Topics: Australia-China relationship; Australia-Pacific defence relations; Election outcomes; Sanctions;

11:30AM AEDT
23 November 2022

Tom Connell: Joining me live now, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham for more on this. An interesting juncture in China relations, this is going on, you know we’re sort of continuing to press the case and our influence, but also trying to thaw relations with China. The Defence Minister meeting with his Chinese counterpart. Is this being managed well by Labor standing strong but hoping to thaw relations?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, there were many difficult decisions taken by the previous government under Prime Ministers Turnbull and Morrison in relation to ensuring that we protect Australia’s sovereignty and doing so by different means in terms of foreign interference legislation, protection of critical infrastructure, reforms to national investment and foreign investment regimes, as well as making sure that we took tough decisions such as the decision in relation to Huawei. All of those put tension in the relationship. Of course they were inevitably going to do so. We welcome the fact that this Government has recognised the continuity of those policies, recognised that there is no change in terms of the strategic challenges that Australia faces. But with a change of government and with seemingly an approach from President Xi where he is engaged with a number of world leaders recently, it is welcome that China is having that dialogue with Australia to dialogue is always preferable to stand off and it was always counterproductive for China to walk away from having that sort of dialogue with Australian ministers.

Tom Connell: Nonetheless, the indications with the global times of just sort of where we go for our hints on where the Chinese leadership are thinking that AUKUS is still a big impediment to normalising relations. So, if trade tariffs remain, essentially because Labor is not for turning on AUKUS, you wouldn’t be criticising Labor for the tariffs not being removed, would you?

Simon Birmingham: Let me firstly deal with that type of Global Times commentary, and it’s important to be very clear that in saying that nations should respect the sovereignty of other nations, that applies in all manner of different decisions and it includes especially how you might work in terms of your own strategic partnerships, alliances, defence partnerships and the like. And so what Australia is doing in relation to AUKUS is engaging with like-minded nations, long-standing allies and partners to ensure that we have access to the best defence technologies capabilities in the future for our nation’s defences and our sovereignty. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it of course is essential that Australia does that and defends our right to do so, and we should defend it clearly against any who criticise it, particularly those who may themselves be pursuing their own military aspirations.

Tom Connell: So boiling it right down whether the trade tariffs get removed realistically seems to be more as to whether China changes its mind rather than anything Australia could do. Is that fair to say?

Simon Birmingham: The test of the benefit of dialogue will be about the outcomes achieved. Now, first and foremost, we want to see peace and stability in our region and we should be able to work through difficult issues together. We want to see close economic cooperation continue that is mutually beneficial for Australia, and China. It has been mutually beneficial in ensuring the growth of both our economies in recent decades and the well-being of people and-

Tom Connell: And that’s an appeal to China, isn’t it? I mean, Labor agrees with this. You agree with this. Will China come to its senses? Is what both sides are more diplomatically saying.

Simon Birmingham: It’s certainly not been to China’s benefit to cut off these different trade avenues, both the direct ones in terms of the tariffs on barley and wine and the many indirect ways in which they have sought to apply and attempted economic coercion by disrupting trade in an unjustified way.

Tom Connell: Outgoing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is challenging the election result won in which he lost. Are we seeing democracy increasingly under threat? Is this a worry?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, to your general questions, I don’t want to comment on internal politics of other nations. But to your general question, I think it is important that those who support democracy need to ensure they stand up for democracy and don’t act in ways that undermine democracies around the world. And it is critical that when elections are conducted, the parties participating in those elections absolutely argue for them to be free and fair and transparent elections, but then also accept the result. I say that as a member of a government who lost an election early this year and we clearly accepted the result. Australia demonstrated, as we always do, the smooth transition of power to a new government. And that is a message that we should convey amongst democratic nations of the world and other parties around the world, that they should ensure they uphold and defend the integrity of democracies by accepting results, whether you’re on the winning or the losing side.

Tom Connell: Is that a concern, then, if Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, he still doesn’t accept the last election result?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think this is an important principle, as I don’t want to reflect on domestic politics of other countries. But it’s an important principle and one that is really crucial in terms of the standing of democratic nations around the world, the confidence that people have in those systems. One of the pleasing things in Australia in recent years, if you look at the Lowy Institute polls and the series of those polls is there was an erosion of confidence towards democratic institutions a few years ago that recovered in this year’s poll in Australia and that’s very welcome.

Tom Connell: Maybe people are seeing the alternative and saying democracy ain’t that bad. Sean Turnell has been released. Did your government hold off on sanctions to make his release from Myanmar more likely?

Simon Birmingham: No, Tom. The approach that was taken there was one of seeking to engage closely for his release, but crucially also to engage with regional partners to secure or attempt to secure improved circumstances in Myanmar. Working with our ASEAN partners. Securing the five-point plan was a really important and valuable effort, and ASEAN showed leadership through that. Regrettably, the military junta in Myanmar has not complied with its commitments of the five-point plan.

Tom Connell: Given that, should we be looking at sanctions now?

Simon Birmingham: Now, I believe we should be engaging again with those ASEAN partners and others to look at what more can be done.

Tom Connell: With sanctions as a possibility?

Simon Birmingham: They should be on the table as an option. Obviously, a number of other like-minded countries around the world have pursued sanctions as an option. We should continue to give given our regional location and partnership with ASEAN prominence and priority to engagement there. But we shouldn’t rule out acting if we can’t get progress in it by any other means.

Tom Connell: Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time today. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, John. My pleasure.