Topics: Chinese navy incident; Albanese not transparent on talks with President Xi; 

07:50AM AEDT
Tuesday, 21 November 2023


Peter Stefanovic: Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham. Simon, good to see you as always. So, let’s start with China. Overnight, it has responded to the naval incident involving our divers, one of which was injured. China says its military is highly professional and acted in accordance with international laws. Your response to that?


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Pete. It’s good to be with you. This is a troubling response from China that comes on top of a deeply troubling incident. The reality is that the Australian Navy has nothing to gain by making up or exaggerating this incident. Nor does the Australian Government. And so, we should be making clear that the evidence and facts are provided to China for them to be able to see and for them to take responsibility for their actions. This, of course, is sadly not a one-off incident, but a pattern of behaviour in the way in which China engages across our region. We’ve seen increased risk in terms of confrontational activities in the South China Sea with the Philippines in a number of incidents throughout the course of this year. We’ve seen increased military activity across the Taiwan Strait. We’ve seen these types of risky interventions happen before, both in sea and in the air, famously with an RAAF aircraft. And all of it increases the risks of some type of misadventure or miscalculation occurring that could lead to an escalation. That’s why it should be taken seriously and China’s response or failure to respond and acknowledge, does demand the Albanese Government to do what it failed to do in the first place, and that is to raise concerns at appropriate and senior levels, at least ministerial level.


Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Well, on that point, because Anthony Albanese squibbed Kieran’s question yesterday and whether he told Xi Jinping about it at APEC. The Prime Minister says China is aware of our concerns, which were made through proper channels. So, was that enough? Is that enough?


Simon Birmingham: These are weasel words from Prime Minister Albanese. He should be direct about what action he took and what action his ministers have taken. There was a unique opportunity for Australia to be able to raise this incident and concerns about China’s military activities directly with President Xi Jinping, and it appears as if Anthony Albanese squibbed that rather than taking up that opportunity and doing so in a direct, forthright, but respectful and polite manner as he should have. The reality is his answer to Kieran Gilbert yesterday was evasive rather than honest. And if you look back at the Prime Minister’s doorstop that he did in San Francisco, he was all too happy to talk about having met with Xi Jinping, having had a longish conversation with him, having raised trade issues and potential future visits with him. So this idea that the government is trying to brief out that they don’t talk about what happened in pull asides or those discussions, just doesn’t bear up against the evidence, doesn’t bear up against the Prime Minister’s own behaviour from the very trip in which he was there. That’s why he should be honest. If he didn’t raise it, he should be honest about that. He should explain why he chose not to raise it. But now that China is denying any of this was undertaken, it deserves the government to act, at least at a ministerial level, in terms of making clear the evidence and raising Australia concerns as well.


Peter Stefanovic: The other examples that have been used by other members of the Labor Party. Scott Morrison leaking his private chats with Emmanuel Macron, which didn’t do anyone any good, and Xi Jinping dressing down Justin Trudeau for doing something similar. So, in that sense, was the Prime Minister right to keep his chats private?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the point is, he didn’t keep it private. He was happy to do a doorstop and to talk about what was discussed. Only after this incident was revealed, after the Prime Minister had left San Francisco. Then the Prime Minister was asked about it, and he’s being evasive about it. Nobody’s suggesting that he should go out and provide chapter and verse detail of the conversation. And particularly he shouldn’t be out there saying how President Xi Jinping might respond if such issues were put to him, but to merely acknowledge and confirm that it was raised. That is completely normal behaviour in terms of diplomatic engagements. You would expect it to have been raised. Australians would expect their Prime Minister to take seriously the issue of Australian Defence Force personnel being put in harm’s way and if the opportunity were there to raise it with the leader of the country whose military put them in harm’s way that an Australian prime minister should do so. The fact that Anthony Albanese didn’t and is now not being transparent about what he did, is a failure of leadership, and it’s time for his government to step up in relation to this incident. Do it calmly, do it respectfully, but do it firmly as well, because China’s actions across our region in relation to their military are increasing risk that some type of accident could occur in the future, and that would not be in anybody’s interests.


Peter Stefanovic: Nope. You’re right about that. Simon Birmingham. Thank you. We’ll talk to you again soon.