• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Cheng Lei; Australia-China relationship, National Cabinet discussion on borders.
01 September 2020

Michael Rowland: And trade tensions have intensified with China following news of a second investigation into Australian wine exports. It comes on the same day Australia woman Cheng Lei — as we have just mentioned, a journalist working in China — has been detained by local authorities.

Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now from Parliament House.

Lisa Millar: Good morning, Minister. Thank you for joining us.

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

Lisa Millar: Look, what can you tell us about Cheng Lei?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Australian Government was notified, through our embassy, of her detention on 14 August. We had consular access via video link on 27 August and continue to provide appropriately consular assistance to Miss Cheng Lei. We equally are working with her family who have issued a statement acknowledging that they will respect the process, and urging for people to respect their privacy and limit comment at this time.

Lisa Millar: Why do we- do we know why she’s been detained?

Simon Birmingham: We’re working through details in terms of the consular assistance that we can provide and we will give all assistance that we can. Obviously this is a concerning time for her family, and that’s why we will continue to provide every bit of assistance that we can within the usual consular terms.

Lisa Millar: What is going on with the relationship with China?

Simon Birmingham: There are clearly a number of issues. This is a vast and complex relationship, it’s also an important one — an important one to Australia at a range of different levels — and our desire is to see that Australia and China can continue to work wherever we can in a cooperative manner. Now, there are obviously some issues of difficulty that arise from time to time — they have always arisen, there have long been different and difficult consular cases that exist in the Chinese relationship, there have always been other points of tension, be they on human rights or other matters. But we continue to be committed to working as closely as we can, and particularly in the areas of mutual interest and advantage for our two nations.

Lisa Millar: It does seem to be one thing after another though, Minister. And in the Financial Review this morning the Chinese Foreign Ministry is quoted as saying that Australia is responsible for the current tense situation, and whoever started the trouble should end it. Is that how you see it?

Simon Birmingham: I certainly wouldn’t accept that sort of characterisation. Australia has continued to engage with China, we have continued to seek to have discussions, from legal level discussions that have occurred annually and routinely, through to the discussions that I’ve sought to have — and I’m disappointed that the Chinese authorities have not agreed to have those sorts of minister-to-minister discussions. We continue to support engagement at a range of different levels of cooperation, and stand ready and willing to do so.

Now, we’re very protective of Australia’s values, of our interests, of our security as any nation is — any nation, including China. But we don’t seek to change those in relation to China, and we simply seek to protect our own and seek them to engage with all of our partners across the region, respectful of the sovereignty of different nations and simply expecting that same respect to be reciprocated towards Australia.

Lisa Millar: Yeah. There’s another important report that’s out today from the think tank ASPI, and they’ve suggested that this coercive diplomacy is certainly on the rise and there’s a heightened risk of doing business in China. I mean, what hope can you give Australian businesses when we’ve seen beef, barley, wine, now we’ve got the detention of an Australian with huge question marks over where this relationship is going — and you can’t even get a phone call?

Simon Birmingham: So, the report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute is an important reminder that we’re not the only country in the world having these conversations at present, and that we face many challenges not dissimilar to those being faced right around the globe, including the European Union and elsewhere. Now, I’ve said publicly before that the decisions we’ve seen on a number of trade policy fronts this year by China would, for any business, change the risk profile when you are looking at doing business in China. Because when you do see a heightened level of unexpected and seemingly arbitrary policy decisions taken, then that heightens that risk profile.

We continue to have very strong trade, very strong flows of trade in both directions, and I hope that that does continue. And we will do all we can to support our businesses through some of the issues, including the erroneous anti-dumping claims that have been made, to make sure we put the strongest possible case in defence of those — but clearly, it is for individual businesses to assess how that risk profile has changed. And that’s why we equally work as hard as we can to open up new trade opportunities for different Australian exporters and businesses, whether that be through our recent trade deal with Indonesia that entered into force in July, our negotiations with the European Union, or our strategy of economic engagement with India. These are all the types of things we do to provide more choices for businesses who make a decision to diversify their risk.

Lisa Millar: Yes. Yes. None of that compares though to the Chinese market, you’ve got to admit? But look, let’s come back to the domestic front because Dan Andrews has said that on Sunday he will release the plans of this road map. What do you want to see? As Trade and Tourism Minister, what do you think needs to be in this road map? What do we need to know on Sunday?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Dan Andrews needs to provide hope to Victorians and a clear plan for how, as they continually work to suppress this second surge of COVID-19 that Victoria has dealt with — but as they continually suppress that, what is the pathway out? Now, ahead of his road map on Sunday we have the National Cabinet deliberations on Friday where I would urge all state and territory leaders to engage constructively with discussions around how we can embrace and use hot spot zones as a way to keep communities safe, but also a way to open up border and travel across this country.

We have many, many thousands of jobs being lost across our travel and tourism industries at present, and we will only see more of them lost if borders are kept in place in an arbitrary manner rather than embracing evidence and using an evidence based hot spots approach to define how border restrictions and controls can be implemented into the future. And I hope that all state and territory premiers will come willing to embrace evidence, look at how those policies can be enacted, and make sure that we can save as many jobs across Australia, as well as of course, make life easier, particularly for those in cross-border communities.

Lisa Millar: Yeah. It’s gearing up to be a critical meeting on Friday. Thanks for your time this morning, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.