Kieran Gilbert: Joining me now is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time. You’ve heard what the Government has said in response to the Chinese aggression and these live fire exercises, and then the response from the embassy saying that it’s absolutely unacceptable for the finger pointing from Foreign Minister Wong. What’s your read on how the Government’s managed it?
Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran, I think it’s important that we step right back to the start of events over this last couple of weeks, which was a congressional delegation visiting Taiwan. A congressional delegation, yes. Led by the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, but one of many congressional delegations that has visited Taiwan in recent decades. Now, for the response to that delegation to be the massing of military assets right around Taiwan, the firing of ballistic missiles over Taiwan, the encroachment across established lines not only in relation to Taiwan, but in terms of firing of missiles and the like into Japanese territory as well. All of these clearly were a significant overreaction, a disproportionate reaction to what had occurred from a congressional delegation simply occurring. And they created enormous risk. The risk of some form of accident, of military misadventure. These are the types of consequences that then can lead to real escalation or an outbreak of conflict. And that’s why everyone is right, including Minister Wong and the Australian Government to be calling for China in particular to de-escalate and to cease these types of actions that threaten the stability of our region. And then if we look indeed at the response from China and the Chinese Embassy who didn’t just attack Australia for simply urging for peace and stability in our region, but even in their statements went so far as to attack other countries such as Japan, and to invoke incidents from World War Two in those attacks. That is not a helpful way to engage, and it’s not a way that helps to achieve that type of peace and stability that we want to see and that all of us wish to see in relation to engaging with China in a sensible manner focused on our areas of common interests.
Kieran Gilbert: Could this all have been avoided, though, if Nancy Pelosi did not visit? Do you think she was right to visit Taiwan, given how sensitive things are right now in the region?
Simon Birmingham: Kieran, as I’ve said before, there have been many, many congressional delegations over recent years. This was another congressional delegation. Yes, it had the speaker of the House, but that was not unprecedented either. What has created what could have been a simple diplomatic squabble into a dangerous incident is the act of China in relation to the placement of such significant military assets and the live firing and other exercises that that followed. That’s turned, as I say, what could have been a diplomatic squabble into a dangerous situation. And it’s in everyone’s best interests for that dangerous situation to be calmed down and for the de-escalation to occur, which means ceasing the types of military activities that we have seen.
Kieran Gilbert: So you support her decision to go. You’re glad that she did make that call?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t make a judgement in terms of being glad or otherwise. I simply note that that it’s not inconsistent with past practice. It’s a matter between the United States and Taiwan in terms of visits that occur at a parliamentary or congressional level between those two democracies. But it is not inconsistent. Indeed, it is entirely consistent with what’s happened over a long period of time and a simple congressional or parliamentary delegation visiting is not in and of itself posing any danger to anyone. Active military exercises, live firing exercises, amassing of military assets. They pose dangers and they create instability and high risk.
Kieran Gilbert: The former senior CIA analyst, John Culver, who has looked at the People’s Liberation Army over many years, he says that this is a typical playbook from China using a crisis to then extend operations, military operations in contested territories. Your view of what’s happening here?
Simon Birmingham: Certainly under Xi Jinping, we have seen an increased use of military escalation in a range of ways. The military build up that’s occurred in the South China Sea, the creation of the islands, and the disputes that exist around those that threaten and encroach upon established law of the sea arrangements. The escalation of military activities along the Indian border that is seen the loss of life along that border between China and India. What occurred in relation to Hong Kong and the clampdown on democracy and the erosion of rights and established arrangements in Hong Kong. Or of course within China itself, the type of clampdown on the Uyghur peoples in Xinjiang province or the like. All of these show that there is a willingness to use a degree of military power or force in different ways. That is troubling. And it’s troubling because it creates a real risk in terms of the stability. It erodes in other cases, human rights. It is contrary to the type of peaceful, prosperous engagement that has enabled such significant growth to occur over recent decades. China’s growth from where it was prior to the opening up and reforms from the 1970s through the following decades was an absolute miracle of our lifetime, lifting hundreds of millions of people across South East Asia out of poverty and creating enormous economic prosperity.
That growth was achieved through opening and engagement with other nations, through embracing greater trading arrangements, through embracing more economic liberalisation and reforms. It is a growth and a prosperity, though, that is threatened by virtue of now an environment of increased tension. And we can see that in terms of some of the economic forecasts and outcomes that are occurring in relation to China at present. And so it really is in everybody’s best interests, including China’s for us to see a step back from the type of militarised, potentially conflict driven attitude back towards one that is looking for engagement on the areas of common interest. Australia other nations of the region have no desire to change China’s system of government or interest in those domestic affairs of China. What we do have a desire is to have peaceful engagement in areas of mutual interest, which we had been forging over a number of decades, and growing such a successful trading relationship that was beneficial to both nations and is now jeopardised by this more confrontational attitude that’s taking place.
Kieran Gilbert: Simon Birmingham, Shadow Foreign Minister, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Kieran. My pleasure.