ABC Radio Sydney, Political Forum

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s trade relationship with China.
27 March 2023

Part of this transcript has been redacted in accordance with Digital Transformation Agency guidelines.


Richard Glover: There you go. Always a positive. Tim Ayres, Verity Firth and Trent Zimmerman are here now.

Now, last week's meeting between the so-called “dear friend”, China's President Xi and Russia's President Putin, makes it clear, according to some scholars, that China is choosing isolation from the West in a way that will be both costly to itself and to countries like Australia, of course, have helped and benefited from China's embrace of the world. Others point to signs of normalisation of relations, particularly with Australia. So, what's your assessment of the state of thaw? And I guess it's another way of asking how significant, Tim, is your own trip to this forum this week? I noticed you're the first Australian Government Minister to go to this particular conference since 2016.

Tim Ayres: Yeah, that's right. I mean, I just make the point on your opening comment that isolation serves no country's interests very well. And it's in the interests of all of the countries in the region to have a rules-based order, stable trading relationships, and cooperation over issues like, in particular, the issue that jumps out at us - climate and energy, which is one of the issues that I'll be addressing at this conference.

We've been taking as a new government a consistent and sustained approach to stabilising the relationship with China, you know, our largest trading partner. The trade impediments that have been put in the way of a set of Australian exports have absolutely damaged those export industries. Haven't been great for Chinese consumers either, but what they've done is damage confidence in Australia and in the region, that the rules-based order and that normal, stable trading relations are being respected. Now, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to engage on behalf of the Australian Government, not just with our hosts from the Chinese Government, the Chinese business community, but with Australian business leaders and political and economic and business leaders from right around the region. This is a very good opportunity. I'm really looking forward to it.

Richard Glover: You can go back a month or so and it looked like the thaw was really on. There was real sign of movement at the station. Since then, there's been the submarine thing. Since then, there's been the meeting in Moscow. Do you think, to the extent that we were having a thaw, do you think things have started to freeze up again?

Tim Ayres: Well, as I said, we're taking a consistent, straightforward approach. I don't believe that the announcements that the Australian Government made in relation to the AUKUS submarines were of any surprise at all to any of the participants in the region, you know, any of the countries in the region. The announcement was made 18 months ago. This is old news and there's been a determined effort by the Australian Government to be transparent and to be engaged, not just broadly, about all of the economic and geopolitical issues that face the Indo-Pacific region and the world. But in particular, 60 meetings in the lead-up to the announcement with countries in the region to make sure that we were being completely transparent about the arrangements that Australia's reached to replace our Collins-class submarines.

Richard Glover: Well, good luck with the trade mission. We need - It's good for them, but as you say, it's good for us, a rules-based order. Tim Ayres is with us, Verity Firth and Trent Zimmerman. What do you make of the state of the “thaw”, if there is indeed a thaw or a refreezing? Trent Zimmerman.

Trent Zimmerman: Well, I do think we saw a bit of a thaw underway last year, and I think that that's because China faces this, I think, balancing act in terms of its intentions. It understands it's got to be able to have a strong economic and trading relationship with the rest of the world if it's to sustain its own economic growth and rise in living standards. But at the same time, that conflicts, I think, at times with its other international foreign policy goals, and they seem to be having difficulty reconciling that. So, I do think that, particularly with some of the actions of the Chinese leadership in relation to Russia, that we're starting to see them swing back again, which is very disappointing.

I think what is consistent is the approach of Australia under this government and the previous that obviously we're going to put the national interests first. We're not going to be afraid to talk about human rights issues, be they in Hong Kong or with the Uyghurs in Western China, and that's as it should be. But at the same time, we want to have a mature relationship with China. We don't want China to be our enemy. We want China engaged in that rules-based order. We want them to peacefully exist in places like the South China Sea. We want to make sure there's not conflict between China and Taiwan out of which no one wins. And I think it's really important that we, but also the global community, continue to approach China with that in mind.

Richard Glover: Verity Firth, how do you rate the state of the state of play and the state of the thaw?

Verity Firth: It's getting a little bit colder, isn't it? I mean, it's interesting as someone turning 50 this year who grew up during the Cold War and grew up during the sort of absolutism of the time where there was really only one opinion you could have, and it was very, very - and watching Xi go to Putin did remind me of that. And that nervousness you get when you have these big powers with nuclear potential meeting each other and not seeming too interested in the rule of law. But I think the way Trent talked about the balancing act that China has in terms of its economic needs and its foreign policy intentions is exactly the same for us, right? Of course, we're going to be part of the AUKUS approach. Of course, we're going to be always a strong ally of the United States. But we are in the Asian region, and we need to make sure that people like Tim Ayres go to this Asia annual conference and actually start to make sure that we can coexist peacefully in this region.



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