Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News Australia

  • Transcript
Subjects: Australia’s relations with China and other countries
16 June 2021

Kieran Gilbert: Foreign Minister Marise Payne, thanks for your time. The US President said: I think we're in a contest, not with China per say, but with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century. Do you agree with his assessment after the G7?

Marise Payne: I think it's a fair assessment and I think it is reflected in what Australia and many of our like-minded counterparts around the world have been pursuing for some time now. We have to show the practical side of democracy, the value of democracy, and show that to the world, and the G7+ meeting has been a valuable example of that. The opportunity that I had to participate in the forerun meetings in London last month also demonstrated that. The working relationships are getting closer and closer. They're getting deeper in terms of perhaps the traditional groupings that we know well, but also seeing the formation of more contemporary groupings. The Quad is a good example of that. Some of the trilateral relationships like Australia, India, France also reflect that, the creativity that some of the democracies are bringing to these conversations.

Kieran Gilbert: And when you say you've got to show the practical example of what the democracy or not the model of liberal democracies provide, is that part of that approach in terms of that 'Build Back Better World' that the G7 put up? Is that basically a counter to the Chinese model of Belt and Road?

Marise Payne: I think it's about demonstrating to the developing world and demonstrating to our partners that we are reliable, transparent, and accountable partners. And infrastructure is a very good place to start. It's reinforced in our own region by what we are doing with the Australia Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific. And today, I just participated virtually in the signing ceremony for the Tina River Hydropower Transmission Project in the Solomon Islands. That's a really good demonstration of practical contributions that are responsive to the countries in which we are engaging, with whom we are working, that reflect their needs and their priorities. And that we know will continue to serve them in the decades ahead in the way they need them to.

Kieran Gilbert: It's so important to stump up the cash, though, isn't it? It's fine to have that model, as we heard out of the G7, but then it's the challenge for those nations is to then deliver. Because you're talking about trillions of dollars needed to fill the infrastructure gap in the developing world and if they don't stump up, well China fills that void completely.

Marise Payne: And in our region alone, we know that the infrastructure gap is enormous. The ADB has made that assessment and it's tens of billions of dollars over the years to 2030. So part of what we do, whether it's through loans or grants through the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility, is important in that regard, and the contribution in the Solomon Islands is testament to that. But we also, for example, and to go to that concept of new and contemporary partnerships, if you like, we also have a trilateral infrastructure partnership between the United States and Japan and Australia that delivered the submarine cable to Palau, which we finalised last year, again, at an in-person meeting of the Quad Foreign Ministers in Japan. So, bringing together like-minded countries in new and unique groupings has a very powerful effect in terms of what we're able to deliver.

Kieran Gilbert: Have you noticed a shift in the consensus, international consensus, when it comes to the need to deal with what the president called those countries- those not China, but autocrats is how he puts it, although obviously we're talking in this region largely about China. Have you noticed a shift in the consensus?

Marise Payne: I think what we have seen recently, whether it's the commentary out of the G7 and the G7+ meeting, whether it's the observations made by NATO this week, is a commitment, a realisation in terms of the importance of reiterating the values of the democratic processes. Freedom, the rule of law, respect for human rights, equality, those sorts of fundamentals which we hold dear in our democracy, which are absolutely predicated within our national interests, and also within our national security, frankly. That concept is being reiterated through all of these groupings and I think it is a very powerful message to the international community and to those who would seek to use undermining actions or tactics, and there's plenty more than one country involved in this. To those who would seek to do that, the world will actually stand and stand on our values and promote and advocate for those values.

Kieran Gilbert: NATO, as you alluded to, described China as a systemic challenge, but not all the European leaders are convinced it should be their focus. Angela Merkel said that she didn't want to see the challenge overstated or overestimate the danger is the way she put it. And then the French leader said NATO is a North Atlantic organisation. China has nothing to do with it. We shouldn't bias our relationship with China. It's much larger than just military. So, there are still some leaders of liberal democracies who aren't yet convinced about the need to push back.

