Interview on Sky News Live, Speers, with David Speers

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: China’s status as a developing country.
25 September 2019

David Speers: With me now is the Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, thanks for your time this afternoon. We just heard there from …

Simon Birmingham: Hello, David.

David Speers: … Professor Wang. He’s not a member of the Chinese Government, of course, but he’s been brought here by the Chinese Embassy and he is a member of the Chinese Communist Party. He said, quote: if there is a war between the US and China over the South China sea or Taiwan, you, Australia, are the frontier; you are the first sacrifice for that. What’s your reaction to that kind of language?

Simon Birmingham: My reaction, David, is that the reason why we take engagement in multilateral institutions, in regional for a, and our relationship with both the United States and China so seriously is because we don’t want to see anything like that evolve or emerge. We want to encourage all countries to abide by international rules and laws. And where necessary, to advance and to reform and to improve them to account for modern circumstances.

But we have been very clear and Prime Minister Morrison has been very clear that, yes, we confront a new dynamic in the world of two great powers in the United States and China — great in terms of their economic might and capacity; great and emerging in a very significant way in terms of their military and other capabilities. And with that greatness, with that power comes enormous responsibility that both must shoulder and that we will work as a long-standing ally and friend of the United States, as a close partner and regional neighbor of China, to try to do our best to help work through these issues, but we do so from the Australian principles and values which are absolutely to respect the sovereignty of countries throughout our region and to urge that adherence to those international rules and laws.

David Speers: Well, let’s see if that’s what’s happening. He took particular issue with the idea that China is now a developed country and should be treated as such. Is China, in your view, a developed country?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, that does depend upon how you want to define developed. Now, people will argue about that if they like. The World Trade Organization has no precise definition of developed versus developing. There is a category formally there for less developed nations, then it’s a self-identification process for those who are developing versus developed. China has [indistinct] …

David Speers: So what’s your view, though? What’s your view as Trade Minister?

Simon Birmingham: I’m trying to answer, David. China has, since its ascension to the World Trade Organization in 2000/2001, identified itself as developing, and sought in doing so certain concessions. Clearly, since 2001 China’s growth has been remarkable. Remarkable growth. In fact, their share of global trade has grown from 5 per cent to 12 per cent, on many other measures and we welcome that and we want to see that growth continue …

David Speers: Absolutely, you’re right. Is it still a developing country, then? This is important, Minister. Is it still developing country?

Simon Birmingham: … so it is not the same developing country that it was at the time of its WTO ascension. Circumstances have changed, and therefore responsibilities should change commensurate with those changed circumstances.

David Speers: But what does that mean? Is it still a developing country or not?

Simon Birmingham: It means that the type of terms upon which it entered the WTO are not the same as they were then and therefore those terms should change commensurate with that — that it is a far more developed nation today than it was in 2001. That’s obvious to anybody-

David Speers: But is it developed? You seem to be lying somewhere in the middle of whether it's developing or developed?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, I've just pointed out to you: there is no formal definition at the World Trade Organization between developed or developing. So you're splitting hairs there in that sense. What we are looking for is recognition that some of the-

David Speers: Okay well, with respect, I just want to come to what language the Prime Minister is using around this, both in his speech in Chicago yesterday but also earlier today speaking in New York to reporters. Here's what he said.

[Excerpt]

Scott Morrison: … and when you look at the level of investment that China makes in countries outside their own borders; when you look at the level of military expansion within their own ranks; I mean, they're not the actions of a developing country.

[End of excerpt]

David Speers: They are not the actions of a developing country. That seems pretty clear. He said also yesterday: we have to realise China is a newly developed economy. He seems to have judged China now to be a developed economy.

Simon Birmingham: And China is newly developed, relative to where they were. And that is why the concessions and things that were negotiated at the point of their ascension are in some cases no longer relevant in this day and age. And that we would look to China to show leadership in terms of the role it plays in those type of international fora in acknowledging that their circumstances have changed — that they do have such greater economic might and power, and global might and power, than they had close to 20 years ago. And with those changed circumstances, as I said, their responsibilities should change commensurate with that growth. And we want to see that growth continue as well. [Indistinct] very clear about that.

David Speers: Okay, but you’re not saying they should face the same rules as the US, Australia, countries that have developed as far as we have?

Simon Birmingham: Well, let’s hear from China in terms of how they want to address the change in their circumstances as a result of their growth. [Indistinct].

David Speers: Well, I don’t think they want any change on this particular front, but are you saying they should or shouldn't face the same rules we do know?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, I'm saying if they think there are areas where there are legitimate arguments for some concession, then let's hear what those arguments are and what those areas are. But the circumstances have changed dramatically, given the scale of economic growth and might that China commands today relative to that point in time when they negotiated their ascension to the WTO. [Indistinct].

David Speers: So you’re saying it’s up to China, it’s up to China to define how developed it is?

