Topic(s): Ukraine

Andy Park: Simon Birmingham is the Acting Foreign Minister. Senator Birmingham, welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Can I acknowledge who you had on before. What a very strong and powerful advocate she is for Ukrainian people.

Andy Park: It brings it home when she speaks about her own boyfriend fighting on the front. It certainly brings home some of the raw emotions that are being felt in the capital tonight. How many Australians are in Ukraine? In total, we’ve heard numbers ranging from about 150 to 1400.

Simon Birmingham: We estimate up to 1400 Australian nationals in Ukraine, now a much smaller number than that are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and of those who are registered a significant proportion are dual national citizens, and we can probably assume that those not registered would also have very high proportion of people who are dual nationals who are Ukrainian as well as Australian. And so they will have a range of reasons as to why they have chosen not to heed the messages we’ve been giving for weeks now that Australians should leave Ukraine if they can. They’ve been consistent messages, we have helped with consular assistance and sent those missives direct from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to all those that we could contact. But obviously, people who have families, loved ones, businesses and indeed wish to stand with Ukraine at this time have all of their understandable reasons for staying put too.

Andy Park: The Australian government has demanded China take a harder stance on Russia. Defence Minister Peter Dutton had this to say on RN Breakfast: China is the one country that could pick the phone up to President Putin now and say, turn back and pull back from this dreadful mistake that you’re making. They’re not prepared to do that, it seems, which is deeply concerning.

Andy Park: Senator Birmingham, has this message being conveyed to China’s Foreign Ministry?

Simon Birmingham: Andy, not just Australia, but of course, through the UN Security Council, through a range of other missives around the world, leaders have been calling for unified action in relation to tackling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and Peter is quite right there that if there was a nation that could make a tangible difference to add to the efforts to isolate Russia and to punish Russia, that the sanctions we’re all applying at present, that nation is China, that working with the US and the Americas, working with the UK, European nations, NATO members and others, Japan and others, we’ve been applying these rolling sanctions that target a wide range of assets, investments, banks, businesses and leaders of Russia, freezing assets that President Biden has put in the trillions of dollars of worth. But of course, the more extensive they are, the more comprehensive they are in terms of nations involved, the more effective they will be at isolating Russia and the nation that could make. The greatest addition to that is, well, it is obviously China.

Andy Park: The Chinese ambassador, the new Chinese ambassador, yesterday seemingly extended an olive branch to Australia, seeking an improvement in relations. The Chinese said we’re ready to work together with our Australian counterpart to move towards the same direction and joint efforts. Scott Morrison shut down that today, saying Australia wouldn’t meet any of China’s 14 points of demands. Senator, if Australia isn’t prepared to meet China halfway, then how can we expect Xi Jinping to bring pressure to bear on Russia? It just doesn’t add up.

Simon Birmingham: Well, the two are completely unrelated. The 14 demands from China, which involve us as a nation, either doing things such as allowing Huawei to operate in telecommunications networks and threatening the security of those networks, which range in a number of other ways in terms of penalties for Australia that we just aren’t willing to accept. So we’re very clear and have been very clear that China’s list of 14 demands aren’t about diplomacy or the normal engagement between nations. They are attempts at coercion of Australia, economic coercion, national security coercion, penalising Australia unless we yield to China’s will. Now, we’re not interested in doing that. We are interested in having dialogue with China, and I can say emphatically that Australian ministers are, starting firstly with Marise Payne, our foreign minister, who has been in Europe and in Asia over the last two weeks, is on her way back to Australia now, would very much welcome the opportunity to sit down with her counterpart, State Counsellor Wang Yi, and work through issues that Australia and China could constructively address. But the issues in Russia are completely separate to China’s demands with Australia. If China is true in saying they believe in the territorial sovereignty and respect for that amongst nations, then they should demonstrate that by respecting the sovereignty of Ukraine, by not offering excuses to Russia, as China has done with statements suggesting that they understand the historical issues of territories or concerns about Ukraine’s military, there’s no justification for any of those false equivalencies or false excuses being held up. And there’s certainly no justification for China acting in a way where they impose sanctions on Australia’s wine or barley industry, but then go and extend opportunities for Russia’s wheat industry at a time like this.

Andy Park: Just quickly Senator, Australia is sending non-lethal military equipment and medical aid to Ukraine through to NATO. What exactly are we sending and when will it arrive?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re responding to Ukrainian requests there. These are things that can better protect and help Ukraine in their battle with Russia.

Andy Park: What? Like what? Well, what are we talking?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I won’t go into too many specifics because we don’t wish to undermine Ukraine’s attempts here. This is a request that we’ve received. We are responding positively to it. We’ll coordinate with NATO because they have more effective delivery mechanisms to support Ukraine than we can offer.

Andy Park: Did it come directly from Ukraine, or from NATO?

Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that this request came directly from Ukraine. Foreign ministers have been in frequent contact. Prime Ministers spoke in the last couple of days, so there’s been ongoing dialogue there with Ukrainians that goes back not just the last few days, but indeed over a period of time. We’ve been helping with cyber security defences and other areas where we can practically assist.

Andy Park: We’ll have to leave it there. Thank you for your time tonight, Senator Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Andy. My pleasure.