Marise Payne: I respect their opinions, of course, and we all come to this with different perspectives. We come to this with a particular geographic perspective that sees Australia perhaps at the front and centre of the geostrategic challenge of the Indo-Pacific. And as a result of that, it does give us a unique view that we are able to share. And one of the reasons why it has been so valuable to be part of the G7+ – so there with India and with the Republic of Korea and with South Africa – is to articulate these views around those tables and to convey those concerns. We're not a member of NATO, obviously, we're an enhanced opportunity partner of NATO, and we've had very, very strong relationships across the years. But one of the things that we are able to bring is that geographic perspective that perhaps slightly grows the conversation.

Kieran Gilbert: Boris Johnson says he was critical of China in terms of human rights, the human rights record and so on. But he said, “On behalf of Scott – I think I speak on behalf of Scott – when I say no one wants to descend into a new Cold War with China.” Does he speak on behalf of the Morrison government as well in that sense?

Marise Payne: Well, we speak on behalf of ourselves, but we welcome the support of friends and allies. But it is absolutely true that we want to pursue constructive engagement and constructive relationships. I think the Australian people expect us to stand up for our national interests, to prosecute the case for Australia's national interests, but also to seek, as we consistently do, to have constructive relationships with all of our neighbours, including with China.

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] Is a Cold War [indistinct]?

Marise Payne: I don't think it's useful, necessarily, to use the Cold War as a metaphor here. It's 2021. We are in a very different world. What we have to, I think, recognise and appreciate is that with enormous growth and with enormous development for which China receives great credit, as they should, also come responsibilities – responsibilities about how you operate in the international environment, about respect for the international rules which have been developed over decades and which we are all expected to observe and to engage in support of. So that challenge is one which we recognise. But we have been very careful, very consistent in articulating our position. We encourage and want a constructive relationship. But ultimately we will always stand up for Australia's national interests first.

Kieran Gilbert: Do you think we can learn something from the Singapore Prime Minister who said, alongside our PM again in these recent talks, you have to be able to work on the basis that you don't have to become like them. Neither can you hope to make them like you. That- this is a big world in which there are different countries and work with others who are not completely like-minded. Can we learn something from the Singapore PM in terms of his approach?

Marise Payne: Well, I think we actually always do that with countries around the world. We will not always agree on everything. In fact, we don't always agree on everything with our closest friends, let alone countries with whom we have very significant differences in government or in approach on issues. So importantly, we have to make sure, I think, as we participate in the international construct of big world that Prime Minister Lee has referred to, that we are advocating for Australia's values and Australia's national interests. But we are also reminding, I think, ourselves and our partners that the rules-based global order, that the values which have underpinned that for decades, have enabled the world to build the sort of prosperity that we see now in so many ways, and that we have invested in them over decades for good reason. They have given us security and they have given us stability.

Kieran Gilbert: On that, that world order you speak of – a big part of that has been the alliance structure. And Joe Biden is a traditionalist. He supports alliances, unlike his predecessor, Mr Trump, who was America first. Sometimes that meant America alone. Now, President Biden – very much supportive of alliances. Has that bolstered your government's forward-leaning policy when it comes to China?

Marise Payne: We've had very good engagement with the United States. And certainly, my visit to Washington last month, also with a full opportunity right across the administration to engage on these key issues, has really reinforced those shared interests. And for us, whether it's in the national security environment, whether it's with the Secretary of State and other senior officials, that's been a very important opportunity. And I know other colleagues are engaging here in Australia, are engaging with their counterparts as well. What the United States has been clear about – and in fact, many of the issues that I used to work on with Secretary Pompeo during his period as Secretary of State – what the United States has indicated is their strong commitment to engage and to advocate on the important values that bring us to the table together, indispensable alliance between the US and Australia. We've heard very strong messages from the US and we certainly welcome those.

Kieran Gilbert: There is a huge difference, isn't there, between the Biden approach and the more transactional approach of Donald Trump?

Marise Payne: Well, we expect differences in governments all around the world as they're elected from time to time.

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] Pretty stark one though, this one.

Marise Payne: That's the way we work.

Kieran Gilbert: Do you feel vindicated by the G7's call for another probe into the origins of COVID-19 and in China as well, given you're the one who went out first calling for investigation?

