ABC NEWS CAPITAL HILL
WEDNESDAY, 13 MAY 2020
SUBJECT: Australia’s relationship with China.
GREG JENNETT, HOST: The international trade environment is rich with COVID context at the moment, and there’s plenty of interpretation that says Australia is being punished – barley, beef, other commodities, wine before that. Do you believe that is China’s motivation in at least temporarily holding up some of these items?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Greg, I think it's really important when we're dealing with China to calm down and take the long view. This is a 5000 year old civilization. It's done more than any other country over our lifetimes to bring people out of poverty. We aren't helped by this talk of Thucydides traps and Cold War analogies and Chamberlain moments.
JENNETT: But what if they were true? What if these were Beijing’s motivations, that it is displeased that Australia is leading the charge on demands for investigations into this pandemic? Wouldn’t a country that respected its sovereignty forcefully rebut that and not expect to be punished via trade?
LEIGH: Take the long view doesn't mean you're not firm about your true values and about the institutions that underlie the international trading system. The World Trade Organisation has been a critical institution, and we should be strong supporters as a middle power engaged with the world of solving things through the World Trade Organisation. Australia has been a very extensive user of the anti-dumping system and China has not to date been bringing cases against our producers in a way in which we've been bringing them against theirs. But there's also-
JENNETT: But I think barley is effectively that, isn’t it? The barley grain trade is in effect an anti-dumping action?
LEIGH: It is. We sell two thirds of our barley to China and they're proposing tariffs which amount to 80 per cent, which would effectively shut down Australia's barley trade to China and mean that China would be buying from Canada instead.
JENNETT: So why would we take the long view, to use your phrase, on that? How do you know this isn’t a power play?
LEIGH: It's certainly possible that this is related to international diplomacy. You don't want to rule that out, but we should respect the international trading system. We should make our case very strongly within the World Trade Organisation against the arguments that China is making. We also need to recognise though that we are-
JENNETT: Some people would suggest - sorry, just to pick up that point - relying on these multilateral organisations in a time of Trump and in a time of COBID-19 is a quaint, almost old fashioned belief in such institutions. They haven’t actually been that effective for a while.
LEIGH: But what's the alternative for a country that makes up 0.3 per cent of the world population? If it comes to muscular one-on-ones, then a country the size of Australia will lose every time. We've got a stake in the world trading system. It's really important that we work within the World Trade Organisation, and there's been moves that Australia has been part of in order to salvage the dispute resolution process after the United States effectively stymied it. So, the World Trade Organisation is important to our interests. China is also important to our economic prosperity. They're a quarter of our trade, they were half of our tourist revenue before tourism ceased. So the China relationship will continue to be vital. And even putting economics aside, the people-to-people contacts, the national security dimensions - all of that suggests that we need to have, as Penny Wong said, a 30 year view over the China relationship rather than a three day view.
JENNETT: She has also said, Penny Wong – which I think puts her on a bipartisan ticket here with the Coalition – that we do have to rethink some of the engagements with China just because of where we are, even before COVID-19 came along, with a rising power. How uniform is Labor on this, or are there internal debates and outliers? You seem to be slightly different in your disposition towards Beijing than others in the ALP.
LEIGH: We want to be clear eyed about the nature of the Xi regime. But we also need to realise that when we engaged with Mao’s China in 1972, it was a country that was much more authoritarian than the current Chinese regime is today. Australia has managed the Chinese relationship over the course of that last half century and more. We've done a lot in order to deepen the ties between our two countries. We need to hold true to our values, to the rule of law, to the importance of markets, to the value of working through international institutions. And I don't think we're helped when we appear to be playing deputy sheriff to the United States in these sort of matters.
JENNETT: And do you suggest that we’re playing that role when we demand things, like an independent international investigation into COVID-19?
LEIGH: I think there's certainly been that perception and the challenge has come because the Government made that announcement with very little detail and not very much engagement with other countries beforehand-
JENNETT: But your party actually supports everything its done with that call, as I understand it, the call for an independent investigation. Again, are you something of an outlier on this?
LEIGH: We think it's important to get to get to the bottom of how the coronavirus emerged, but it's also critical that any proposals that are being put on the table are equal across the board. So for example, if you're proposing a regime of international inspectors, that can't just be international inspectors that would go into China. You also want to be sure that the United States for example would accept a regime of international inspectors coming inside its country’s-
JENNETT: Right, and because we haven’t said that or that hasn’t explicitly been the Australian Government’s position, are you suggesting that that’s what gives rise to the perception or the reality that Australia’s playing a deputy sheriff unquote role?
LEIGH: Greg, my point is if the Government had done more preparatory work and had stepped forward in concert with a range of other middle powers, then the critique couldn't be made. It would be absolutely clear that we were working with likeminded powers in order to get to the bottom of what had happened with coronavirus. But when you act on your own, you do find yourself being back in that realm that John Howard found himself in with the infamous deputy sheriff statement.
JENNETT: You’re saying that’s a reality, that’s borne out by the behaviour, the evidence of Australia in this case, are you?
LEIGH: In this case I think Australia could have handled it more deftly. There's been too much of our China relationship which has been driven by Liberal Party backbenchers rather than by Liberal ministers. Penny Wong has been quite clear in saying that Marise Payne should have been more active in the public conversation. We need to also distinguish - as John Fitzgerald has made clear - between the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese people. We need to ensure that we're being as nuanced and deft as possible in what is one of our most complicated foreign policy challenges.
JENNETT: It sure is. And just to round this interview out, Andrew Leigh, in making these comments as you are today, does that not open a gap into which China’s diplomacy can slide? A gap in domestic politics in Australia can be exploited, when hitherto there has been a lot of unity around China-related responses over the last let’s say 6 to 8 weeks.
LEIGH: I think the unity is where we want to be, Greg. We do benefit as you say from strong bipartisanship, but the Opposition doesn't do the Government any favours if we simply shout ‘me too, me too’ at every moment. We are the party that recognised modern day China under Gough Whitlam in 1972, and we've got a strong stake in that China relationship. The policies we took to the last election and Future Asia demonstrate Labor's commitment to engaging with the region. Again, got to be thinking long term and sophisticated. We can't be simply shooting from the hip in such a complicated relationship. China will be a critical relationship for Australia throughout our lifetimes and beyond.
JENNETT: Well that is certainly a more nuanced perspective than some of what we’ve been hearing in recent weeks. Andrew Leigh, we’ll see where this debate takes us. Thank you.
LEIGH: Thanks, Greg.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.