Topics: Anthony Albanese must not compromise national interest for Australia-China relationship; More pressure needed on Putin to end war in Ukraine;

09:35AM AEDT
11 November 2022


Kenny Heatley: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has signalled his intention to meet China’s President Xi Jinping during the next week’s G20 summit in Bali. Speculation is growing. The meeting will take place as China’s rhetoric towards its relationship with Australia has softened. An editorial published in Beijing’s state media yesterday says the country values its relationship with Australia and sees it as an important partner for cooperation. Joining me live is Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham. Mr. Birmingham, thanks so much for your time. Good to chat to you again. So, this softening rhetoric from China, what are your views on that considering the relationship, especially with China, deteriorated under the Coalition government? This meeting with Anthony Albanese and potentially with China’s Xi Jinping? What do you make of it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, good morning, Kenny. It’s good to be with you again. Look, this. This is a meeting that should take place. It was always counterproductive of China to put this pause on having ministerial level dialogue. Now, the last high-level dialogue between an Australian prime minister and a Chinese leader was actually at the last lot of face-to-face leaders summits that occurred back in 2019 pre-COVID. When Scott Morrison then met with the then Chinese premier, Li Keqiang. I obviously hope that this meeting takes place because even where there are differences, dialogue is important to have and to be able to work through those differences and to pursue the areas where there is potential for mutual agreement and mutual cooperation. And it’s certainly in China’s interests and Australia’s interests for us to both pursue peace and prosperity across this region. But there are some threats and some challenges to that, including in the way in which China has engaged across the region. It’s important that the government does, as they have said they are doing. Which is that they hold firm to issues that are in Australia’s strategic interest, that they don’t deviate from those that the talk of meeting halfway, which was in the editorial that you referenced in your introduction and your question is not something that Australia can do. The things that we have done in recent years to strengthen our democracy, to protect our systems and our critical infrastructure across Australia are all important things. The actions of China in terms of seeking to apply economic coercion through trade sanctions and others are deplorable, and the test of meetings and dialogue as they occur will be whether we get outcomes that can see better improvement for Australian industry in terms of removal of those trade sanctions, better treatment for Australians facing sensitive consular issues and legal matters in China. And ultimately better engagement by China in the region that doesn’t threaten the stability in ways that some of their actions have.


Kenny Heatley: But are you saying, I mean, do you agree that the rhetoric is actually softening from China, or is this more of a media beat up? What do you what do you think about the rhetoric that we’re seeing at the moment and the hopes of repairing this relationship?


Simon Birmingham: Look, as I said, not meeting, refusing to come to the table and have dialogue in the last couple of years was counterproductive by China. The last thing you should cut off is the ability to talk. And yet that’s what they did. So it is welcome that they bring that back and engage in those discussions. And the fact that they might be doing so is a step. But the true test of dialogue are the outcomes it yields and whether it will yield outcomes that make life easier for Australians facing challenging circumstances in China at present. And whether it will make trade easier for Australian businesses who have been on the end of the punitive sanctions that China has applied against Australia. And ultimately, whether through that dialogue we can move towards a situation where China engages in a way in the region and the world that is more conducive to helping to secure peace and prosperity now and into the future. Now, I don’t expect that one meeting is going to solve all of those issues, and particularly not the last very sensitive one. But I do think that ultimately the government will, of course, be tested on whether it can make meaningful, substantive advances, not just whether it has meetings and discussions.


Kenny Heatley: Do you think- considering that they’re saying that they want to meet Australia halfway and the Prime Minister was talking about the sanctions on products from Australia like meat and wine and other products as well. But how can you meet halfway when Australia says that the human rights issue is important to us? But that is of particular sensitive nature for China. So, are we just dreaming that that we can go halfway with China?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the rhetorical language of meeting halfway is China’s language. It should not be Australia’s language because we have not done things wrong. We have acted in good faith in relation to the China-Australia free trade agreement and we as a country have continued to want to see China’s economic growth to welcome their increasing place in the world as long as it is done in ways that respect the international rules-based order, in ways that do advance the peace and prosperity in our region. And so, Australia has been quite consistent there. Yes, we have taken steps in the face of different issues of concern to provide stronger protections for our investment regimes in Australia, our critical infrastructure regimes, our democratic institutions, all reforms instituted through the years of the Coalition government and done out of need to make sure that we protect our country as any sovereign country should do so there can be no concession on those grounds. There’s no half way point to meet at. What is important to see is that China agrees to cease the coercion, both the direct economic coercion and trade sanctions in terms of the tariffs applied on our wine and our barley industries and the many indirect ones targeting live seafood, forestry products, meat products and a range of other sectors that have felt disruption in the trade flows, which is inconsistent with the type of commitments China has given both in letter and in spirit to Australia over the years.


Kenny Heatley: Just one last one, if I can. At the G20 that Anthony Albanese is going to attend in Bali, it looks like Russian President Vladimir Putin is not going to attend and it’s been reported that he’s scared of being assassinated. But wouldn’t he be more scared of being humiliated at the G20? What are your thoughts?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s important that Anthony Albanese uses the opportunities of these upcoming summits to work with other leaders to rally support for more pressure to be put on Vladimir Putin and on Moscow to cease their illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine. What we’ve seen in terms of cooperation by many nations in the application of sanctions and the provision of support for Ukraine has been phenomenally important and has ensured that Ukraine has fought back in ways that few thought was possible when this conflict started at the beginning of this year. But Anthony Albanese should use the opportunity he’s going to have with other world leaders to make sure they rally that support, including asking China to put more pressure themselves on Moscow. We’ve seen that there have been some indications that perhaps China has expressed some displeasure with Russia over it, but they need to go much further. They could apply influence to help bring this bloody conflict to an end, and we ought to be encouraging them to do so.


Kenny Heatley: Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time today. Good to chat.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks. My pleasure.