Interview with Peter Stefanovic, Sky News Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia – China relations, Solomon Islands, Foot and Mouth Disease in Indonesia.

Peter Stefanovic: Back to one of our top stories now. China's Foreign Minister has issued Australia with a four-point list of actions to get the relationship back on track. Joining us live now is the Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister, Tim Watts. Tim, good to see you. Thanks for your time this morning. We'll start off with that point that was raised by Wang Yi. He says the former Government was the root cause of the fractured relationship. Do you agree with Wang Yi?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, the first thing we should say, Peter, is that the meeting between Foreign Minister Penny Wong and her counterpart was an important meeting and it was a constructive one. There was a frank exchange of views and there was listening on both sides about those key issues in the relationship, bilateral, regional, consular and trade.

What Foreign Minister Wong made clear to Mr Wang Yi is that while the Australian Government has changed, Australia's policy settings and our national interests haven't. So, there's a very clear message to Mr Wang Yi. We will be calm and we will be consistent in our representations, but it is in the interests of both sides of this relationship to stabilise the relationship going forward.

Peter Stefanovic: No, I think everyone agrees that it was an important first step as we head down that road and it's a herculean task you've got, but back to that original point, do you believe that Wang Yi was right in saying that the former government is the root cause for all of the problems?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Peter, while the Australian Government changed, our policy settings haven't changed, and we'll continue to speak out if the national interest calls for it –

Peter Stefanovic: So, he's wrong?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: We'll continue to speak out where the national interest calls for it. Where national interests and Australian sovereignty demands it, we will be clear and we have been clear on issues like those trade issues. We've been clear in saying the increased tariffs on Australian goods need to be removed. We've been clear on the consular issues, the case of Ms Cheng Lei and Dr Yang. Those were all issues that were discussed in the bilateral meeting between Foreign Minister Wong and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Peter Stefanovic: So, they've sent four points; are they some of the points that you'll send in return?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we've been very clear about the issues in the relationship from the Australian perspective. We do not believe that these trade sanctions, these increased tariffs, are justified in any way and that's why we've initiated WTO proceedings in relation to them. We've been calling very clearly for basic standards, for procedural fairness, for transparency and justice in the cases of Ms Cheng Lei and Dr Yang, I should say.

With Ms Cheng Lei, you know, she hasn't had access to her family for 18 months now. She has two young children in Australia, and I think any parent in Australia or China can understand how painful that is. That's something that we've made representations on bilaterally and publicly.

Peter Stefanovic: So, how were those points received by China when they were put to them?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, as I say, it was a frank conversation where both sides of the meeting made their interests and priorities clear. And there was listening on both sides of the relationship. You know, we should understand that stabilising this relationship won't be a quick process. This was one step. But Australia will remain calm and consistent in our representations.

Peter Stefanovic: But did they seem open to allowing those Australians to go, to at least release them from detention on that point?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Peter, as I say, it was a frank conversation and there was listening on both sides. We've been calm and consistent in our representation on these consular issues and we'll continue to be –

Peter Stefanovic: Sure, but was there anything promising that came out of there at that?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Peter, I wasn't in the meeting myself. You can understand –

Peter Stefanovic: No, sure, but has Penny Wong suggested –

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: It was reported to me that there was a frank conversation and that there was careful listening on both sides of the conversation.

Peter Stefanovic: Okay. But what does that really mean? Would they be open down the track to releasing them? Did Penny Wong advise you that there's some positivity coming there on that front?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Peter, the clear message is this is going to take some time. Stabilising this relationship and addressing issues of mutual concern in the relationship will take calm and consistent diplomacy and representations over time. No‑one's saying there's going to be a quick fix here, no‑one is saying that there's going to be, you know, a rapid change. As we've said, you know, while the Australian Government has changed our national interest hasn't and neither has Australia's policy settings.

Peter Stefanovic: So, those four points – those four points that are issued by Wang Yi, would Australia agree to any of them or all of them?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Peter, we'll never compromise on Australia's national interests and on our sovereignty. You know, we will be calm and consistent in making the case on issues of national concern for Australia, and I've set out some of those issues before. You know, we're not going to change our approach on these issues, frankly.

Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Just on this news overnight that the Solomon Islands won't allow some Australian aid workers into Solomon Islands, Sogavare has made that call, but he's allowed some Chinese security personnel in. What's the information you're getting on that and your concerns about that?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, in the big picture it's important to say, Peter, that Australia remains committed to being the largest development partner of the Solomon Islands across all aspects of that country, across their society and their economy. You know, throughout the COVID‑19 pandemic we've continued to see access for Australian advisers, trainers, officials, provided by the Solomon Islands Government over the preceding years, and that continues to be the case now. From the reporting in the papers today, we can see that there are five Australian officials who have had their approval processes delayed somewhat. They're not blocked. It's just that these are cases that are somewhat more administratively complex. They operate across multiple ministries. Some of them have moved from other development partners into the Solomon Islands, and from time to time getting approval for these more complex cases can take some time, and that's what we're seeing here.

Peter Stefanovic: Doesn't it fit a broader picture? There were even developments over the weekend where Manasseh Sogavare has – he now wants to fund and have complete control of the national broadcaster. That's just another example. I mean, and now that this process has been delayed with Australian aid workers, don't you feel like there is a theme and more of a theme that is being established here, one that it wants to attach itself further to China and that would, in turn, affect the stability of the region when it comes to security, would it not?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, in the instance of these specific visas, Peter, it's really clear from our perspective that this is just an administrative issue. This is not symbolic of something more significant or more malevolent in some way. This is just sometimes more complex applications take more time and that's happened from time to time, and we remain committed to being a development partner.

On the broader security issues, we've been really clear that the security of the Pacific is a matter for the whole Pacific family of which Australia and New Zealand are members and we engage all – we encourage all Pacific Island leaders to engage with these issues transparently and collaboratively as part of the Pacific family, because that unity is really important at the moment. It's more important than it's ever been before.

Peter Stefanovic: Just a final one here because a question was asked by Dan Tehan on the program last hour. He makes the point that we have supplied vaccines to Indonesia, but the question has been asked: what's being done to keep Australia safe and free from foot‑and‑mouth disease? As you know, it could potentially cause big problems if it leaks into Australia.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Absolutely, Peter. I should say, I grew up in regional Australia. My father was an agricultural engineer, and I spent a lot of time on feedlots dealing with Australian livestock. I absolutely know how concerned the Australian industry is about this and that's why Murray Watt has been on the front foot on this from the very start as our Agriculture Minister. He has been speaking with both the industry and our Indonesian counterparts and there is a raft of measures that are being taken to prevent the arrival of foot‑and‑mouth disease in Australia. We understand how catastrophic that would be.

You've seen biosecurity surveillance dogs rolled out at airports, significant advertising campaigns on social media, billboards in airports, flyers, increased training, biosecurity training for airline staff and airport staff. We want all Australians to be really clear about the role they will play in ensuring that this very significant disease doesn't get to Australia. And, you know, I'm confident that Murray is doing all that needs to be done from the Australian Government's perspective.

Peter Stefanovic: Tim Watts, appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for joining us. Talk to you again soon.

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