Interview with Sarah Ferguson, ABC 7:30

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Prime Minister’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping; detention of Cheng Lei and Dr Yang Hengjun; trade sanctions; human rights violations in Xinjiang; Taiwan; relationship with China.

Sarah Ferguson, Host: Senator Penny Wong is the Foreign Affairs Minister. I spoke to her earlier. Penny Wong, welcome to the program.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good to be with you.

Ferguson: Why do you think President Xi is moving now to re-establish formal relations with the US and with Australia?

Foreign Minister: The first point I'd make is we welcome meeting between the Prime Minister and President Xi yesterday on the margins of the G20. It's a positive step, we welcome it. There are obviously many more steps to be taken.

In terms of the US and China, obviously that relationship is a particular relationship between great powers. They have had more engagement than Australia and China have over the last few years. I thought it looked a very constructive meeting between President Biden and President Xi, and if you look at President Biden's readout, where he talked about competition, not escalating into conflict, I think for all of us who want a peaceful region, that is a good thing.

Ferguson: Now we know that Chinese leaders choose their words very carefully. What did you make of Xi's statement that China's relationship with Australia deserves to be cherished?

Foreign Minister: Well, again, plenty of people will comment on or analyse what President Xi has said, but I think it's reasonable to talk about why we are meeting again and why this relationship does matter.

Ferguson: I don't want to interrupt, but I expect that you have a view…

Foreign Minister: You just did.

Ferguson: I expect that you have a view about Xi's approach towards Australia at the moment. It is a particularly – it's a phrase that stands out "deserves to be cherished". I am interested to know what you think about it?

Foreign Minister: What I was going to go on to say was one of the things I have spoken to Foreign Minister Wang Yi about and the Ambassador here has made clear is obviously this is a relationship which marks its 50 years in the coming months, and I gave a speech - there was an event in Sydney over the weekend which went to that.

I think the engagement with my Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has made clear that both sides value the longevity of that relationship. It was a big thing for Gough Whitlam to establish the diplomatic relationship. Our view is that we should continue to engage with China, we should cooperate where we can, we will disagree where we must, but we will engage in our national interests.

Ferguson: Let's try to understand that a bit better, because President Xi went on to say that the relationship with Australia stands at the forefront of China's relations with other developed countries. Did that phrase surprise you - "Australia at the forefront"?

Foreign Minister: Oh, look, there are a lot of things that we can parse or not parse in terms of what leaders and foreign ministers and ministers say. I think fundamentally what I have said to China is this, from day one, we believe it is in the interests of both countries for the relationship to be stabilised. We believe it is in the interests of both countries for trade impediments to be removed. And we will continue to say that. We have also said obviously that Australia will continue to assert our interests, continue to stand up for our values, just as China does.

Ferguson: He held meetings with a number of world leaders. How do you explain Xi's diplomatic blitz?

Foreign Minister: This is the first face-to-face leader-level summit for some time. It's unsurprising that President Xi would engage widely as President Biden has, but, of course, we know China - how China is in the world and we know how China sees itself in the world and obviously China is seeking, as a great power, to engage and express its interests, assert its interests, we know that. President Xi has articulated that quite clearly. I think we go into the engagement with China with a very clear eye about that, an understanding where our differences are, where our interest lies and thinking through how to manage those wisely.

Ferguson: Is it also China's economic outlook – it's challenging now. Can he no longer afford to alienate his key trading partners?

Foreign Minister: Well, as I said, you would have to ask someone about their analysis of it, but there is no doubt - I will go to the substance of your question, rather than the commentary point. You're right, the economic position that China is in is more challenging than it has been. Obviously COVID has affected all economies, including the Chinese economy and regrettably that's having an effect not only on their growth, but on global growth. We are seeing some of that flow through to what's happening in Australia and more broadly.

Ferguson: So what's next for Australia? Will you now go to Beijing?

Foreign Minister: I think the PM talked about that yesterday, responded to a similar question to that last night after meeting. He said look there will be further steps, agreed to further dialogue and we will take each step at a time and that's what we will do - we remain open to further engagement and dialogue.

Ferguson: But is it your hope that that will be achieved in the year ahead?

Foreign Minister: I think I'd go back to what I previously said because it probably isn't good to try and, you know, plan that ahead of time. I think what we have said, stabilise the relationship, continue to engage, express our view about our interests, our values, express our view that we should manage those differences wisely and that we remain open to further engagement.

Ferguson: Will the release of imprisoned dual Australian citizens Cheng Lei and Dr Yang be a condition of a visit to Beijing for you?

Foreign Minister: Well look, I think first I would say about Ms Cheng Lei and Dr Yang is they are our highest priorities. We raise their continued detention at all levels regularly. We continue to advocate for them being reunited with their families. We continue to provide consular assistance, and that remains our continued position.

