Joint press conference, Canberra

  • Joint transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s relationship with Latvia; Russia’s war on Ukraine; EU Australia Free Trade Agreement; Cross-Strait tensions; Australia’s relationship with China.

Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thanks very much. Can I acknowledge the Foreign Minister of Latvia, Minister Rinkēvičs, and thank him very much for a very productive and warm discussion. I might just say a couple of words before I invite him to make any statement he wishes to.

Australia and Latvia are two nations which are fiercely democratic and fully committed to peace. We both respect human rights, sovereignty, and the rule of law. And as was emphasised today in our discussion, we understand at this time how important it is for like-minded nations to work together if we're going to deliver for our people and for our regions. Obviously, both the previous Government and this Government are committed to holding Russia to account for its illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine, and I know Latvia is similarly committed to that objective.

As I expressed to the Minister, I'm also really pleased our bilateral partnership continues to grow and we have a Latvian embassy opening in Canberra, which we're very pleased about. I was saying to the Minister that we're very proud that we have the first Latvian embassy in the southern hemisphere here in Australia. So that's a testament to the strength of the relationship.

Obviously, one of the things that really defines Australia's identity or the reality of modern Australia in the world, is the reality of so many ancestries and heritages represented in our country, and I know the Minister has been engaging with many Australians of Latvian heritage and communities, particularly in Sydney, Melbourne and, of course, Adelaide.

We spoke about many issues of common interest, and I am really grateful that the Minister has made the very long journey to come to Australia as a guest of the Australian Government and I look forward to continuing our work together. So, Minister, if you would like to say a few words.

Edgars Rinkēvičs, Latvian Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you very much Minister and thank you for excellent hospitality and really interesting and productive discussions that we had this morning. Indeed, I want to say that it was an honour and pleasure to officially open the Latvian embassy to Australia and also to meet with the Latvian community here in Australia to discuss issues of how we can further strengthen the links between Latvia and our community. But when it comes to the subjects that we have discussed first of all, let me acknowledge very strong political and economic cooperation between Latvia and Australia. Also, we are very like‑minded nations in international organisations. I was particularly pleased that last year Latvia and Australia were both co-sponsoring UN General Assembly resolution on disinformation, the first UN document of the kind.

I'm also very pleased that Australia will be sending very soon its experts to NATO Centre of Excellence and Strategic Communications because what we feel is that democracies — and Latvia and Australia are both democracies — are now challenged by authoritarian regimes. We must analyse, we must work out strategies how to counter propaganda, how to counter disinformation from dictatorships, from authoritarian regions.

When it comes to Ukraine, I think that both of us acknowledge the necessity to continue to support Ukraine in any way we can. Latvia has been providing military, financial, humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. We believe that we must continue doing that, and actually, the western world must increase military assistance because, as we see, unfortunately, Russia is continuing its aggression. I also advocate for tougher sanctions on Russia when it comes to the European Union, not only the European Union but also like-minded nations. We have just made a decision to completely halt issuing any kind of visas. We already did that with tourist visas; I think that European Union must follow that suit. And also, we are working now, within European Union on issues that are related to confiscating Russian Government assets that have been frozen as part of consequences and giving that money to Ukraine for reconstruction.

So those are things that we are sharing. But I was also very interested discussing and sharing perspectives on the situation in the Pacific region where we very much hear the Australian position on the need to work to have more peaceful and stable region. We were discussing, of course, the latest developments also when it comes to the Chinese actions, and I do hope that we will be able to regularly exchange those views.

I just want to finish by saying that as a member of the European Union, Latvia is also very interested and will do its best to promote the EU‑Australia Free Trade Agreement. I think that it's high time to finalise negotiations and to sign this agreement as soon as possible. Of course, there are some outstanding issues but I very much trust that the European Commission and responsible Australian Government officials will find a way and will be able to soon also have better trade relations than we have now.

Foreign Minister Wong: Can I first respond to the very generous indication that the Minister has just given to Australians, which is to help us in the negotiation of the EU Free Trade Agreement. We thank him for that. We thank Latvia for their support.

I know you have all got very many questions. I think that generally we need two per side. I am really conscious of the issues that are running, and I will try and give you the best I can in terms of a response to them. Would you like to go to the Minister first? There you go. Excellent! He's been a Foreign Minister, was it 11 years?

Foreign Minister Rinkēvičs: Over 11 years.

Foreign Minister Wong: Yes, and I think I've been for 11 weeks, so I maybe you should go for him first!

Journalist: I believe you called for Russia to be granted a terrorist state and President Zelenskyy said the same remarks when addressing Australian students here last week. Is this something you discussed with our Foreign Minister and, practically, what would that mean for Russia, for countries that do it; and then, Foreign Minister, if I might, while I have the call…

Foreign Minister Wong: Does this count as one of the two?

Journalist: This is one organisation…

Foreign Minister Wong: Did Marise Payne let you do that?

Journalist: Yes.

Foreign Minister Wong: No. Are you fibbing? You might be fibbing.

Journalist: You're meeting — sorry, you're meeting with the Deputy Secretary of State later this afternoon., China's criticised Australia for being puppets on the US. How are we developing our foreign policy independently of Washington?

Foreign Minister Rinkēvičs: I got easier question, I believe. But yes indeed, I have called publicly and also I am going to do that when EU Foreign Ministers meet next time at the end of August in Prague — at an informal gathering being, under the Czech President, that we need to follow the call of President Zelenskyy and we need to label Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism for two reasons; we have seen all the atrocities that Russian forces have committed, not only in Bucha and around but also those atrocities are ongoing. We see that Russia signs the agreement with the UN and Ukraine about grain export and immediately missiles are flying. We see also the rhetoric from Russian diplomats that are resembling the worst examples in their history. And it's interesting that the US has a well-developed legal framework for labelling states sponsor of terrorism.

