Australia’s defence minister has branded the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, an ageing dictator who is becoming “more and more irrational”.
Peter Dutton also vowed to continue to speak out against China’s “belligerent approach” just hours after the new Chinese ambassador arrived in Australia with a conciliatory message about getting the troubled relationship “back to the right track”.
Dutton, a conservative former leadership contender who is becoming increasingly outspoken on foreign affairs, said on Thursday the international community must “put as much pressure on Russia as possible” to prevent a “devastating” invasion of Ukraine.
“Now, whether or not they listen to that, ultimately, is a decision for Putin, and he sees no doubt that Ukraine is part of the Russia that he wants to bequeath to his successor at some point,” Dutton told Sydney radio station 2GB.
“He’s 69 years of age, and these sort of dictators, who are getting older and want to leave their legacy, start to become more and more irrational.”
Western countries have voiced increasing concern about Russia’s buildup of more than 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border but opinions differ on if, or when, Putin plans a full-scale military invasion.
Russia has demanded security guarantees and a promise that Ukraine never be admitted to Nato, which the US has rejected. Ukrainian leaders have said they don’t believe an invasion is imminent and have called for calm.
Dutton said there were “worrying signs” regarding Russia’s intentions with “the movement of troops and the considerable buildup … of concern to every observer”.
He said an invasion of Ukraine “would be devastating because it would disrupt world economic markets” and have an effect on energy security in Europe.
“But more importantly than any of that is that you’d see tens of thousands of people die.”
Britain and other Nato allies are currently considering a request from the US to deploy hundreds more troops to support member countries in eastern Europe.
The Australian government says it is not planning to send troops or military assets to the region in the event of a conflict, but it is considering supplying extra liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe.
Those talks were launched after the US and the UK raised fears the continent’s reliance on Russian gas makes it vulnerable in the growing standoff with Putin.
Dutton said recent cyber-attacks against Ukraine could be viewed as “the first step in trying to knock out some of their systems and compromise some of their capability to respond to Russian incursion”. He said he hoped for “an 11th hour reprieve”.
In broader remarks, Dutton called on China to “be a good neighbour” and said Australia wanted “to be a good neighbour to them” – but indicated the government was not about to tone down its commentary about Australia’s biggest trading partner.
China’s new ambassador, Xiao Qian, who landed in Australia on Wednesday after years of increasing tensions between the two countries, said the relationship was “at a critical juncture” and faced “many difficulties and challenges”.
Xiao, the former Chinese ambassador to Indonesia, was relatively upbeat in his first comments in Sydney, saying the relationship also had “enormous opportunities and potential” and he saw his new diplomatic role “as a noble mission”.
In a statement distributed by the Chinese embassy, Xiao said the relationship would improve “as long as both sides adhere to the principles of mutual respect, equality, inclusiveness and mutual learning”.
“I look forward to working with the Australian government and friends in all sectors to increase engagement and communication, enhance mutual understanding and trust, eliminate misunderstanding and suspicion, promote mutually beneficial exchanges and cooperation in all areas between the two sides, and jointly push the China-Australia relations back to the right track.”
Dutton said the Australian government welcomed the new ambassador and still wanted “a good, strong, friendly relationship with China”. But he said China was “in conflict” or “at loggerheads” with Australia and “many, many other countries”.
“It’s a belligerent approach, and it’s unacceptable,” Dutton said.
Dutton said Australia would continue to talk about human rights issues, including the case of tennis star Peng Shuai, who in November alleged that a senior Chinese official had sexually assaulted her in the past.
Dutton – who said in 2019 that some women detained by Australia on Nauru had been “trying it on” in claiming they were raped and needed an abortion – implied that Peng was subsequently pressured to retract the allegations.
“We haven’t heard from her except for, you know, the rehearsed, sort of trotted-out lines,” Dutton said.
“These are issues that the world needs to speak about, and if we remain silent, we remain weak, we block our ears and pretend it’s going to go away, the problem will only just compound.”
Dutton’s response contrasted to that of the employment minister, Stuart Robert, who said the new ambassador’s opening remarks were “very pleasing”. Robert said he and other ministers looked forward to “a very constructive relationship”.
“It’s wonderful to see the new Chinese ambassador coming forward with a very open approach and I think they’ll find the Australian government’s response equally open to ensure dialogue continues strongly,” Robert told Sky News.
A spokesperson for the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said: “The Australian government welcomes the new Chinese ambassador-designate to Australia and looks forward to engaging with him.”
Australia and China have been increasingly at odds over the past few years, with the Australian government raising concerns about human rights in Xinjiang, the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, Beijing’s ratcheting up of military pressure against Taiwan, and its disputed claims in the South China Sea.
Beijing has objected to Australia’s laws against foreign interference that were seen as targeting China and the ban on Chinese telco Huawei from the 5G network.
Beijing rolled out trade actions against Australian export sectors, including barley, red wine and coal, and froze high-level talks in 2020 – moves the Australian government branded as “economic coercion”.
The Chinese embassy’s release of a document, later branded a “list of grievances” against Australia, also triggered a diplomatic storm.
Xiao’s predecessor as ambassador, Cheng Jingye, warned in April 2021 that Beijing would respond “in kind” if Australia imposed sanctions against Chinese officials over human rights.
In November the acting ambassador, Wang Xining, likened Australia to “a naughty guy” over the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine deal.