• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australian citizen detained in China; Investigations into Australian wine; State borders.
01 September 2020

Karl Stefanovic: More now on those growing concerns for Australian television journalist, Cheng Lei, detained in China. Minister for Tourism and Trade, Simon Birmingham, joins us now from Canberra. Simon, thank you for your time today. She’s not been charged, but she could still be held for up to six months. What steps are being taken to help?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Karl. We are obviously engaging where we can with Ms Cheng Lei. She was detained, we were advised, on 14 August by Chinese authorities, through our embassy. They had consular access, via video link on 27 August with her. Her family has issued a statement, as you would have seen, in which they acknowledged the process and asked people to respect the privacy and refrain from comment. And we will continue, though, to work as best we can in providing her and her family with assistance, through what is no doubt a stressful and difficult time for them.

Karl Stefanovic: Do you know what’s behind it?

Simon Birmingham: No, Karl. But, we will continue to work in relation to ensuring that the right assistance is provided to give her and her family every support.

Karl Stefanovic: Okay. Of course, this comes against the backdrop of growing tensions between Australia and China. The communist state now investigating Aussie wine makers over what it calls unfair trading practices. Some call this, Simon, coercive diplomacy. What would you call it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Karl, we see here today there is a report released by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute which identifies that many countries around the world are facing some of these types of challenges and issues in relation to their engagement with China – Australia is not alone in that regard. I’ve been very concerned at the number of different trade issues that have come our way this year, that I think changes the risk profile for Australian businesses in engaging with China and I’m very concerned that many of them lack what I think is substance in terms of the claims that are made. And that’s why we’re working so hard to defend our wine industry, indeed all of our exporters who engage very much on commercial terms in the way in which they operate in China or any other nation.

Karl Stefanovic: Simon, lay it on the line. I mean, how would you describe the state of the union then? Because, it looks like they’re using trade sanctions to affect policy change. It smells like it. It has to be, doesn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: I’ll make two points there. One, is that our trade volumes remain very, very significant and far higher than they were in previous years. The other point I’d make is that our government has been very clear that our values are not for sale and we will always defend our interests and Australia’s security interests in particular – but that we wish to retain constructive relationship with China. We have different systems of government; we bring different approaches to those systems of government – but we respect their sovereignty and we simply ask for that to be reciprocated. And we will engage as constructively as we can as bilateral partners and regional partners from there as we have managed to do over the years – notwithstanding the fact that difficulties in the relationship have always, always been evident, be they human rights discussions, be they previous consular cases over many, many years. We wish to continue to work through those difficulties and its why dialogue would be very important and very helpful.

Karl Stefanovic: Well, dialogue would be good, wouldn’t it? I mean, a few months ago when our relationship hit the skids you had trouble getting your Chinese counterpart to pick up the phone. Have you managed to talk to him yet?

Simon Birmingham: No, Karl, and that’s why I make the point that at government to government levels, we are open to have mature discussions to work through difficult issues at the Ministerial level. Now of course are diplomatic officials; the engagement there is extensive and ongoing, but it is important those government discussions happen – that is what mature nations should do to work through points of difficulty, and the Australian Government under Scott Morrison stands very, very ready to have those discussions.

Karl Stefanovic: It’s very difficult, the relationship when one of the partners isn’t talking?

Simon Birmingham: It doesn’t make it easy to resolve those sorts of challenging or complex issues, and that is why I emphasise and do so publicly again and again – our Government is happy to have conversations; even if they are difficult ones, even though we may not agree, will not agree on everything. But it is the best way for us to be able to move issues along, and make sure that we can concentrate on the areas where we have complementary economic avenues of engagement, and where we can work together as regional partners. We’ve been able to do all of these things in the past and we stand certainly ready, from an Australian perspective, to do that in the future.

Karl Stefanovic: You’re just hoping. You’re just hoping. Standing by your phone, aren’t you? Waiting for that call?

Simon Birmingham: I am not quite doing that, Karl, but I am simply reiterating the position of the Australian Government. In the meantime, we are getting on very hard – both with working through the China issues, but also opening up trade opportunities through our new FTA with Indonesia, through our economic engagement strategy with India, through trade negotiations with the European Union. We want to give our businesses the maximum choice as to where they go and who they do business with.

Karl Stefanovic: They will need it. Good on you, Simon. Thank you, appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure.