Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: PM visit to China, China trade, Hamas-Israel conflict.

Kieran Gilbert: Welcome back to the programme. Let's go live now to the Assistant Foreign Minister, Tim Watts. Thanks for your time this morning. The Chinese state media calling Mr Albanese's visit an icebreaker, a new chapter in the relationship. Is that a good thing?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Kieran, the first visit from an Australian Prime Minister to China since 2016 is a very significant event and it's the product of the calm and consistent approach that we have taken to this very important but complex relationship since coming to government. This visit is about us delivering for the Australian people, delivering results for the Australian people. This visit allows for high level engagement on the issues that matter for Australia. And dialogue in itself is important. It's a way for us to find those areas, to cooperate. As we've always said, we look to cooperate where we can disagree, where we must always engage in the national interest. And high level dialogue like this is the best possible opportunity for us to pursue that approach.

Kieran Gilbert: The Shadow Minister, James Patterson, before the break, was saying it's wrong to say the government hasn't made any concessions in resuming these talks and getting this dialogue back on track, including, he says, the removal of efforts at the World Trade Organisation on those tariffs that were put in place by China. Is it fair to say that concessions have been made along this path?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Kieran, the important resumption of dialogue at the highest level between our countries is something that the Albanese Government has achieved without compromising on issues of national interests. Now, I was listening to Senator Paterson's comments earlier and unfortunately, he's fundamentally misunderstood what's going on here. The WTO trade process involves established mechanisms for countries to resolve conflicts by dialogue between the parties. Now, what we have said, first in barley and now in wine, is that we would suspend - not withdraw - suspend. That is, pause our WTO dispute processes to enable an expedited review of the duties imposed by China in those circumstances, barley, and now the five month expedited review process for duties on Wine. Now, what we've also said is that if those expedited review processes do not ultimately remove those duties, we will resume those WTO dispute processes, processes that we are very confident would be resolved in our own advantage. Now, I think that is a strong endorsement of the WTO system and the rules based international order. It really shows how that system is delivering for Australia in that system. And there is nothing unexpected or unintended about using the process in the way that we have here.

Kieran Gilbert: Has Australia gone soft when it comes to calling out China's aggression in the South China Sea, as suggested by Senator Paterson?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Kieran, we have said that we'll be calm and consistent in pursuing our relationship with China. Now, we can grow our relationship with China while also standing up for our national interests if we manage our differences wisely. When we say that we'll disagree where we must, we mean it. And there are disagreements between Australia and China unsurprisingly as we have very different systems, very different values often, and different international outlooks. We've already spoken about disagreements over trade. We have other disagreements over human rights situations in Xinjiang, in Hong Kong, in Tibet, and I've spoken about them myself in multilateral United Nations human rights forums. We also have disagreements about the way that our region operates and we have called out intimidation in the Taiwan Strait in the South China Sea as well. We want to see an Indo-Pacific region that's peaceful, prosperous and secure and that's governed by agreed rules, norms and international law. And a really important part of that is respect for the UN Convention on Law of the Sea.

Kieran Gilbert: If the government says this isn't a reset, how would you characterise it?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yeah, we've been very clear in saying that it's not possible to turn back time. We can't reset the relationship to what it was back in 2016, and the reason for that is because now it is not possible to separate those previously distinct trade and strategic policy issues. We see very clearly that China pursues a coordinated international strategy across its trade and strategic policy levers. There's no use complaining about that. That's the reality of the new world that we operate in. So, we need to recognise that and adapt our own response. We need to use all of our Australian tools of statecraft, across defence, across our diplomatic capabilities, across our economic capabilities, and coordinate and align them in the pursuit of our own interests. Now, what does a stabilised relationship between Australia and China look like in that new world? Well, clearly, it's going to mean different things to China and to Australia. We have different interests and we will pursue them differently. But a stabilised relationship is one where Australia and China can engage in their national interests, where we can protect our own sovereignty, and where Australia can continue to pursue the foreign policy and the defence policies in our own region that are designed to contribute to a strategic equilibrium, a strategic balance in our region.

Kieran Gilbert: So, that's a fairly frank assessment you've given as to China's approach when it comes to trade and its strategic outlook. Mike Burgess, the ASIO boss, was even more blunt. He says that China's responsible for the largest scaled and sophisticated theft of intellectual property in human history. Can we still run this line and this message from the government that we will cooperate where we can and disagree where we must when dealing with a country that is undertaking such cyber theft?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, as I said, Kieran, we can grow the relationship between Australia and China and stand up for our national interests if we manage our differences wisely. Now, we have said that our assessment of our national interests, of our strategic interests, hasn't changed, but we will pursue these differences calmly and consistently. And that's exactly what you've seen us do. We have always backed in our security agencies, our defence forces, to do their jobs. Our job as political leaders is to pursue and to manage those differences calmly and consistently.

Kieran Gilbert: The trade relationship has grown regardless of any hiccups, any problems in recent years. It's a quarter of our national trade is with China. What do you put that down to? The complementarity between our two economies?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well Kieran, nations trade with each other when it's in their interest to do so. And there is a strong complementarity between Australian exports and Chinese demand. We've seen that grow in recent times. And that's why we've always argued that those $20 billion of trade impediments imposed by China were not just harmful to the relationship between our countries but hurt China itself. These are goods that were in demand by the Chinese market. And as we see now that these impediments have lifted we're down to about a billion dollars of impediments from that $20 billion left. There is strong demand for Australian goods and that's a good thing. That said, the Australian Government, while wanting to maintain that trade with China, is keen to support our businesses to diversify their trade markets. And one of the big focuses that you've seen from us recently is in the Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040 where we're really seeking to deepen that trading relationship with our own immediate region with Southeast Asia. And Nicholas Moore, as our Special Envoy to Southeast Asia has led an intensive engagement effort to build those relationships. At the same time, you see growing trade relationships with other friendly countries in the region particularly through our trading agreements with India in recent times. South Asia is a very significant economic opportunity for Australia so that trade diversification agenda will continue. It's an important thing that we pursue in Australia's national interest.

Kieran Gilbert: Should Australia consider and support China's bid to join the comprehensive regional trade agreement?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So, Australia's position on parties wanting to enter into the CPTPP has been clear and consistent. We've said that parties wanting to join the CPTPP need to demonstrate that they're able to meet, adhere to and comply with the rules, the very high standards and rules set out in that agreement. We'd also want to see countries seeking to ascend to the CPTPP to have a demonstrated track record of compliance with trade commitments that they have entered into. Now, that said, the entry process into the CPTPP is a process that is undertaken by consensus by all parties to the agreement. So, that's something that would unfold for all countries seeking to enter into the agreement.

Kieran Gilbert: The Middle East catastrophe continues. What's the latest advice you have for our viewers this morning on the number of Australians stuck in Gaza?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So, Kieran, we continue to support 67 Australians in Gaza with consular assistance and that means continually communicating with them the best information and options available to them to protect their safety and to advise them of options for leaving Gaza. We were very pleased and relieved that we were able to get 25 individuals that we were supporting across the Rafah crossing on November 1 and 2. Unfortunately, there haven't been further crossings by Australians of that border crossing point since then. But we thank the diplomatic efforts of Qatar, of Egypt, of the United States, in seeking to broker that crossing. It's something that Australian consular officials, Australian diplomats and Australian Foreign Ministry officials work very hard at to try and press for further passage for Australians across that border crossing.

Kieran Gilbert: And is there any prospect over the next 24 hours or so that we might see further evacuations?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, it's a rapidly changing situation Kieran. We are pressing very hard because we know how dire the situation is in Gaza. It really is a very serious humanitarian situation there. That's why we're pushing to get Australians out across that Rafah border crossing. But it's also why we're pushing very hard to get humanitarian assistance in. We've committed $25 million in aid to get food, water, medical assistance, fuel that is desperately needed in Gaza to the people that need it the most. And that's also why we've been calling for a humanitarian pause to enable that desperately needed humanitarian support to get to the people that need it safely.

Kieran Gilbert: You've been calling for a pause. The Foreign Minister has. Your colleague Josh Burns, he has written at the weekend that he does not support the idea of a humanitarian pause. Is the government divided on this issue?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, here, when I read Josh's piece, I thought it was a really good contribution from an outstanding local member who has been spending a lot of time really listening to his community, particularly the Jewish community in Melbourne, who is hurting incredibly at the moment. We cannot forget that there are still, on top of the 1400 Israelis who were murdered in the terrorist atrocity committed by Hamas, there are still more than 200 hostages in Gaza at the moment. You can only imagine the anguish and the anxiety and the terror that the friends and family members of those hostages must be experiencing at the moment, thinking about the plight that they're in. Now, that said, Josh's opinion piece made the case against a ceasefire.

Now, a ceasefire is traditionally viewed as part of a political process where the parties come together, the parties to a conflict come together in order to seek to negotiate as part of a broader political conclusion to a conflict. What we have been calling for in a humanitarian pause is a different thing. That's saying that we recognise that the parties aren't in a position where they can negotiate a political settlement to this issue at present. But there is a desperate humanitarian need now that can't wait for discussions, that can't wait for those kinds of negotiations. We need to get that food, water, medical supplies and fuel into Gaza as soon as possible to help those people who are absolutely desperately in need. And many other members of parliament have spoken with their Muslim communities. Australia is half of us were born overseas or have a parent born overseas. We are intensely connected anytime there's a crisis or a conflict anywhere in the world. And I've spoken to my constituents and I've heard about people in my community who've lost any family members living in Gaza. So, their anguish and their desperation to do something about the humanitarian issue is something that the government is hearing, too.

Kieran Gilbert: Tim Watts, thanks for your time.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you.

Media enquiries

  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555