Mairse Payne: Well, Australia has been, as you say, consistent and extremely clear about the imperative of this investigation and for one very important reason: that a pandemic of this nature does not happen again. That's what the Prime Minister has reinforced and that's what I have reinforced. I absolutely welcome the G7's focus on this and also the observations that have been made in recent months since we saw the first report, and since the report of the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which of course, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has led with Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. What we've seen since those reports have been released is that we do need to continue to ensure that access and appropriate room for the analysis and research that is required is provided, including in China, to ensure that we are never repeating this pandemic again.

Kieran Gilbert: And do you feel vindicated by some of these developments?

Marise Payne: I don't seek vindication. I seek an outcome. And Australia seeks an outcome in terms of understanding for the world how we can prevent such an occurrence again. I think even the Director-General of the WHO, Dr Tedros, has reinforced the need for that access to information, for that access and material in an appropriate and scientific way as well.

Kieran Gilbert: One of the criticisms at the time was that you went out first and without the support of like-minded nations, allies. That's subsequently come. Should it have gone the other – should you have done it the other way around? Have waited for the support and then made the call?

Marise Payne: Well, I've engaged in a number of discussions on this, of course, in the last year. And we know that in Geneva, for example, amongst like-mindeds where the WHO and the World Health Assembly are based and do their work, this had been discussed amongst like-mindeds prior to that, including with the development of the World …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Prior to your initial statement?

Marise Payne: That's right. Including with the development of the World Health Assembly resolution. But what this reinforces for me is the shared interest that the globe has from the world's smallest developing nations to the world's largest economies in ensuring that this never, ever happens again.

Kieran Gilbert: On the UK FTA, why in your mind, as Foreign Minister, is that a positive? Obviously, in dollar terms, yes. But you're not the Treasurer. Why as Foreign Minister and in a, I guess, a broader view, is this a win?

Marise Payne: Well, I think it's a profound message about the importance of the Australia-UK relationship. This is the United Kingdom's first free trade agreement that they have made since leaving the EU. So, there is that. But there is also the vast history between the United Kingdom and Australia that underpins the bringing together of this Free Trade Agreement. Since Brexit, trade ministers, including Minister Birmingham and now Minister Tehan, have worked extraordinarily hard with our quality negotiating teams on bringing the right agreement for Australia, the right issues focussed on in the agreement for Australia. And I'm very proud of the fact that my Prime Minister and Prime Minister Johnson have been able to announce that today. We will see the benefits to Australian producers, particularly across some of the key agricultural areas, including sugar, including beef and sheep meat and dairy, come to Australia and that will help us create jobs. It will help us in COVID recovery. It's a very, very strong agreement.

Kieran Gilbert: And do you think it's good to go to those sort of traditional markets to give more certainty in an uncertain world?

Marise Payne: Well, we have a strong focus on diversification. And one of the things that has seen us join, for example, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the RCEP, which has seen us ink agreements with Indonesia, including the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and with a number of our other partners, has been all about diversifying that engagement. When I speak to producers in Australia and manufacturers in Australia, producers of all sorts, their focus is on looking at markets right across the world. They are very, very forward-leaning, very enthusiastic in terms of their interest in doing that. And my posts, interestingly, of course, tell me the same. There is great interest in Australian business and Australian engagement.

Kieran Gilbert: You have to get to Parliament but just one last question on the issue of climate change. Boris Johnson, he wants greater ambition, he said so alongside our Prime Minister. All the G7 nations are committed to net zero by 2050. Will Australia be able to sit around that table and provide the ambition that the British PM wants?

Marise Payne: Well, I think the outcomes of the G7+ meeting are absolutely evidence that we can more than sit around the table. It's been a very constructive set of engagements for the Prime Minister in the UK and more broadly, of course, he's been in France as well and went to Europe via Singapore. Out of these visits, we have finalised the agreements on low emissions technology agreements with Singapore, with Japan and with Germany. They're very strong messages about Australia's priorities but they're shared priorities. They're shared priorities with those nations. We will meet and beat our 2030 targets.

Kieran Gilbert: And more ambition?

Marise Payne: We'll meet and beat our 2030 targets. And our absolute focus is making sure that we can achieve net zero as soon as possible and preferably by 2020 [sic]. But what the meetings that we have just been engaged in, both the ones I engaged in, in May, and the ones the Prime Minister has just done, are all about Australia being able to be at the table and talk about our achievements and our contribution.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, I appreciate your time as always. Thanks so much.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Kieran.

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