TV interview, Sarah Abo, Today Show

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: US-China balloon incident; US Secretary of State postponing visit to China; Australia’s relationship with China.

SARAH ABO, HOST: Alright, well Canberra is being warned to prepare for Beijing to use balloons to spy on Australia after the US shot down an aircraft, the incident damaging the tenuous relationship between China and the West. Joining us now, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong.

Penny, very good to see you, especially knowing how busy you are at the moment.

PENNY WONG, FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to be with you.

ABO: Now most of the time these balloons are so high they go unseen, unnoticed by people on the ground. Obviously, this time it was seen. Do we know whether China's ever floated a balloon like this over Australia?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well I think the Defence Minister has said we're not aware of such, but what I would say is obviously Australia will always act to protect its sovereignty and always expects other countries to act in accordance with international law. That's the approach we take.

ABO: I suppose the fallout here is that China says the US has overreacted and it's threatening repercussions. I mean you might say that if you feel threatened by someone like China you are going to act. What do you think the repercussions may look like from China?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, can I start by saying we share the US concerns about the infringement of US sovereignty and the violation of international law, and that the US has acted in a careful way, a responsible way in how it's managed this situation, and ensuring that this was brought down safely and over their territorial waters.

But you asked the right question, Sarah, which is what happens now? It's very important in the specific or more generally that we don't allow competition to escalate into conflict. To this end it's really very important that China and the US continue to engage. I note that Secretary Blinken in his public statements has made clear that the US remains open to continued diplomatic engagement and we'd encourage the Chinese Government to do the same.

ABO: Well, that's the thing. I mean the US Secretary of State was due to visit, that's now been cancelled off the back of this. So, you're saying that the Americans acted correctly?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Oh, look, we share the concerns that they have expressed about, you know, violations of international law and the infringement of US sovereignty. But I think that the more important issue is actually the one you raise, what happens now? And we would add our voice to, I'm sure the voices of many in the region saying we want to make sure we have a stable, peaceful, prosperous region. We want a stable, peaceful, prosperous world. That means the great powers which are in competition engage, make sure there are guardrails around that competition to ensure that there isn't escalation.

ABO: But that's the thing, isn't it, this comes at a time when Australia certainly is trying to de‑escalate tensions with China. You've made such an effort. You've been there recently obviously in late December to Beijing. And then the US goes and does something like this. It’s not just another country, this is one of our strongest allies that's behaving so forthrightly. Do you think this risks our relationship or what you're trying to do with China at the moment?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, let's focus on what we are doing with China. We're seeking to stabilise the relationship. We recognise that in times gone past we could separate the economic and the strategic so we could have our strategic relationship with the US, we could have our economic relationship with China. These days the strategy and the economics come together. You know, the Australian Government recognises that, Australian businesses recognise that, which is one of the reasons they've diversified.

What we would continue to say to China is, you know, we welcome the re‑engagement. We hope that we can get to an arrangement where both countries see it's in their interest for the trade impediments to be resolved. I certainly think it's in China's interest for those impediments to be resolved.

ABO: But surely this isn't good for us?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, you know, this is a situation which has arisen. I believe the US has managed this as carefully as possible. They've brought the balloon down over their own territorial waters. They've expressed a continued desire to engage and we would encourage that to be responded to positively by the Chinese. Engagement, you know, the government said it's important to engage. You know, you cooperate where you can, you disagree where you must, but you keep engaging because it's one of the ways in which we can resolve issues.

ABO: And we had a former CIA officer on earlier giving this conservative estimate of about a $10-15 million military operation, so it's not cheap. And to think it was just a balloon and who knows what kind of data it actually did collect. But let's quickly move on, we've got some trade meetings for the first time in three years today. They're only virtual but it's a step forward?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, there’ve been a number of steps taken since we came to government. I think when I first met with State Councillor Wang Yi in Bali at the G20, at the press conference after that I said look, this is the first step of many and both countries have to make a decision to walk down the path to a more stable relationship. It's true that many steps have been taken. It's probably also true that more steps have to be taken but we'll continue to do that. We'll continue to engage in Australia's national interests.

ABO: Just very quickly, do we expect trade bans to be lifted, yes or no?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Ultimately, we say it's a good thing for both countries for those trade impediments to be removed.

ABO: Okay, thank you so much for your time, Senator Wong.



Media enquiries

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