Interview with Neil Mitchell 3AW, Mornings

  • Transcript
Subjects: Belt and Road Agreement; Australia-China Relationship; Discussions with New Zealand
22 April 2021

Neil Mitchell: Okay. Marise Payne is the Foreign Minister. I said she is in New Zealand. They made the decision last night or announced it last night to kill off Belt and Road. They also undid deals with Syria and Iran. I must admit, this interview frustrated me a bit. We're told this is massively important and could hurt. China says it will hurt. Nobody'll say where or how. We'll have advice on this after nine o'clock. But here is the Minister, I spoke to her in New Zealand.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Neil.

Neil Mitchell: Okay. There's going to be a lot of pain for Victoria and Australia out of this decision. In very simple terms, why was it necessary? Why was Belt and Road dangerous or bad?

Marise Payne: Neil, what the Foreign Relations Act is aimed at is actually prioritising Australia's national interest, in ensuring that we have consistency across our foreign relations. Ensuring that arrangements that the states and territories enter into, overwhelmingly, with good intent, are indeed in Australia's national interest. So, what we have determined after reviewing this process is that these arrangements in particular, and two others – one with Syria and one with Iran, are not in Australia's national interests. It's not related to any one country. As I said, this concerns a number of countries and these are the first of a series of announcements.

Neil Mitchell: Why and how are they not in Australia's interests. What is the danger? What is the damage? Why are they not in the country's interest?

Marise Payne: So, Neil, the programs that we're talking about are development programs or programs of another country. They may have a purpose for that other country, but that does not mean it's in Australia's national interest to engage with it in an unconditional or overarching way, as these agreements might be said to do. Now, we don't actually go into the broad or the depth of the detail, I should say, because that's not necessarily either conducive to how we deal with national security issues. But I can say that these have been very seriously considered, are very seriously examined, and these small number of arrangements have been terminated.

Neil Mitchell: Look, I understand the sensitivities, at a level diplomacy and relations between the countries. But people in Victoria looking at, okay, here's a deal that the government told us is going to create jobs, create economic growth, and it's gone. There's going to be some pain. How was China going to benefit from Belt and Road at our expense?

Marise Payne: Well, Neil, that's obviously a matter ultimately for China, not necessarily for me…

Neil Mitchell: [Talks over] Oh yeah, but you must have made the decision. I mean-

Marise Payne: … or for Australia.

Neil Mitchell: But you must have made the decision because you've overruled it. You must have said, well China's going to benefit in this way, it's not in our interest. In what way?

Marise Payne: Well, Neil, I still think that that is a matter for them. Our focus, absolutely, our focus is on our national interest, our sovereignty and our national security, no matter which country it relates to. In this case, with the arrangements with which Victoria has been engaged, it doesn't just relate to China. There are other arrangements, as I said, in relation to both Syria and Iran, which we have also undertaken to terminate.

Neil Mitchell: Is this the price of principles? I mean, we see the digital dictatorship, we see the treatment of the Uighurs and we see all these awful things which I know you won't go into for the reasons you already explained. But we're standing on principle here as well. China thinks differently to this country; it has a different set of morality to this country. Is this the price of principles, whatever pain we cop?

Marise Payne: Well, I think that we need to be clear eyed about what Australia's national interests are and what Australia's priorities are. I think we have consistently welcomed China's growth, I'm sorry, as a major economic partner. And it's been good for our economy. It's been good for the global economy. But that does not mean that we do that without any focus on our own national interest. We've acknowledged that we want to have a constructive and open relationship. We are very open to that engagement and we look forward to that progressing with China as well. But at the same time, Australians would expect and I'm sure that your listeners would expect, that the steps that we take are focussed on Australia's national interests and priorities, based on our values and our democratic processes, and that we respond accordingly.

Neil Mitchell: So how is it in breach of our national interests?

Marise Payne: Well, again, we want to make sure that undertakings are consistent with our foreign relations. It's been the Federal Government's long-standing position not to sign an overarching Belt and Road agreement. And we instead have suggested that we would engage on a case by case basis with specific projects that meet our own investment principles. But the arrangements entered into by a state, in this case Victoria, are not deemed to be, under the Act, consistent with Australia's foreign policy and Australia's foreign relations priority.

Neil Mitchell: Okay. Has the Victorian Government responded to your decision yet?

Marise Payne: I understand there has been a brief public statement made by the Acting Premier, but we have been engaged with the Government – both through conversations through my Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, working very closely. And I want to acknowledge the constructive approach states and territories, obviously including Victoria, have certainly taken in this process of evaluation - they've been very, very, very constructive.

Neil Mitchell: The Chinese officials here have said this will hurt Australia. It is a provocative and unreasonable thing to do. How do you see? What is the potential for it hurting Australia?

Marise Payne: Well, I do reject the premise of the comments made by the Chinese representatives in Australia. This is a decision made by Australia based on our national interests. And any country focussed on its own sovereignty and dealing with its own priorities would, of course, act in accordance with their own national interests. That's what we have done. And I hope that if there are specific issues that the Chinese authorities wish to raise with us, that they will do so directly. We are certainly open to those conversations and have consistently said so. We've also been very consistent, and very considered, in our engagement on these issues and we'll continue to do that.

Neil Mitchell: But will it hurt Australia? Will, in the end, China pay Australia back? Will it hurt Australia? And if so, how?

Marise Payne: I can't speak to the actions of China in response, but I would encourage China and other countries as well. As I said, a thousand agreements provided to the Commonwealth for evaluation under the Foreign Arrangements Scheme. I would encourage all countries who have arrangements engaged in that process, to consider them in light of the legislation that the Government has enacted, the focus that we have on our national interest, and to come to us directly if there are any concerns. There are, of course, also processes available for states and territories who are entering into new agreements, to bring those to the Government. We'll consider those constructively. And in fact, we have started that process now.

Neil Mitchell: Thanks so much for your time. I know you're in New Zealand. They've been very supportive of China and on these sort of debates. You going to raise it with the Kiwis?

Marise Payne: We'll have very broad ranging discussions today, Neil. But I can say one thing, there's a lot of Australians who've come to New Zealand in the past few days. There's great appetite for engagement between the two countries, and it's absolutely fabulous to see it happening here in Wellington.

Neil Mitchell: It is a great country. Thank you so much for your time.

Marise Payne: Thank you, Neil.

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