Ferguson: Can I ask what the last exchange you had on that subject because I know the Chinese ambassador went so far as to acknowledge that there was something wrong with a mother not seeing her children. What's the last change you had about Cheng Lei and her family?

Foreign Minister: Yeah, I don't, and you'd understand this, Sarah, because we are obviously managing this very sensitive and really high priority set of issues in the context of a diplomatic engagement, so I won't give you word-for-word what's said in meeting, but I will say this to you: I think all Australians would be united in their call for Dr Yang and Ms Cheng Lei to be reunited with their families and I think Australians would be particularly aware of what it is for a mother to be away from her children and for children to be unable to engage or even be with their mother, and that at a human level is something we would all express.

Ferguson: How are you going to use this new momentum to persuade China to end its trade embargoes on seafood, wine, barley, coal and other products?

Foreign Minister: Look, ultimately it's up to China to make a decision about whether they believe those trade barriers are in their interests. We've said that we don't believe they are. We've said it is in the interests of both countries for those impediments to be removed. It is in interests of China to be able to consume and purchase those products and we think it is in the interests of Australia to be able to export those to China.

Ferguson: Now, to keep up that momentum that we're talking about with – you have a lot of things that you need to happen – to maintain that momentum, do you also need to lower the temperature of criticism of China over human rights in Hong Kong and in Xinjiang?

Foreign Minister: Before the election, I think I made clear what we would do and what I've tried to do, Sarah, is to keep faith with that. We've said there are differences. We have differences which will have to be managed by whoever is in government, and those differences go to our interests.

I believe in international law and international norms, but also to the issue of human rights, and whether it's China or any other country, we will hold true to our views about them, about the importance of human rights. We will continue to advocate for human rights. We will continue to do what we are able to do to promote and protect human rights in a world where, as you know, regrettably, not all countries share our values on these issues.

Ferguson: Notwithstanding, you used strong terms after the UN's report on Xinjiang was released. You described the stories therein as "harrowing". Will you have to...

Foreign Minister: They were. I will say it again. I think they were harrowing. I know that many Australians feel deeply about this. I know that the Uyghur community in Australia feel very deeply about this, and just as we express our view on human rights in relation to other countries, I think it is incumbent upon us to express our view on human rights in relation to Xinjiang.

The point you made about tone does matter. I don't believe Australia was made any safer, nor do I believe human rights were any more promoted because the previous Coalition government decided that playing domestic politics with the China relationship was sensible, and I am pleased to see that Senator Birmingham and Mr Dutton appear to be resiling from that approach.

Ferguson: I want to talk about President Biden and the situation with Taiwan. The meeting between President Xi and President Biden also appeared to lower the temperature on Taiwan and the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or a blockade. Do you read this as in any way as Xi stepping back from the brink?

Foreign Minister: Well, whoever is responsible, I think it is a good thing for the world that the temperature is being lowered. So what we have said and it is consistent with what President Biden said in his readout of the meeting, we support the status quo, we support peace and stability in the region, including in the Taiwan Strait. We do not support any unilateral change to the status quo, and that is what the world has lived with and what has enabled peace and stability in part, has enabled peace and stability in the region for a long time.

Ferguson: At the same time, China's policy towards Taiwan is unchanged. At the recent Congress, Xi was putting the military on an aggressive footing, he told them to step up their combat readiness. Could this new approach or this new language about Taiwan simply be about China buying time to secure military superiority over the US?

Foreign Minister: Look, on Taiwan, I am simply going to again state what our position is: support for the status quo, and with others seeking to ensure that there is no unilateral change to the status quo. Taiwan is a difficult issue, it has been for decades, that is why we have a one-China - a bipartisan one-China policy, it's why the US has taken the positions it's taken and the region has taken the position it's taken.

Ferguson: Finally, we seem to be on the cusp of a renewed diplomatic relationship with China. What could threaten that now?

Foreign Minister: I have always been cautious about the sort of terminology you just used - "renewal", "reset", et cetera, because it seems to me we have had a relationship for 50 years - it has been in a difficult place. The important way of thinking about it is to stabilise the relationship and seek to find a way of managing what will be ongoing differences at times.

There are differences we have to manage, different interests, different values, and I believe there is a way, if both countries make wise decisions to manage those differences in the context of a strong bilateral relationship. That will take time and it will take a fair degree of patience, I suspect.

Ferguson: Finally, how much a feather in the cap for the new Prime Minister is this meeting? After all, Xi went out of his way to say to Mr Albanese, "I attach great importance to your opinion."

Foreign Minister: Look, I think it was very welcomed, the meeting, not just for the Prime Minister, but for the country, because it is a good thing if we are able to engage in dialogue, there's a long way to go, but it was a positive and welcome step.

Ferguson: Penny Wong, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you, Sarah.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555