s important that in this visit, we see the Prime Minister seriously take up Australia’s continued concerns about the punitive trade sanctions against Australia. Our winemakers shouldn’t have to wait five months for a review by China to have punitive tariffs removed that should never have been imposed in the first place. Nor should our meat industry or our live seafood industry continue to be drawn out with uncertainty about how important regulatory issues will be resolved.

Dr. Yang Hengjun should not be facing indefinite arbitrary detention under Chinese system. We should see resolution of that issue. And whilst it has been enormously welcomed to see Cheng Lei reunited with her children, our hearts go out to Yang Hengjun and his family and we need to see that as a top priority in the Prime Minister’s visit.

Of course, there are a number of other regional points of concern that must be addressed. The Prime Minister should be strong in making clear Australia’s deep concerns and objections to the way China’s military has been engaging with the Philippines in the South China Sea. These actions, alongside the increased military actions by China in the Taiwan Strait, all increase the risk in terms of miscalculation, accident and therefore of potential military conflict. We should be very clear in urging China to respect the UN conventions on the Law of the Sea. To abide by rulings, to desist from provocative actions with the Philippines or others, and to be making sure that they are operating in ways that respect the status quo in relation to Taiwan as well.

It’s critical in a broader sense, that we raise concerns and that Australia is consistent in our principles on matters of human rights, as well as the deep concerns about interference in intellectual property, cyber espionage and other concerns that have been raised. So on the whole, there is a big agenda of very serious issues and concerns that Mr. Albanese should take to President Xi. He needs to make sure this visit is a working visit of strength and substance ahead of symbolism or ceremony, and that it is one focused on getting outcomes for the prosperity of Australia and our region in a stable way, a peaceful way, and one that can ensure we have the type of relationship with China in the future that is a positive, stable, peaceful one underpinning the type of growth we wish to see without the type of punitive attacks we have seen from China in recent years.


Journalist: You’ve listed a few concerns there. What would be the top priorities of this trip, or what would you consider needs to happen for this trip to be a success?


Simon Birmingham: Prime Minister Albanese needs to, of course, always put Australia’s interests first, and Australia’s interests are served by standing up for Australians such as Dr. Yang Hengjun and arguing strongly for his release and standing up for Australian industry such as our wine industry, and arguing for the immediate removal of their tariffs. These are the types of outcomes that Australians should be wanting to see, and wanting to see achieved as quickly as possible during or after this visit.


Journalist: Is Anthony Albanese doing what Scott Morrison couldn’t in securing this trip?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve come through Covid-19, travel restrictions that were imposed by China long after Australia, but also through a period of acknowledged difficulty in the relationship. China responded in ways that were wildly inappropriate to legitimate actions Australia took to safeguard our democracy, to safeguard our critical infrastructure, to safeguard our IT systems, and indeed to ensure that we had a framework of protections on investment, on infrastructure, on technology in place that could deal with threats that we were seeing to the way Australia engaged with the world, and the fact that China was going through a period of so-called wolf warrior diplomacy, targeting Australia, targeting Lithuania, targeting other countries around the world with serious sanctions and actions was completely inappropriate, completely counterproductive for them to refuse to engage in ministerial level dialogue. We are welcoming the fact that dialogue is resuming, but it is critical that we see outcomes in Australia’s interests and that Australia demonstrates the type of strength that a political level that we have shown across this nation. Australian business and industry did not buckle or yield to China’s coercive attempts at trade sanctions against Australia. And our political leadership needs to be just as strong.


Journalist: Well, why has Albanese been able to secure a trip to China when the Coalition couldn’t even get the Chinese ministers to answer the phone?


