Topics: US presidential elections; China-Taiwan relations; Chinese ambassador address to NPC; Cheng Lei;


09:20PM AEST



Laura Jayes:  Let’s go live now to Sydney. That’s where we find the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. What do you think about those comments from John Howard that were pretty forward?


Simon Birmingham: Hello, LJ. It’s good to be with you. Well, Mr. Howard is entitled as any former public official to offer their opinions and commentary. And I have nothing but respect for John Howard and the way in which he conducts himself in the public arena. I think many Australians would understand the remarks that he’s made and no doubt many would agree with them. Ultimately, as the Shadow Foreign Minister I’ll tread a slightly more cautious line and simply acknowledge that for the US it’s a matter for the American people as they go through their electoral processes to make determinations about who their candidates for president are and ultimately who the president is. And as Australia has shown in the past, we will in the future work with whomever the US people choose to be their president.


Laura Jayes: So what you’re saying is it would be diplomatically risky to agree with John Howard in your position just in case he returns to the White House?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it’s incumbent upon those of us who either are in executive offices, as I was, and as Minister Wong and those in the Labor administration are now, and those of us who seek to return to executive office to be mindful of the fact that if there we will have to deal with whomever the US people choose and the administration that is in place. And so, it’s not appropriate for us to be running commentary in relation to who we’d prefer or who we may think is best able for the job. That’s something that some perhaps paid a little price for prior to Donald Trump’s election last time. And so, I think it’s wise for us all to act with caution there and to keep our personal opinions to ourselves. Because for us, in the roles that we hold in opposition in senior roles and especially those in government and senior roles, we have to be in a position to be able to put Australia’s interests first, which means working with whomever administers the US as president.


Laura Jayes: We’ve been fairly worried about China this week. After Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, we saw that military aggression dressed up in military exercises by China. What do you make of what’s happened over the last week? The comments of the ambassador at the National Press Club as well? This looks to me like the most aggression we’ve seen between China and Taiwan in recent times. Are we getting towards that scary point, if you like?


Simon Birmingham: It is very worrying what we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks. Let’s remember that this is a reaction from China to a congressional delegation visiting Taiwan. Now, there are many different ways that a country can express its displeasure at events or actions of another country. You can, of course, expel diplomats. You can recall ambassadors, you can express grievances, you can apply sanctions. There’s a range of different options before you get to the point of deploying military assets, military hardware, firing ballistic missiles across other territories and into other territories, including into Japanese territory, as has occurred in China’s actions since Nancy Pelosi’s visit as part of that congressional delegation. That’s why this is such an overreaction from China. They could and should have, if they wish to express grievances, done it by means that were less risky. That didn’t create the potential for accident to occur, for military misadventure to occur, for a potential escalation of those military tensions that then put possibly millions of lives at risk, as well as creating enormous destabilisation across our region. It’s been backed in now by, of course the comments we saw from the Ambassador speaking at the Press Club this week. As Peter Dutton has made clear, we shouldn’t be surprised at some of those comments. He is simply stating the same types of things that President Xi himself has said, and that has been a clear part of the Chinese administration. But it’s a reminder that we face a different approach from China today that is more assertive, is more authoritarian in aspects of its approach, and that is troubling and concerning for many players across our region. And we would join the governments as we have in urging for a de-escalation of tensions from China, for a pullback of those military assets, and for a demonstration of willingness to engage in peaceful conduct that ensures the peace, stability and therefore prosperity of our region.


Laura Jayes: There was a lot of interest in what the ambassador had to say at the Press Club, but do you think he should be given that kind of platform in the future?


Simon Birmingham: I think it is a matter for the National Press Club and the Australian media. We are a country that defends free speech and democracy. Now some of us perhaps raised an eyebrow when the ambassador talked about the way in which the Australian media covers these issues, given the fact that our media enjoys the freedom to decide how they cover these issues and has a plurality of opinions in the way in which they go about it, and that’s as it should be in a country like Australia, and that’s not necessarily as it is in other countries, including China. Ultimately, the Press Club makes those decisions. I respect that and I think that is part of the freedom that we should celebrate. I think the journalists who attended that did a very good job ensuring that this was not a one-sided presentation of state opinion from China, but in fact was heavily scrutinised and challenged by those journalists present.


Laura Jayes: It was pretty weird, don’t you think, for him to kind of equate Cheng Lei’s plight with that of Drew Pavlou in London?


Simon Birmingham: I think there was certainly not an appropriate analogy given the different types of systems now. Ultimately, Australia respects the legal systems and the systems of government of other countries, but we do also expect, particularly when they are applying those systems to Australian citizens, that they should adhere to international norms and that there should be sufficient transparency around them. And that’s what’s so deeply troubling in relation to Cheng Lei that she has been detained since August 2020, that there was a trial back in March of last year, of which there was no transparency around that. The Australian Ambassador sought to attend that trial and was denied access to it. And since then we are still waiting for any type of clarity or transparency about what the future holds and that is understandably of enormous concern to many Australians. As Trade Minister, I was interviewed by Cheng Lei. I found her to be nothing but a business journalist interested in trade and business affairs who interrogated me in the same way, the way I would expect many other journalists to, to interrogate me. And I can understand why the uncertainty, the secrecy and the lack of transparency is so troubling to her family and loved ones.


Laura Jayes: Indeed. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ.