October 16, 2021

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Canberra’s approach based on ‘assessment of national interests’ despite New Zealand critique

Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan has defended his country’s dealings with China, saying they were based on an “assessment of national interests”, responding to his New Zealand counterpart suggesting that Canberra exercise a more diplomatic approach toward Beijing.

Tehan said on Thursday that his trade policy would be guided by the three P’s of proactivity, principle and patience after New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O’Connor seemingly questioned Canberra’s approach amid its 10-month dispute with Beijing.

“We pursue engagement with China on the basis of mutual benefit, and the complementarity of our economies makes us natural trading partners. We are always open to dialogue as the best way to resolve differences,” said Australia’s minister for tourism, trade and investment, who replaced Simon Birmingham during a cabinet reshuffle at the end of last year.

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On Wednesday, O’Connor, fresh from signing an upgrade and expansion of its free-trade agreement with China a month after Australia failed to review its similar agreement, called for more multilateral trade globally.

Decrying nationalism as a stumbling block to united global post-coronavirus pandemic rebuilding, O’Connor also said there was room in foreign policies to be both “cautious with wording” and speaking up on issues that were important.

“We have a mature … relationship with China, and we’ve always been able to raise issues of concern. But we respect the healthy trade relationship that we have … and we have frank discussions with them [China] and frank is something China appreciates and we certainly do on our side,” said O’Connor in an interview with CNBC.

“I can’t speak for Australia and the way it runs its diplomatic relationships, but clearly if they were to follow us and show respect and speak … [with] a little more diplomacy from time to time, and be cautious with wording … hopefully [they] can be in a similar situation.

“We have the benefit of being a strong country and we have always maintained our independence and spoken on issues that are important that are not just for ourselves but also for the world.”

Tehan recently sent his Chinese counterpart and new commerce minister, Wang Wentao, a letter reiterating Canberra remained open to a dialogue with Beijing after Birmingham had previously been unable to contact his opposite number in Beijing since the dispute escalated in April last year.

When asked how New Zealand was able to strike an upgrade to its trade deal with China, Tehan said while he had not looked at the details, it was likely the upgrade had put New Zealand on par with the free-trade access Australia already had with China.

In a statement on Thursday, O’Connor said he had spoken with his Australian counterpart following the CNBC interview.

“New Zealand has an independent foreign policy, which allows us to maintain both our closest partnership with Australia and a mature relationship with China,” he said.

Some Australian politicians had earlier taken umbrage with O’Connor’s comments, saying that Wellington should stand by Canberra. The two neighbours had up until two days ago enjoyed a successful coronavirus travel bubble until it was temporarily halted due to a new infection in New Zealand.

“The idea that Australia’s tone or wording is somehow responsible for challenges in our relationship with China is one we fundamentally reject and is at odds with reality,” Australian Liberal MP Dave Sharma and former diplomat told The Sydney Morning Herald. “It betrays a lack of acquaintance with basic facts that I would not expect from a close friend and partner like New Zealand.”

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Another former Australian diplomat, John Menadue, said many Australian politicians have abandoned their diplomatic skills to align themselves with Canberra’s stance of standing firm against China amid a nearly year-long conflict.

The conflict was triggered when Australia pushed for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus in April last year without consulting Beijing, leading to disruptions in some of the biggest trades between China and Australia, including wine, coal and barley.

“Dave Sharma may have learned some diplomatic skills in the past. But to hopefully gain political promotion he has abandoned all serious diplomatic skill or understanding. He seems to know little about ‘saving face’,” Menadue told the South China Morning Post.

Former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr said Canberra’s reaction showed how the government had lost its interest in maintaining bilateral relations with China even if it meant giving up trade to New Zealand or even the United States.

“This exchange confirms that Canberra is proud of being the most adversarial towards China of any of America’s allies. It is a striking repositioning of Australia, even more hardline now under Scott Morrison than it was under [former] prime minister [Malcolm] Turnbull,” he said.

“Liberal MP David Sharma has even advocated recruiting Russia for a broad anti-China coalition, another measure of how ideological Australian policy to China has become.”

There continues to be few signs of a thaw between China and Australia in the new year, with Prime Minister Morrison last week rejecting suggestions that Canberra made a mistake when it called for a coronavirus inquiry without first working in cooperation with other countries.

“We did it on the basis of a European motion. So no, I don’t accept that [it is a mistake]. See, Australia is honest in our dealings, and we honestly want to know how this started. That’s all it’s about,” he said at a press conference in Queensland.

On Wednesday, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg also accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of failing to live up to his own call against a cold war and for bigger nations not to bully smaller countries.

“We agree with that sentiment that big nations should not bully small ones, but there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the words and the actions,” he said at a press conference.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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