Interview on Radio National, AM, with Sabra Lane

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Australia China Relationship; China’s Human Rights Abuses; Trade Deals; RCEP.
06 November 2019

Sabra Lane: The Trade Minister Simon Birmingham is now in Shanghai at a trade expo and he joined me earlier.

[Excerpt]

Sabra Lane: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining AM. You’re now in Shanghai. The Prime Minister met with the Chinese Premier on the weekend. Has the tone of the relationship changed or is Australia still in the diplomatic deep freeze?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Sabra. Prime Minister the Premier Li Keqiang had a meeting, it was a long meeting, it canvassed quite a wide number of issues. And look, I have been very encouraged by the reception that I have received here in Shanghai. I’m here with more than 200 Australian businesses. I spent virtually all day yesterday at events hosted by my Chinese counterparts discussing a whole range of different trade related issues. And look, I think we have canvassed — the Prime Minister, Premier Li — ways to make sure that the dialogue happens, is there for us to be able to work through the difficult issues, but focus on how we build the relationship and partnership and indeed, it is a partnership that many Australian businesses, many Australian people, many Australian Chinese businesses and people are very successfully working in each and every day of the year.

Sabra Lane: Sure. But has the tone changed?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, I’ll let others talk about or commentate on the tone. What we’re focused on, as Prime Minister Morrison has made very clear, is strengthening the partnership in the areas where we have strong mutual cooperation. This has been a good relationship for both Australia and China over the years and it’s one that we want to continue into the future because it underpins so many areas of prosperity in both our countries.

Sabra Lane: You’re at the Shanghai Trade Expo. President Xi said late yesterday in his speech that countries risk stifling innovation if they fail to remove areas and knowledge blockades preventing cooperation on technology. Xi could have been talking about Australia’s decision to ban Huawei from the 5G rollout. How is that effecting the relationship?

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m not going to put words into President Xi’s mouth. We accept that there are many areas for cooperation, including in areas of technology, science, research and many Australian businesses, higher education institutions and otherwise seek to do that and continue to do that very, very successfully. And just because we seek to protect the infrastructure of our communication systems into the future, and doesn’t mean there isn’t a world of area for continued collaboration and cooperation.

Sabra Lane: Huawei says it would never pass on information to Chinese intelligence. Do you believe the company?

Simon Birmingham: Well our decision that we’ve made in relation to the 5G network isn’t about any one country or any one company. It’s about providing protections for Australia into the future around the security of a communications network that will reach into virtually every aspect of Australian life, business and operations, and that’s the type of security and protection that I would expect anyone, any country would pursue. It is up to each country how they do that, but Australia’s made its decisions there, our decisions are clear. But that doesn’t prevent cooperation in a whole range of other ways, including in relation to technologies and science development.

Sabra Lane: Alright. China is clearly annoyed with Australia. Marise Payne last week said that Australia would hold China to account for human rights abuses. Beijing responded by saying that an intervention was ill-advised. Has that had any ramifications for you?

Simon Birmingham: Not that I can see Sabra. I think your listeners, people who have a long memory would know that Australia and China have had a dialogue on human rights that goes back decades. They’re not new topics-

Sabra Lane: Have you raised the issue of human rights?

Simon Birmingham: In other meetings, yes. And of course the Prime Minister and Premier Li canvassed a wide range of issues in their meeting. But- and China is also playing host not just to me but to more than 200 Australian businesses who are here. We enjoy record exports, record trade volumes and record numbers of Australian businesses are deeply engaged with the Chinese system and continue to see it as a very positive relationship that they have between themselves and those with whom they are doing business.

Sabra Lane: And in raising human rights yourself, what's been the response?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, these are dialogue issues that stretch back many decades. I'm not going to play out every nature of my conversation because one of the commitments we give our Chinese interlocutors is that we will engage with them respectfully in the discussions that we have. And I'm here seeking to defend and work on Australian jobs, as the PM and I were when we were in Bangkok as well, signing a trade deal that is about providing more surety and opportunity for the one in five Australians in jobs that depend on trade. And we continue to secure those opportunities whether it is with China, with the ASEAN partners and emerging economies like Vietnam and Indonesia, or indeed elsewhere around the world. And just yesterday in the margins of the many events in China, I was meeting with the European Union about our opportunities there too.

Sabra Lane: Just on that RCEP deal, Australia already has bilateral trade agreements with every signatory. The attraction was trying to get India on board; it won't for now. How many jobs will this create and how much will it boost Australia's GDP within the next decade?

Simon Birmingham: Sabra, I can't put a precise figure on the number of jobs it will create, but I can tell you that in our six years of government, as we've done trade deals with China, Japan, Indonesia, Trans-Pacific Partnership, we've seen more than 240,000 trade related jobs created in our economy. We've seen our exports grow to record levels, Australia record- record trade surpluses. So we can see that these deals, done well, grow Australian exports and create more Australian jobs. That's why we continue to pursue opportunities for regional integration. Yes, it's disappointing that India has decided the time is not right, the terms are not right for them to move forward at present in relation to RCEP. But that door remains firmly open and in the meantime, Australia pursues our India economic strategy that we've already developed, that we've already outlined the government responses to, and we will continue to do that, including through the Prime Minister's visit to India that's scheduled for January.

Sabra Lane: And that's the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, speaking there from Shanghai.

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