Simon Birmingham: China’s period of refusing to engage in ministerial discussion and dialogue was completely counterproductive. It was something that harmed China’s economy and Chinese businesses through the imposition of trade sanctions and tariffs, just as it was an attempt to harm Australian businesses and industry. But Australia should stand tall. There has been no yielding to the 14 demands given by China. We have withstood economic coercion and our economy has remained strong, and that is to the credit of Australian business and industry in that regard. And our political leadership now needs to be just as strong in its message to China that the remaining trade sanctions and tariffs should be removed forthwith and that Australian citizens, in particular Dr. Yang Hengjun, should no longer be detained under such arbitrary and indefinite circumstances.


Journalist: How would you describe the way about the Prime Minister’s handling of this relationship?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we will see how this trip goes. It is a very important trip. It’s a significant trip. It is welcome that it’s happening, but it needs to be one of strength and substance ahead of symbolism or ceremony.


Journalist: [Inaudible]


Simon Birmingham: Let’s understand that the Coalition took a series of very important decisions in Australia’s interests, which have not been reversed by this Government. The decision to ban Huawei and to protect critical infrastructure networks, the decision to put in place new foreign interference legislation, new legislation to protect Australia in a number of different settings was indeed unwelcome in Beijing. But it was important that we did it from Australia’s national interest standpoint. China overreacted to those steps, and it overreacted in ways that ceased having dialogue or discussions, and that sought to demand Australia should change its policy settings. The fact that Australia has stood firm, not changed its policy settings. Australian industry has got on with business and still growing our economy is a testament to the strength of our country and the fact that some of these coercive attempts are being withdrawn is welcome, but they should all be withdrawn, and that needs to be the clear message of the Prime Minister.


Journalist: On trade China has announced a review of tariffs on Australian wine. Is that just a face-saving exercise, or for Beijing, helping it avoid conceding it was wrong to impose tariffs in the first place?


Simon Birmingham: So I think across China’s actions to impose tariffs on barley and on wine, Australia did the right thing in calling in the independent umpire, the World Trade Organisation. It is no coincidence that China only sought to agree to a compromise around those trade disputes when the World Trade Organisation had delivered its interim findings to both China and Australia. It’s clear the WTO was going to call out China’s actions as being a breach of trade law as they are, as being a breach of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement as they are, and, of course, that China needed to remove them.

So, we welcome anything that will see these tariffs removed, as long as it doesn’t compromise any other area of Australian policy. And we urge the Government to make clear to China that whilst steps towards the removal of those tariffs are welcome, five months is too long for the Australian wine industry to wait and that we should be seeing those unfair, unjustified tariffs removed forthwith.


Journalist: Sorry, just on that, where would be a realistic timeframe for those tariffs to be removed? Five months is too much. What’s acceptable?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there’s no reason for these tariffs to be in place a day longer than, frankly, after discussions are had between the Prime Minister and President Xi. These tariffs should be removed tomorrow. They should never have been imposed in the first place.


Journalist: Should China be allowed to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership?


Simon Birmingham: So, the CPTPP is a world leading trade agreement with some of the highest standards in the world. We should be very clear China has not acted in good faith towards Australia when it comes to trade in recent years. They have acted in breach of their WTO obligations and in breach of their free trade agreement obligations with Australia. And given that bad faith we have seen, we should be clear that we would not be in a position for the foreseeable future to support China joining the CPTPP.

We should also be very clear that the high standards of the CPTPP in areas such as how state-owned enterprises are treated and the transparency expected around state owned enterprises, would require clear reform and action by China before any consideration of China becoming an active member of the CPTPP would be needed. Whereas there are other economies, other countries seeking to join who may have greater capacity to meet those standards.


Journalist: Mark Colvin just about a different topic, if that’s okay. An Adelaide family is set to return after they were in holiday in Gaza, visiting family. They were able to get out by crossing the Rafah border and they’re set to arrive home soon. How important is it that we make sure that Australians are able to get out of Gaza safely and return home?


Simon Birmingham: So, it’s incredibly welcome, and I’m sure would be an enormous relief to the loved ones of all of those associated with the Adelaide family returning home. And the fact that they have been a small number of international citizens able to cross the Rafah border crossing is very, very welcome and a big relief to them. I’m sure, and all of their loved ones.