Simon Birmingham: Well, in terms of new negotiations that are undertaken at the WTO, the approach we take as a country is to argue very much that there shouldn't be blanket claims by countries, that they need to be addressed on this sort of precision of a case-by-case basis, so that if there are to be any carve outs or exemptions for developing nations, it's very clear as to what they are and why they're justified. If they're not justified, then they shouldn't be part of agreements. Of course, in terms of things that have been negotiated and accepted over that last close to 20 years, well, that's where we would look for, as other countries have done in terms of identifying changes to their development status, China to follow that type of lead in terms of the concessions that they claim.

David Speers: Just to sum up this issue, if we can, to be clear. Australia's position, the Australian Government's position, is that China's come a long way from where it was 20 years ago. It may not be as fully developed as Australia, the United States, European economies, and it's up to China to work out where it now sits?

Simon Birmingham: It's up to China to negotiate, as you do through the WTO, with the rest of the world, but if it wants to still claim areas in which concessions are sought, then it ought to make sure there's a very strong case for those and that they're very precise, given that it doesn't have the same developmental challenge that it had close to 20 years ago. We’ve seen hundreds of millions of people lifted out of poverty, and as Scott Morrison said very clearly, that is a great news story. That is something that Australia warmly welcomes and we want to see that continue and we back China's continued development into the future because that's good for China and for people living there, it's good for the countries of our region, and it's good for Australia, too.

David Speers: Can I just go to what Donald Trump said at the UN on China. He said China has declined to adopt promised reforms, it's embraced an economic model dependent on massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfer, the theft of intellectual property and trade secrets on a grand scale. Do you agree with that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there's an awful lot packed into one question there, David, and I’m not going to say that I blanket agree with that, given there are so many different points that that were made and claims that were made there. Australia's made our position clear. We don't have to run around the world saying we agree with the position of any other country. We state our position in relation to Australia's sovereign national policy positions, foreign policy, and trade policy positions; that's our job.

Now, I note that we have identified very clearly that we have concerns with the way in which China's engaged in terms of addressing issues such as intellectual property protection and that we want to see those issues dealt with. We've also been critical of the US in terms of the application of unilateral tariff measures and the way in which they are blocking proper functioning processes around appeals and dispute resolution at the World Trade Organization. And that's Australia's job: to speak up for our values and our approach to international rule of law.

David Speers: You did this last night, a speech you gave, the Alfred Deakin Institute Oration. You talked about how far we've come since the protectionist days of Alfred Deakin, describing Australia now in 2019 as the poster child for openness. You are, rightly, a strong believer in open trade. What then did you make of Donald Trump also saying to the UN: the future does not belong to globalists, the future belongs to patriots?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the world is a world in which we are going to have to continue to work constructively across nations and across national barriers, and Australia has demonstrated enormous success in doing that. We will always stand up for Australian interests, just as I would expect the United States to stand up for American interests and other nations to do likewise.

But our approach is also one of recognising we want to see growth in our region. Our region is the economic miracle of our lifetimes — to have seen so many people across so many countries lifted out of poverty — it's not just China but other countries in our region — and we want to see that continue across the 10 ASEAN countries and we want to see that continue across our Pacific Island neighbours and we stand as a very strong partner wanting to engage with them to facilitate their continued growth and development and partnership and friendship within our region, as we do across the globe.

David Speers: Just a couple of other matters briefly: the free trade agreement with Indonesia. Some of the crossbenchers — Pauline Hanson, Centre Alliance — a bit worried about what it might mean in terms of allowing up to 5000 Indonesian temporary workers to come into Australia. Can you just clarify for us, and I guess for them — is that what this free trade deal will do?

Simon Birmingham: With pleasure, David. And no, it's not. These are working holiday maker visas, so they're the same type of working holiday maker visas that exist and have long existed out of parts of Europe and elsewhere around the world. Working holiday makers are prescribed that they are workers between the ages of 18 and 30, it's a 12-month visa. And our proven track record in relation to people who travel on these visas is that they spend more in Australia than they earn — they come here genuinely as young holiday makers who travel around Australia. We've increasingly been gearing the conditions of these visas so that people are encouraged to work in regional Australia, and that's providing great benefits in those regional communities, whether it's in areas of agriculture-

David Speers: And in fact there's been quite an increase of people taking that up.

Simon Birmingham: Well, actually we've seen some decreases in parts of the world, and so- what we have seen an increase, though, and what David Coleman and I were out celebrating today, is the number of those taking up those regional incentives. So yes, parts of the world have seen a bit of a downturn in our working holiday makers, and I would say to the Senate crossbench and the Labor Party and the unions: Australia's tourism industry and many other parts of our regional workforce have been worried about a downturn in working holiday makers. This is an opportunity to address that because they spend up — they’re worth an estimated $3 billion plus to the Australian tourism industry at present — and whilst here, they also perform some important seasonal work that is only really available in certain regions at certain times, and so a mobile workforce like young working holiday makers is a really critical one for those industries.

David Speers: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this afternoon. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much, David.

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