TV interview with Michael Rowland, ABC News Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: US-China balloon incident; Australia-China relations; Voice to Parliament Referendum.

Lisa Millar, Host: In the US military officials are working to recover the debris from a suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down off the country's east coast. There have been protests from Beijing which claims the balloon was a stray weather device and the US over reacted.

Michael Rowland, Host: Staying with that story, that suspected Chinese spy balloon has certainly ramped up tensions between the US and Beijing so what does that mean for Australia?

Joining me now is the Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong. Minister, good morning to you.

Penny Wong, Foreign Affairs Minister: Good morning, Michael, good to be with you.

Rowland: Do you believe it was a, as China says, a stray weather device?

Foreign Minister: We share the US concerns about the infringement of US airspace and the, you know, effect on US sovereignty, and I think that the US has acted in a manner that is careful and measured and safe and made sure that this was brought down over its own territorial waters safely.

Rowland: If it was a spy device, what do you think that says about China?

Foreign Minister: Look, I'm not going to get into speculation, I'm just going to look at what the United States has said, and they regarded it as an infringement of their sovereignty and certainly its presence was not consistent with international law. I think that has been acknowledged.

But I think the key point is the one that you made in your introduction, which is where does this now go. We welcome the US indicating in Secretary Blinken's comments that they're open to continued engagement with China, continued diplomatic engagement. We would encourage that to continue. We would encourage China to respond positively. Because it's very important, particularly at a time like this, that we ensure that competition doesn't continue to escalate. We all want a region that's peaceful, stable and prosperous, and that means, amongst other things, the great powers talking to one another.

Rowland: Okay, but that's harder, isn't it, if China does what it did with this balloon, right?

Foreign Minister: Look, obviously this has caused Secretary Blinken to cancel his trip to China. We will continue to advocate for the great powers to engage and to ensure there's guardrails around their relationship. I mean this is, you know, we don't want competition escalating. We want to ensure the region, the world remains peaceful and part of ensuring that is to have guardrails around competition, have lines of communication, have engagement.

I was pleased to see that Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, continued to offer that diplomatic engagement even at this time. And as I said, Australia would encourage China to respond positively.

Rowland: Antony Blinken as you said has pulled out of his diplomatic visit to China. The Australian Trade Minister Don Farrell has a virtual meeting set up this week with his counterparts. Should Australia reconsider that meeting in light of what's happened?

Foreign Minister: Look, we've always said in terms of the relationship with China we want to stabilise the relationship. We've said we will cooperate where we can, we will disagree where we must, and we will engage in our national interest. That's the approach we've taken from day one. When I first met with State Councilor Wang Yi in Bali at the G20 I said it was the first steps of many.

I regard the Trade Minister's virtual meeting that you referenced as the next step. We hope that the trade impediments will be removed. We believe it's in both countries' interests for that to occur. We are however realistic that this will take many steps in order to stabilise the relationship and both countries will have to take those steps.

Rowland: If a similar balloon happened to float across Australia how would the Australian Government respond?

Foreign Minister: Well, you wouldn't expect the Minister for Foreign Affairs to respond to hypotheticals, Michael, and I'm sure you knew that when you asked the question. I would answer in this way and say the Australian Government, Labor Government, will always ensure Australia's sovereignty is protected. We will always act to protect our sovereignty and we'll always encourage other countries to act in accordance with international law.

Rowland: Okay. You talk about, and it's welcomed by anybody watching, efforts to de‑escalate tensions, avoiding conflict, but at the same time we've got this leaked memo from a senior US Air Force general telling his subordinates that his gut tells him, his gut tells him America and China will fight, his words, in 2025. Is that sort of language helpful?

Foreign Minister: Look, I gave a speech when I was in Washington at the Carnegie Institute where I talked about guardrails and I talked about agency, and what I meant by that was this: we can decide what we do, we can decide which path we choose, we can decide to work to manage competition and we can decide to avert conflict. Now sometimes that is hard. Sometimes you have to work hard to develop that architecture, to develop that relationship, to develop the guardrails, to develop the means of communication between powers, particularly at times of tension. But it is very important that we do that.

It's very important that the great powers, US and China do that, and it is very important that the rest of the region and the rest of the world continue to encourage that. That is why we would, we welcome the US being clear, even at this time, that they wish to continue to diplomatically engage and we would urge China to respond positively.

Rowland: Just before we go, to a domestic issue. Parliament's back this week. The big issue, one of the big issues of course is going to be the proposed Voice to Parliament Referendum. Your colleague Senator Pat Dodson, Labor's Envoy for Reconciliation, reckons The Voice, should it happen, should have a role in advising National Cabinet as well as Parliament. Is that part of the plan?

Foreign Minister: Let's go back to first principles. What is The Voice? The Voice is constitutional recognition of our First Nations people to ensure they have a say, and I think it's a pretty good thing for people to have a say in matters that affect them. It's one of the ways we can ensure we improve not only our nation but also the aspirations and opportunities for our First Nations peoples. I was really pleased to see while I was away that First Ministers, all First Ministers, Liberal and Labor, have backed in The Voice. It shows what you can do when you take the politics out of it.

Rowland: Okay. I'll ask you the question again. Is The Voice going to advise National Cabinet as well as Parliament?

Foreign Minister: I think the voice will have a say in matters that affect First Nations people. But I think the point here is, why are some people so concerned about that? I don't quite understand ‑‑

Rowland: The reason, excuse the interruption, I'm asking the question because it's not part of the language so far. It's always been The Voice would advise Parliament. National Cabinet is a different body.

Foreign Minister: Well do you think people having a say is a problem, Michael?

Rowland: It's not for me to answer that question, I'm asking you, Minister.

Foreign Minister: That's the implication in your question. I think we have years of disadvantage, years of, you know, so many broken hopes and we can be so much stronger as a nation. We can become much more unified and the First Ministers, the Premiers and Chief Ministers have demonstrated that. We want to walk down this path together. It's not about gotcha moments, it's not about, you know, tricky questions and answers. It's about the nation coming together and saying, "Yes, we will take the outstretched hand", which is the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We will recognise our First Nations people. We will give them a say and we will work through the detail of that together, and that's a good thing.

Rowland: Okay, Penny Wong, really appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

Foreign Minister: Good to be with you.

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