In the EU, we do not have that. But I believe in the EU we must develop such kind of framework and basically, I would say that at least I would propose, we have been talking about that recently — two elements; one is complete ban on issuing visas to the Russian citizens. Some would argue that this is wrong because there are some democratic forces or some civil society representatives that should leave. I believe that all of those who have been persecuted, they have been already either in prison or abroad. And I think that we need to make very clearly to the Russian society that while they are supporting that war, they are not welcome in Europe or in any parts of civilised world. Second, it is confiscation of Russian Government assets, Russian Central Bank assets that have been seized as part of sanctions. I think also that this is very important step.

The third, we do talk a lot about investigations of atrocities. We now speak about possibility of creating a special tribunal. Some people argue that it should be under the UN auspices, some say that there is a need for a legal kind of specific legal framework. I also believe that if we label Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, then at that point it is also easier to work out those details on how we investigate, prosecute and eventually have court proceedings against those officials who are directly responsible for waging aggressive war, and in our international legal framework, we have International Criminal Court, we have International Court of Justice, but the crime of aggression actually does not fall under any responsibility of those courts. So, we need to address also those things, we need to address war crimes and genocide that is being committed by Russians against Ukraine. So that was the easy answer, so all yours.

Foreign Minister Wong: Mine will be shorter. This Government and Australia is always guided by our national interests.

Journalist: On China, there's been a lot of mixed messaging since the election, from the Chinese I should say, we had those initial overtures upon your election, you meeting your ministerial counterpart, Richard Marles meeting his ministerial counterpart, and now there is this barrage of rhetoric in the wake of Nancy Pelosi's visit. Where do you see the relationship at the moment? Is it better or worse than you inherited and more generally, speaking in the region — has some sort of line been crossed since the Pelosi visit in terms of the seriousness of the situation?

Foreign Minister Wong: Look, I'm not going to be drawn on some of the commentary you're inviting, but I would make some points which are important right now, and that is, I think what is most critical at the moment is that the temperature is lowered and calm is restored when it comes to Cross-Strait tensions. Australia continues to urge restraint. Australia continues to urge de‑escalation, and this is not, you know, something that solely Australia is calling for. The whole region is concerned about the current situation. The whole region is calling for stability to be restored. And if you look, as you know, I returned recently on Sunday morning from the East Asia Summit and you would have seen the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' statement as well as the Trilateral statement from Australia, Japan and the US, and others. The region is seeking that stability be restored. And I would emphasise the concerns that others have articulated, and that Australia has also expressed, are around, particularly the risks of escalating military activity, including the risk of miscalculation, and we would continue to urge restraint and de-escalation.

Journalist: Foreign Minister, your language, though, on restraint has been described as ‘absolutely unacceptable' from the Chinese embassy. It doesn't seem like you're trying to inflame it; you're saying everyone should be restrained. Their response is to say it's ‘absolutely unacceptable'. How can you deal with a country that's acting like that with these live-fire exercises and responses to you, like that? And, Foreign Minister, can you elaborate as well on your view about China's rising aggression in our region?

Foreign Minister Wong: Well, I think the first thing that I would again emphasise is that Australia is not the only country that is concerned about escalation. The region is concerned about escalation. The region is concerned about the risk of conflict. Now, Australia's national interests haven't changed. I have consistently made that clear both before and after the election. We will continue to, in a calm and considered way, articulate our national interest. And what I would say is that our interests, are the interests of the region and that is restraint and de‑escalation.

Foreign Minister Rinkēvičs: Well, I will try to respond very briefly. First of all, I very much join my colleague, Australian Minister in calling for restraint. But I think that what we see is that there is a kind of rising assertiveness of China not only in this part of the world but globally, also in our part of the region. And I think it is very important to understand that Chinese also are very carefully watching what is happening in Europe, what is happening in Ukraine, and I think the country adjusts its policies and also its stance in this part of the world. So, from that point of view, it is very important that we work together, and we provide the same kind of message of the need to have restraint, not to overreact in their actions and not to create another regional and global hot spot. So, in that case my views are very much aligned with Penny Wong. I hope that I will not get dressing down by Chinese embassy in Riga.

Journalist: I'm just wondering have you spoken to anyone in Taiwan or from the Taiwanese Government?

Foreign Minister Wong: In recent days?

Journalist: Yes.

Foreign Minister Wong: No, not as yet.

Journalist: Do you plan to you?

Foreign Minister Wong: Look, I think that, you know, we will continue to act in ways consistent with our longstanding bipartisan One China policy and I think our public statements are clear. Anything on this side?

Journalist: Minister, just on the Trilateral statement that you referred to with the US and Japan. Obviously, India wasn't a signatory to that statement. Are you able to…

Foreign Minister Wong: They're not part of the Trilateral.

Journalist: Correct, but a few analysts have noted the fact that there was no Quad statement on the situation. Was there any approach made to India to sort of formulate a joint position out of the Quad and have you had any discussions with your Indian counterpart, Minister Jaishankar about the situation?

Foreign Minister Wong: Well, obviously we engage closely with the Indian Government and I, as I think would you have seen from the readouts, had a meeting with Minister Jaishankar. I'm not going to go into all those details, but it's not unusual for a trilateral statement to be issued. They've been issued previously in the context of these sorts of summits, so I think this was the last question.

Journalist: Will you call in the Chinese Ambassador over this matter?

Foreign Minister Wong: I'll express my views publicly. If there's going to be discussion with the Ambassador, it would generally be at departmental level. Thank you.

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