Topics:  Cheng Lei media incident; Australia-China relationship;

07:45AM AEST
18 June 2024


Pete Stefanovic:  Okay, let’s bring in the Shadow Foreign minister, Simon Birmingham. Now for his thoughts on all of this. Simon, good to see you. So, what did you make of those attempts to block Cheng Lei and also the Prime Minister’s attempts to kind of, you know, not answer it and keep it at bay?


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Pete. Well, amongst what is a very important visit and what people would wish to be a positive visit, this was an entirely counterproductive and inappropriate act by Chinese officials. It should have been called out by our Prime Minister. Government officials had the good sense to try to step in. It is a reminder that we have two very different systems, the Chinese system and the Australian system. Different systems of government, of course, ours a democracy, different respect when it comes to the media and to freedom of speech. But this visit is taking place in Australia. Yesterday’s events took place at Australia’s Parliament House and the freedom of the press there is paramount. Cheng Lei is an Australian citizen, an Australian journalist. She should have been treated with respect because we also those of us who have met, Lei and worked with her and come to understand her approach know that she always engages with respect and that the Chinese should have had absolutely nothing to fear from her presence as a professional, respectful journalist.


Pete Stefanovic: There’s also, you know, a difference between what China says and what it does, does it not? Because it’s here and, you know, Premier Li is here and he’s talking about new beginnings and and all of that. But this is just, you know, an example of the old ways.


Simon Birmingham: Well, as I said, indeed, it was entirely counterproductive. The fact that we are talking about this, rather than talking about other parts of substance from the visit, positive aspects of the visit, how the governments of our two countries might be working through difficult issues should underscore to those Chinese officials, and they should think long and hard about the fact that this type of distraction caused by inappropriate conduct on their behalf is counterproductive. And for our Prime Minister, for Mr. Albanese to come out and pretend that he didn’t really know anything about it was really quite pathetic. Either, his office failed miserably and owes him an apology for having misled or failed to brief him properly, or he owes the Australian people an apology for misleading them.


Pete Stefanovic: Okay, let’s get to some of the announcements yesterday and see what you make of them all. Simon, I do want to start with this defence hotline with Canberra. That’s to avoid military mishaps, particularly in the South China Sea. I mean, is that even possible?


Simon Birmingham: Look, this is welcome insofar as it goes. It is similar to something that President Biden has established out of his dialogue with President Xi. And based upon something that the United States indeed had through much of the Cold War post the Bay of Pigs invasion. With the old USSR, in terms of trying to ensure that when a problem occurs, you don’t see an escalation that could lead to terrible and tragic conflict. But what we really need to ensure is that problems don’t happen in the first place, and that necessitates China changing the way its military conducts itself through the region, not acting in such aggressive ways, not ignoring the UN convention on the Law of the Sea, but actually showing respect-


Pete Stefanovic: Can I just pull you up on that point because that leads me perfectly to this next point, Simon. Because how does all of that work with this new law that took effect on the weekend, which allows China to detain foreigners for trespassing in the South China Sea, which it of course claims [are] its. Is there not double speak there?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we would have grave concerns if China were seeking to detain foreigners from waters that have been found under UN conventions to not be Chinese waters. Waters in which there should be rights for freedom of navigation. And so, you know, again, it comes back to what are the first principles that we should expect and should be reinforcing in our dialogue and discussions with China. And that is respect for the territorial sovereignty of all nations, as found and upheld by international law through fora that we regard and respect, and that we expect that China and indeed other Southeast Asian nations expect China to uphold and respect as well.


Pete Stefanovic: Just a quick one before we go, Simon, because I’m out of time. But just this arrangement on visas here. You got any concerns that Australian tourists will freely be able to go to China and be able to return home safely?


Simon Birmingham: We will see the details on how that works. But people should always follow travel advisories. They should exercise caution. And they should, of course, be particularly cautious about the way in which China responds to anyone who may seek to exercise what in Australia we consider to be free speech. But what in China is certainly not tolerated when it comes to-


Pete Stefanovic: Would you be telling your friends to go?


Simon Birmingham:  Look, I think for personal holidays, if you are conducting yourself the right way, then people will have to follow those travel advisories and act appropriately. But many people do travel in and out for personal holidays.


Pete Stefanovic: Simon Birmingham. Good to chat as always. We’ll chat to you again soon.