TV interview with Christiane Amanpour, CNN, New York

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Russia-China Relations; UN Charter; AUKUS; Taiwan; Climate; First Nations foreign policy.

Christiane Amanpour, Host: Welcome to the programme, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour at the United Nations in New York. "A sham." That's what Ukrainian and other Western officials are calling the so-called referendums underway in four occupied regions of Ukraine on whether or not to become part of Russia. There are reports of coercion and threats and ballots are being delivered to people's houses. That means under duress, and the votes are expected to pave the way for annexation of large chunks of the territory. Crucially, this could allow President Putin to claim that the Western alliance is in direct confrontation with his country. And it all comes as Russians are fleeing their own country by land and by air, in droves, after the Kremlin ordered hundreds of thousands of reservists to join the fight. Just look at these lines that are border crossing with neighbouring Kazakhstan. And Finland, which has reported at least a 57% uptake in Russians entering the country this week. Now, the Australian Foreign Minister says that her government is considering expelling the Russian ambassador over Putin's nuclear threats. Penny Wong also says that she's encouraged her Chinese counterpart to help end the conflict in Ukraine when she met with him here on Thursday. And she's now joining me for a conversation on all this. Foreign Minister, welcome to the programme.

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

Amanpour: I guess, first and foremost to the question of whether Australia will expel the Russian Foreign Minister on these threats from President Putin, the Russian ambassador. Is that likely to happen?

Foreign Minister: Obviously that's a big step to take because we do have consular interests in Moscow. But what I would say is Australia, like many other countries around the world, has been steadfast in our condemnation of what is an illegal and immoral invasion and on the importance of all countries together asserting the primacy of the UN Charter.

Amanpour: Do you - these shams, as you're all calling them, I guess you believe that as well. I said the Western alliance, which of course you're part of.

Foreign Minister: We're further down the globe. I think the issue is not east or west, is whether or not you believe in international law and the primacy of the UN Charter. And what is occurring in Russia, with Russia's behaviour in Ukraine, with the sham referendum, is an attempt to justify an illegal and immoral invasion and it will not work. I think the world knows what is occurring. They know these referenda are a sham and they do not justify, will not enable Mr Putin to justify what is unjustifiable, which is a breach of the UN Charter.

Amanpour: And how do you think that he can be stopped from doing it? Because the EU, the head of the European Commission, told me this week that they would put more sanctions on if these elections go on, which seem to be they're happening. It looks like they're happening under duress. It looks like Putin may decide to conscript actual Ukrainians into the fight against Ukrainians. But how do you stop that?

Foreign Minister: I tell you what else it looks like. I would say it looks like Mr Putin is increasingly desperate. And if you look at the conscription, some of the irresponsible threats, those are the actions and words of a man who has got a fight on his hands that he didn't anticipate. What does the rest of the world do? We have to continue to put pressure on Russia and we have to continue to support Ukraine.

Amanpour: So when you speak, for instance, to the Chinese Foreign Minister, which you have done here at the United Nations, and I assume you've been asking him to use China's good offices to try to end this and act as an honest broker, and we know Putin himself said that President Xi had questions and concerns about this war and the way it's currently going. What sense do you get from the Chinese about how they think it's going and where they're going to cast their lot?

Foreign Minister: It is obvious, isn't it, that first, China-Russia have what they described as a no-limits partnership? As you said, there have been some public indications that China is not comfortable, not entirely comfortable with Mr Putin's behaviour. And I don't think any responsible power would be comfortable with the sorts of threats which are being issued, which are unthinkable. They are unthinkable. The point I make to China, and obviously they're a great power, they have to make a decision about how they exercise that power and how they are perceived in the exercise of that power. But the point I've made publicly is the one I made privately, that as a P5 nation, a nation that is a member, permanent member of the Security Council, they have a special responsibility, a special responsibility to ensure that the UN Charter is upheld.

Amanpour: And did he seem to register that?

Foreign Minister: We put the view ultimately China has to make a decision, but I think we are all in a world where maximum pressure being applied to Mr Putin is what is required to ensure peace and stability in this world.

Amanpour: So here we are at the United Nations, and I know that Australia is talking a lot about reforming the UN Security Council, adding members, and you want to be a member, I believe isn't by 2029, something like that? Tell us.

Foreign Minister: I'll talk about our candidacy in my speech at the UN General Assembly today. But the broader point is this. There's been a lot of talk, including through this week, as you would have heard, about the UN not doing enough, about multilateralism fracturing. And I'd say this, it is all we have and we know what the world looks like in the absence of rules and norms. And we're not a superpower, we're middle power, some might say a substantial power. We have a deep interest as to so many nations of the world in a system of rules and laws that ameliorate power and size. A world in which power and size determine all disputes is a pretty tough world and a pretty dangerous world. So, yes, we do believe the UN has to reform and the UN is only ever as strong as its individual member states, which comes back to the point about Russia and its abrogation of the charter. And that's why they have to be held to account by all of us.

Amanpour: In the meantime, obviously, you are all trying to help Ukraine defend itself and the rules-based order that you're talking about. You- Australia is one of the biggest deliverers of weapons to the Ukrainians outside of other NATO nations. But they want more. They want more from you. They're asking for more. How? It says they're asking for more armoured personnel carriers. Are you going to give it?

Foreign Minister: Well, we're considering their request. Obviously, we will continue to do what we can and we would encourage all countries who care about stability in the world to do what they can. The people of Australia understand that what happens in Ukraine matters to the globe, matters to our region. Whilst it is a long way away, the world, as you know, came together in the post-war period and said, "we will not allow that to happen again". And the way we will prevent it is to prevent the state's territorial integrity being abrogated by another. So that's why we have to do that.

