SUBJECTS: Prime Minister’s visit to the US; PM’s comments on China at President Trump’s re-election rally; China as a developing economy; prosecution of Uyghur Muslims in China.
HAMISH MACDONALD: We’re joined this morning by the Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese. Good morning to you.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning, Hamish.
MACDONALD: Is Scott Morrison right to take on China like this?
ALBANESE: I’m not sure that it’s constructive to send a message to China from the US in the way that it has occurred. There’s a legitimate debate about the World Trading Organisation system, but we support the existing system. It has served the world well. We do want a rules-based trading system throughout the world. The conflict between China and the United States is one that is not in Australia’s interests. We want that to be resolved rather than be overly partisan about it. Of course our alliance with the United States is our most important relationship. That won’t change. But we need to, I think, be very measured in our comments particularly comments from the United States in the context in which they’ve been given.
MACDONALD: But is it your view that China is a newly developed economy or is still a developing economy?
ALBANESE: Well quite clearly if you look at China’s rise, the first thing to say is that it is perfectly legitimate that China has aspired to lift its population out of poverty. That has been a good thing that provides strength, and Australia has a great benefit and the world is a safer and more prosperous place if both the United States and China are cooperating.
MACDONALD: With respect, that wasn’t the question. Is China today a newly developed economy or is it still developing?
ALBANESE: It quite clearly is still developing. There are pockets of China, of course, around the coast and around its cities that are very prosperous. But it is …
MACDONALD: So on that you disagree with the Prime Minister?
ALBANESE: It is still an emerging economy and it is growing substantially. But when you look at its population for example, which it is home to almost one in four of the world’s population, it doesn’t represent 25 per cent of the global economy. If you compared per capita income with advanced economies like Australia and the United States, then it is behind those advanced economies. So, clearly China is growing. It is changing. There will be a need to consider these issues over time, but it’s a question also of how you engage with China in advancing the relationships that are there in the global systems. Without doing it in a way which is using a loud hailer from the United States during a visit in which the Prime Minister has been seen to be very close to the President of the United States. I’m just not sure that this contribution will advance the prospects of alleviating, or if you like, resolving the trade issues that are there between the US and China. I think that Australia should be playing a role in minimising that conflict.
MACDONALD: Is the Prime Minister in your view confusing Australia’s interest with America’s interests?
ALBANESE: I think it’s very important that the Prime Minister … it’s a good thing that he has visited the United States. They are our most important ally. But you know we share common values, we share the alliance and the economic relationship is very important as well. But it’s important that the Prime Minister represent Australia’s national interests including when he’s overseas, and I think perception is a great deal. And the fact that the visit to Ohio coincided with a campaign rally for the re-election of President Trump; the comments that have been made during the visit I think will send a message of: ‘yes, we’re close in our relationship’, but I’m just not sure how it advances Australia’s national interest which is in a reduction in conflict between the trade relationship between the US and China.
MACDONALD: Can we just be clear about this. Are you saying that the Prime Minister has overstepped the mark here, in attending some kind of function that appeared to be something like a campaign rally, in taking such a strong position on the relationship with China during a trip to the United States and being alongside the US president? Is this beyond a reasonable position?
ALBANESE: Perception is important and my view would be that if other nations are having a look at this, and if he is sending China a message from Chicago; then that’s a message – perhaps if it was going to be advanced it would have been better sent from Australia; so that there was no confusion that the Prime Minister was advancing Australia’s national interests.
MACDONALD: Are you saying though that the Prime Minister is not advancing Australia’s interests?
ALBANESE: No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying exactly what’s coming out my mouth, Hamish. I’m choosing my words very deliberately. But perception is important and I think that the Prime Minister could have chosen more wisely where to present this argument. That’s not an argument that I’ve heard him advance before and it’s reasonable to, I think, consider why it is that there’s a change in Australia’s position, given that previously what has been stated very clearly – and the Prime Minister to be fair earlier on during this visit – made it clear that Australia’s relationship with China was different from that of the United States. The trading relationship with China is a very important one for us. They are our major export destination and it’s a different trading relationship that we have with the United States.
MACDONALD: Scott Morrison has lamented the fact that he’s yet to be asked to visit China. Your deputy and defence spokesman Richard Marles is in Beijing. He’s urging closer defence cooperation between Australia and China. To define China, he says, as an enemy; is a profound mistake. What form would closer military ties take?
ALBANESE: Richard Marles has given some examples of where there is current cooperation, such as in peacekeeping missions. We’re currently cooperating together in South Sudan. But he’s also suggested that closer relations, in the Pacific for example, in dealing with natural disasters and the sort of efforts that we’ve seen Australia historically play when we’ve had that occur in places like the Solomon Islands and other neighbours.
MACDONALD: But Richard Marles has also said Australia should be supporting China’s financial support for small Pacific islands. Are we, do you think, taking the wrong approach to China’s involvement in this region?
ALBANESE: We support the Pacific Step-up. But it’s also the case, just as the legitimacy of China trying to increase the living standards of its population is something that should be a given. It’s also the case that that China will seek to be engaged in the region. We are …
MACDONALD: But why should we be supporting that? I mean is that not in some way threatening our geopolitical position in the region?
ALBANESE: What we need to do is to make sure that we are continuing to provide leadership in the region. The argument of whether China should be involved in the region is a bit of a moot one; because China is engaged. And as countries we’re living through a competitive situation in terms of the rise of China, so the coming decades are going to continue to have two superpowers. The question is, do we just sit back and watch or are we proactive in setting a rules-based order and trying to shape what occurs in the region. We need to do that with our Pacific neighbours. We also need to do that with the ASEAN countries. Penny Wong is giving an important speech in Jakarta today. Penny and I were in Jakarta just a month ago talking with the Indonesian Foreign Minister about the importance of a step-up of the smaller powers, if you like, but still significant nations like Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, in the region.
MACDONALD: Have you seen this video footage that’s emerged showing the way China is treating Muslim Uyghur’s in Xinjiang province?
ALBANESE: I haven’t seen it but I have heard reports of this and frankly it sounds completely horrific.
MACDONALD: So, how do you justify closer military ties with a country that does that?
ALBANESE: There is no question that Australia should continue, as we have as we did when Labor was in government, as I have when I’ve met with representatives of the Chinese Government, continue to raise human rights abuses that occur in China.
MACDONALD: But that’s a different question. How do you justify closer military ties with a country that is doing that to its own people?
ALBANESE: If you look at the sort of cooperation I’m speaking about – the peacekeeping missions in south Sudan that are occurring now. Engagement with China is something that helps to build relationships. People to people relationships are important. It’s important that we have an avenue and that should be an honest one that includes Australia raising, when appropriate, the human rights concerns that we have – not just with the Uyghurs but with the people of Tibet as well and other issues – Australia has raised that in the past. We’ve also raised concerns about the detaining of Australian citizens. All of those issues aren’t diminished by saying that we need that engagement with China, and we need to continue to put forward our values. That’s one of the reasons why, let me be very clear, in our relationship with the United States is so important and is our most important ally because our values are similar, which are democratic, which are ones that values human rights.
MACDONALD: Anthony Albanese, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much for your time.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Hamish.