Address to Australia China Business Council
Thank you very much Warwick [Smith]. It is a great pleasure to be here today. I do congratulate you in proceeding with this event today notwithstanding the challenges that COVID-19 are posing on us all.
Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which I am this morning for this meeting, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. And I also acknowledge those many Australians who are currently facing real and significant challenges due to the pressures that the Delta variant of COVID-19 is causing for us at the moment in our country. I want to acknowledge my parliamentary colleagues who have participated in today’s proceedings, particularly my friend, colleague and portfolio partner, the Honourable Dan Tehan, our Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment; the Leader of the Opposition, the Honourable Anthony Albanese; the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Penny Wong; and, of course, the Shadow Minister for Trade, Madeleine King. Thank you to the ACBC, the CEO Michael Clifton, to Chair David Olsen, and to Warwick for the invitation to be here today. And this is a very important discussion and an important gathering. I know that Pru Bennett is also there amongst your online team, and I want to thank Pru also for her leadership of the foundation – a very important role with her fellow board members that we value greatly.
Colleagues, the importance of Australia’s relationship with China, I think, is evidenced by the high level of engagement with today’s Canberra Networking Day. I want to state very clearly that the enduring business and personal community ties are central to the Australia-China relationship. Australians across our community, not just in business, are proud to have supported the development of the Chinese economy, the lift in living standards for hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. I’ve seen this myself in visits to China over the years.
It’s been advantageous for our economy and for the Indo-Pacific region. We cooperate on a range of challenges from countering drug trafficking and human trafficking, to dialogues on everything from health to development assistance. Close collaboration and cooperation with Chinese authorities was critical for the assisted departure of Australians from Wuhan early last year.
We share membership of key international fora, such as the G20 and APEC, where cooperation is in our shared interests. Indeed, last night I participated in the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers meeting with my Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and recently, similarly, in the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting. And tomorrow I will again join counterparts, including China, including State Counsellor Wang Yi, in the ASEAN Regional Forum.
This is a complex relationship which is inevitably changing, and it will continue to change. There are challenges arising from the much greater role that China is now playing in global affairs. China’s outlook and the nature of China’s external engagement both in our region and globally has changed. China does take a much more assertive approach in our region, reflecting a strong trajectory of growth it has struck in recent decades.
Many countries in the world are responding to these shifting dynamics, accelerated by this once-in-a-century global pandemic and to the challenges China has presented to the agreed rules and norms that have underpinned our security and prosperity for so long.
As Australia engages and responds, we take our national interests as the starting point – always. We make decisions to advance our security, our economic wellbeing, our social cohesion, consistent with our interests and our values. We are clear, consistent, and confident about the positions that we take. Our focus is on building a stable, secure, prosperous, and open Indo-Pacific based on cooperation between sovereign resilient states.
Australia is following a clear strategy informed by clear objectives and principles. In working with China, we seek a relationship that serves the interests of both countries in which each respects the other’s interests, consistent with our values and our sovereignty. Our relationship with China will continue to be based on four key principles: a commitment to open markets with trade relationships based on rules; protecting our sovereignty, strengthening democratic institutions and processes, and building resilience to coercion; respect for international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes; supporting a strong and resilient regional architecture.
But with economic rise comes broader strategic responsibility. Where we do raise certain behaviours or challenges to long-agreed rules, that does not mean we are anti-China or anti any other country. It means we want all countries to operate by the rules that protect our shared interests and those of all countries, large and small, that accept that a system based on rules allows competition that’s based on a level playing field.
As members of the business community, I know that you understand and appreciate the enormous value of healthy competition. Your role is crucial—collaborating and competing strongly and fairly and hopefully in both countries’ interests.
We, for example, do not think that China’s measures on our wine and barley are consistent with those rules, which is why we are taking appropriate action through the World Trade Organisation. Nor do we share the assessments that lie behind China’s initiation of WTO action against Australia on certain products such as stainless-steel sinks, railway wheels, wind towers. Though we want to work constructively – as we do with others – within the international system to try to resolve these questions.
When it is in our interests to do so, we will call out malicious cyber activity that can and does undermine Australian businesses and Australian security and give advantages to China. We will not resile from speaking with conviction and consistency about human rights or the undermining of democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong, a key international financial centre of great importance to the Australian business community for decades.
In seeking a relationship with China that works in the interests of both countries, we will stand firm to protect our sovereignty, our rules and principles. They’re not matters on which Australia will compromise, as the Prime Minister has made clear. We will stand by those international rules that keep us all safe and protect the interests of all states, no matter their size, their strength or their economic weight. We’ll stand by international institutions that protect the human rights of every individual, with equal emphasis on political, social, civil and economic rights and freedoms.
We’ve been advised by China that they will only engage in high-level dialogue if we meet certain conditions. Australia places no conditions on dialogue. We can’t meet the conditions such as the now well-known list of 14 grievances raised in the media last year. As the Prime Minister has said, indeed, no country would do that. But dialogue is not an end unto itself; it is a means to an end. And so we will continue to look for a constructive path forward, working with China where we are able to as a partner.
And in this endeavour, we are particularly strengthened in this country by our Australian-Chinese community. People-to-people ties have given vitality to our relationship for decades, as you, Warwick, particularly, and others on the panel in this session today know well. The Government places enormous value on the contribution that the 1.2 million-strong Australian-Chinese community has made to our nation, and not least, most recently, throughout the COVID crisis.
We will get through this pandemic staying true to our position as the world’s most successful multicultural society. We will continue to welcome students and visitors from all over the world, as we have for decades, when the COVID situation permits, including from China.
Australia has demonstrated goodwill and an appetite to invest in the relationship, including through the establishment by this Government of the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, building on the success, as Warwick Smith particularly knows, in the previous Australia-China Council, to which he made a very significant contribution. The foundation’s programs and grants are supporting cooperation across a very wide range of fields, including cooperation on emissions technologies, strengthening engagement in the health and ageing sectors, scientific exchanges and engagement with Australia’s diverse Chinese communities and international students. In the inaugural grants round we provided 26 grants of just over $4 million.
The foundation’s work with business is critical to its mandate of supporting practical engagement and connections with China. That includes work with the ACBC on industry summits, including those recent events on education and agribusiness, upcoming summits on health and innovation as well as your close engagement with the Business Council of Australia. The foundation will complement my department’s ongoing engagement with an advocacy for business working in close cooperation with agencies across government.
As I said, I am very pleased to know that the foundation’s chair, Pru Bennett, is here today and will be moderating the next session, including the session on climate change, a core global challenge that will require all major economies to take action to meet their commitments and transparently.
Ladies and gentlemen, we remain open – genuinely open – to dialogue with China, to discussing differences and to working through issues. We have made that clear to China on many occasions. As we do so, we appreciate sincerely the efforts that the business community makes in the same vein. Thank you for what you do in the work that you do and in your engagements in the building of this relationship.
Warwick, thank you very much for the opportunity to speak today.