Amanpour: So when you say, we'd consider it, what would hold you back? Because the Ukrainians are asking for more and they're also saying, "Hey, we proved that, with your help, we can actually take back territories".

Foreign Minister: Simply whether we're able to provide the sort of assistance.

Amanpour: Because it might not be available?

Foreign Minister: Just simply whether we're in a position to provide more. But the Deputy Prime Minister, who is the Minister of Defence, has already indicated we're considering a subsequent request. We've already, as you said, provided humanitarian assistance, military assistance, including the Bushmasters, the armoured vehicles and houses.

Amanpour: Do you worry that a window of opportunity that could reinforce the success on the battlefield that Ukrainians are having right now, that if that window of opportunity is not jumped to through and a lot more weapons and help given to them, that they may not be able to consolidate the gains?

Foreign Minister: I've been guided by the Ukrainians and also by our European friends and NATO partners, who are obviously much closer to what is occurring on the ground than Australia. But what I think we all can say is that the courage of the Ukrainian people and the solidarity of the international community has created a situation where Mr Putin has not had the result he wanted, and is increasingly desperate.

Amanpour: In your region obviously, China is a superpower and I know that you all have concerns about their intentions in the region. Do you feel that you're able to discuss rationally or diplomatically with the Chinese leadership on what is a rising military threat? At least we're hearing that from the Western alliance. The NATO alliance calls it a challenge and a potential for confrontation at some point down the line. And we have this new alliance really between you and the UK and the US et cetera on nuclear power submarines. Do you think your message is getting through and do you think it's having a deterrent effect or not?

Foreign Minister: Let's take a step back. I think great powers do what great powers do and they seek to assert their interest. What we want and why we are working with others in the region and outside of the region, is a region where there is what I've described as a strategic equilibrium. A balance. A region which is prosperous, stable and in which sovereignty is respected. And we see that strategic equilibrium as being central to that. That's how we engage with the countries of ASEAN, from Southeast Asia. That's how we engage with the countries of what you would describe as the Southwest Pacific. The nature of the capability that we are seeking and nuclear-powered submarines, not nuclear armed, is about contributing to that strategic balance. That's what we want and that's what Australia is focused on.

Amanpour: Do you think you're achieving that by getting this new capability or a new sort of protection? Well, let me put it this way. Here's another angle to this. Taiwan is one of the very big flashpoints, potential flashpoints. President Xi really is very consistent on what he's been saying. By all means necessary or any means necessary, there will be a reunification. And President Biden is equally clear. Several times he has stepped out of the so called strategic ambiguity and said most recently this Sunday that the United States will come to the military aid of Taiwan should it be threatened. I'm going to play a sound bite from a US senator on this issue and then we'll get your opinion. [Inaudible] Your reaction to Senator Chris Murphy.

Foreign Minister: Well, first, can I go back to the question you asked me? Do we feel like we're achieving it? The world is being reshaped. You understand that, your viewers understand that. Our job, all of us, is to participate in that reshaping. So that's what we're seeking to do. In relation to Taiwan, I hear the concern that Congressman - was it Senator Chris Murphy - articulated and I've heard those concerns before. As you know, there is an historic status quo which has been agreed with between all the parties which includes, as you describe it, as strategic ambiguity from the US administration. What I would say is this: we do not want any unilateral change to the status quo. We want peace and stability in relation to Taiwan, across the Taiwan Strait. Australia has a one China policy that is bipartisan, consistent with what the United States has had and we don't want to see any unilateral changes to that. We act in accordance with that. We encourage de-escalation and restraint.

Amanpour: So what everybody says is one area of possible cooperation is on the climate. Climate seems to have taken a big hit. Not only at the UN this week, where a big climate conference, essentially the big leaders couldn't join it because there were other issues, ie. the war in Ukraine. Do you think climate is strangely getting sidelined, particularly as all our countries are now going yet again to fossil fuels to try to make up for Putin's energy blackmail?

Foreign Minister: We're seeking actually to move to renewables, and we're on a trajectory to do that. The state that I'm from is already a majority of renewable energy. But I'd make the point about climate. You're right, there is only so much bandwidth that the community of nations has. And we've had COVID, we've got climate and we've got conflicts, and those three c's are very difficult. I'm a former Climate Minister, I was at Copenhagen. What I would say is the world has to act on climate. It is a national security issue, it is a global economic issue. So we are determined to play our part in that. We were elected with a mandate to act on climate and we will do so.

Amanpour: Talking about mandates and elections, your new Prime Minister came to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, and we know that there's a lot of talk about whether certain Commonwealth nations will become independent in terms of their head of state. And he said several things, Prime Minister Albanese, about seeing Australia as a republic. Where do you think that stands right now? And how do you, let's say, Australia votes to be a republic, how does that change the idea of being in the Commonwealth?

Foreign Minister: Well, what I'd say to you is first, Her Majesty the Queen, regardless of your political views, was someone we respected deeply, a life of service and graciousness in that service. And I think people understand how much she gave through many decades of service. And her death was a great sadness to people in Australia, across the Commonwealth, and certainly the people of the United Kingdom. In terms of Australia, there are many of us who support Australia becoming a republic. I'm one of them. But that is not the government's immediate priority in terms of constitutional reform. What we do want to progress is those things are First Nations people, our Indigenous people have sought, including a voice to the Parliament, being recognised in the constitution. That's what they've been seeking. And we, as the new government, have made that our constitutional reform priority.

Amanpour: Foreign Minister Penny Wong, thank you very much for joining us.

Foreign Minister: A great honour to be here.

Amanpour: Thank you so much.

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