It’s important effort continues to try to get more people across the Rafah border crossing. The remaining Australians, who continue to be in Gaza and in that very dangerous situation there, as well as those who’ve been recognised by the Australian Government as having close family connections or otherwise. And indeed, we would ideally wish to see that there is greater capacity for the treatment of injured civilians and others in some of the medical facilities that have been set up close to that crossing and to enable people to access that. As with wishing to see humanitarian goods flow through, so long as all of that can be done in a way that doesn’t enable Hamas to be able to rearm, regroup or reorganise in the terrorist threat that they pose.


Journalist: They also say that they return, but with mixed emotions, because they’ll be leaving behind their family who aren’t Australian citizens and they’re incredibly worried for their life. Can Australia do anything, even symbolic, to try and make sure that those people who are stuck in Gaza can actually live and come out of this conflict?


Simon Birmingham: This is a tragic war, and it is a war provoked through Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack on October 7th, which saw the biggest loss of Jewish life on a single day since the Holocaust. We should never lose sight of the provocative action that initiated this war and the need for Hamas to be removed from any position of power or influence, and disarmed and disabled by Israel to give a chance of peace for the future. But of course, how Israel conducts the war is important. They need to make sure they continue to provide warnings that they target Hamas in ways that are the opposite of Hamas’s targeting of civilians that began in the first place. And so for Australia, our support, our messaging needs to remain consistent, consistent in condemning the initial attacks, consistent in supporting Israel’s right to self-defence and to disarm Hamas, but also consistent in our desire to see humanitarian assistance enter without enabling Hamas to rearm or reorganise.


Journalist: At what point would the opposition support the ceasefire?


Simon Birmingham: A ceasefire requires conditions, negotiations and agreement that are completely undefined in any of the calls that I’ve seen to date around it, and particularly a ceasefire is something that is hard to see entertained in a scenario where Hamas is still in a position to regroup, reorganise and launch future assaults in the future and just lead to the loss of continued innocent life into the future as well.

Humanitarian pauses, as have been discussed and considered, that could potentially be undertaken in ways that don’t enable Hamas to rearm or reorganise would be welcome in seeing additional flow of humanitarian support and assistance, and wanting to see in any aspect of this conflict, all effort made to try to protect innocent life as much as possible, whilst trying to remove the threat of Hamas from the future.


Journalist: Does it worry you that more than 3000 civilian Palestinian children have died because of this conflict?


Simon Birmingham: The human consequences of this are heartbreaking and the loss of every innocent life, be it a Palestinian life, an Israeli life or any other life, is a tragedy and we would wish that it could be averted. But we are dealing in a war situation, and we see a situation where Hamas deliberately targeted innocent lives and innocent civilians. Israel, by contrast, seeks to target Hamas and to disable and to disarm them. And that is a contrast that we should not forget in this conflict, whilst, of course, urging Israel to exercise its military operations in ways that try to protect innocent life as much as possible, and wishing to see the type of humanitarian pauses that can enable critical support for civilians to flow without enabling Hamas to rearm or regroup.


Journalist: I mean, they have been targeting Hamas, but despite that, there’s still been a significant more amount of civilians in Palestine who have been killed as a result of this conflict. How many more civilians do you say would need to die for this to still be counted as self-defence?


Simon Birmingham: No, I don’t think anybody asked that question in relation to the Taliban or World War II or many other conflicts throughout. Tragically, civilians die in war, and that’s a tragedy and it’s a tragedy that has been a fact of life throughout time. We would wish to avert war, but sometimes you can’t avert war when the aggressor is as evil and as motivated by hatred and the destruction of others as a terrorist organisation like Hamas is. And clearly, if we are to avoid repeats of the October 7th massacre in the future, and if we are to have any chance of seeing Palestinians and Israelis able to live side by side together in a peaceful environment in the future, Hamas needs to be taken out of any position of power or influence in Gaza. Thanks, guys.