Penny Wong says diplomatic thaw with China possible if Coalition stops ‘playing politics’

However senator says whether the relationship ultimately becomes more productive is “a question for China”

Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, says it may be possible for Australia to achieve a diplomatic thaw with China despite the substantial differences between the two countries – if Scott Morrison abandons his “desperate” pre-election weaponisation of national security.

The foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, this week met China’s new ambassador to Australia, who has made several overtures for dialogue since arriving in Canberra in January.

Subsequently, the shadow minister told the Guardian’s Australian Politics podcast that diplomatic engagement was important. But she said whether the relationship ultimately became more productive was “a question for China”.

“We can’t control how they behave,” Wong said. “If China chooses to continue to impose what are clearly coercive economic measures on Australia, then that’s going to have a consequence in terms of the relationship.”

Wong said if Labor won the federal election in May, Australia would not be taking “a backward step” on any substantive points of disagreement with Beijing.

“We won’t be abandoning the positions that cause China concern – Australia’s position on the South China Sea, Australia’s right to determine who builds its 5G network and who is part of the NBN,” Wong said. “We’re not going to abandon our position on the UN convention on the law of the sea or human rights or foreign interference.”

But she added: “What we wouldn’t do is play domestic politics with the China relationship.”

“I’ve not seen [a prime minister] use terms like Manchurian candidate, or Beijing’s preferred candidate, ever,” Wong said.

“It is it is a demonstration of the extent to which Scott Morrison is desperate, but it is also a trashing of Australia’s national interests because one of the things that makes us strongest is our unity.”

Wong said the relationship with Australia’s largest trading partner was “complex and challenging and difficult” and is “only made harder, by the playing of domestic politics with that”.

Payne met China’s new ambassador, Xiao Qian, in Sydney on Wednesday. It is understood there was no diplomatic breakthrough in the meeting.

Although it is standard for the minister to meet with a newly arrived ambassador, it is believed to be the highest level contact between the two countries since Payne spoke with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, two years ago.

A spokesperson for Payne said Australia was “committed to a constructive relationship with China in which we can pursue areas of cooperation, while remaining consistent with our own national sovereign interests and focused on stability”.

“The minister for foreign affairs set out frankly Australia’s positions on a range of issues, including the importance of appropriate ministerial and other high level dialogue and engagement, stability in the Indo-Pacific, free and open trade, human rights and the welfare of Australians detained in China,” the spokesperson said.

“She also articulated Australia’s expectation that China use its influence to encourage and advise Russia to end the illegal invasion of Ukraine.”

Xiao, who was previously China’s ambassador to Indonesia, said last month that China was “willing to work with Australia to meet each other halfway”.

He said the two governments should “jointly make efforts” to push the relationship back on “the right track”. While Xiao did not specify any tangible actions Beijing may take, he said: “The diplomatic channel is open.”

Australian ministers have complained since early 2020 they have been unable to secure phone calls or meetings with their direct counterparts in China – although contact has continued to occur at lower diplomatic levels.

The Australian government accused Beijing of engaging in “economic coercion” by hitting a range of Australian export sectors with tariffs, bans or other sanctions in 2020 – some of which are being challenged at the World Trade Organization.

China accuses Australia of being increasingly hostile to Chinese investment, including through the ban on Chinese telco Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network.

Both major political parties in Australia view the differences in the relationship as largely structural and therefore not something that can be fixed by adopting a different tone.

China is particularly sensitive to criticism about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong and Australia’s longstanding position against using force or the threat of force to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control. Beijing has also ramped up its criticism of new or renewed groupings such as the Quad and Aukus.

Still, Xiao’s comments signalled a more open approach to dialogue, and contrasted with a warning from his predecessor, Cheng Jingye, in April last year that Beijing would respond “in kind” if Australia followed other countries in imposing sanctions against its officials over human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning

China’s diplomatic tactics have previously backfired. The embassy was rebuked by both sides of Australian politics in late 2020, after the release of a list of 14 areas of disagreement with Australia. The one-page document did not have a title but became known as a “list of grievances”, and it was reported that China was seeking concessions on those points in order to resume dialogue.

The list included “outrageous condemnation of the governing party of China by MPs” and “unfriendly or antagonistic” reporting on China by Australian media outlets.

Morrison showed the list to his international counterparts to make the case that Beijing was demanding policy changes that no liberal democratic government could accept.

Tensions flared again last month after Morrison accused China of a dangerous “act of intimidation” over a Chinese warship’s shining of a laser at a RAAF surveillance plane north of Australia. China’s national defence ministry, in turn, accused the Australian defence force of “spiteful and provocative actions”.

The defence minister, Peter Dutton, said on Thursday it would be wrong to assume President Xi Jinping’s ambitions were “restricted just to Taiwan”, as the Australian government announced plans for a major expansion of the Australian defence force over the coming two decades.

China’s embassy was contacted for comment on the meeting with Payne.


Katharine Murphy and Daniel Hurst

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Penny Wong to travel to China this week for 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations
Trip by Australia’s foreign affairs minister comes as tensions ease between two trading partners

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

19, Dec, 2022 @1:13 AM

Article image
Foreign veto laws: Labor warns of ‘unprecedented power’ and lack of oversight
Exclusive: Penny Wong hints Labor will seek amendments as universities fear the laws would have a chilling effect on research collaboration

Daniel Hurst

14, Oct, 2020 @11:00 PM

Article image
'Disturbingly lightweight': Penny Wong targets Morrison over China and 'negative globalism'
Shadow foreign affairs minister says PM makes decisions against the national interest for ‘short-term political gain’

Paul Karp

13, Oct, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Penny Wong: China and Australia take ‘first steps towards stabilising relationship’
Foreign affairs minister meets Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at G20 in Bali to push for end to ‘coercive’ sanctions

Katharine Murphy and Paul Karp

08, Jul, 2022 @1:23 PM

Article image
Labor says government must explain claim it called for Covid inquiry so it could make an announcement
Penny Wong says foreign minister must respond to allegation push for review of pandemic’s origins was timed for announcement on Insiders

Paul Karp

06, Dec, 2020 @12:58 AM

Article image
Labor wants to use Coalition's proposed foreign veto powers to unwind Darwin port sale
The opposition is working up an amendment as concerns grow about the power to cancel university agreements

Katharine Murphy Political editor

01, Sep, 2020 @8:55 AM

Article image
Penny Wong tells Pacific nations ‘we have heard you’ as Australia and China battle for influence
Foreign minister uses speech in Fiji to declare ‘this is a different Australian government’ that will act responsibly on climate change

Daniel Hurst, Kate Lyons and Lice Movono in Suva

26, May, 2022 @9:14 AM

Article image
Cabinet committee blocked plan to double Australia’s support to Pacific, election-eve leak reveals
‘Extraordinary’ revelation about national security decision shows the government is ‘falling apart’, Labor says

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

20, May, 2022 @3:12 AM

Article image
‘Considerable strain’: how Australian officials saw the China rift
Officials kept in ‘regular contact’ with Chinese embassy even as Morrison government ministers frozen out, FoI documents shows

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

23, Jun, 2022 @11:32 PM

Article image
Coalition changes foreign veto bill to ease concerns of universities and Labor
New definition mean universities won’t have to notify the government about deals with counterparts in countries such as the UK and US

Daniel Hurst

10, Nov, 2020 @9:07 AM