Australia is “not for turning” in its dispute with China and must cut its reliance on supply chains “over which we had little to no sovereign control”, the country’s top envoy to the UK has said.
George Brandis, Australia’s high commissioner in London, argued the situation “must change” as he called for a trade deal between Australia and Britain to be completed by the end of this year.
In an oped published by London’s Daily Telegraph, the former senior Australian government minister offered sharp observations on the significance of the dispute between Canberra and Beijing that intensified over the course of 2020 and saw China restrict a raft of Australian exports.
Without directly naming China, Brandis wrote: “In 2020, we made clear that our sovereignty, institutions and political systems were not for sale and our independence non-negotiable. To borrow from the late Lady Thatcher: Australia was not for turning.”
The comments are a toughening of prime minister Scott Morrison’s repeated declarations that Australia would not “trade away” its values or bow to economic pressure from China.
The relationship between Australia and China had already been strained before Canberra called for an independent global Covid-19 inquiry, which triggered the latest round of tensions.
Brandis called for deeper engagement with “trusted partners”, arguing that was “critical to prosperity and security”.
“In an interconnected world, it became easy to forget that many of our most critical goods came via supply chains over which we had little to no sovereign control. That must change.”
Brandis pointed to the Morrison government’s announcement of investments in critical supply chains “to enhance resiliency to future shocks”.
The government’s manufacturing package, announced in the budget, includes a $1.3bn co-investment fund for large projects in priority sectors. These include resources technology and critical minerals processing, food and beverages, medical products, recycling and clean energy, defence and space.
But Brandis said increasing attention on the availability of essential goods did not mean Australia would embrace trade protectionism, and he saw no reason why Australia and the UK could not wrap up an ambitious free trade agreement this year.
Brandis told Daily Telegraph readers that such a deal would demonstrate “how two like-minded partners can diversify trade, strengthen supply chains and help jobs come back”. His piece for the Brexit-backing newspaper added that the agreement would also be “an early post-Brexit dividend for Britain”.
Amid increasing international pressure on Australia to take stronger action on the climate crisis, Brandis also sought to highlight Morrison’s recent comments about the need to achieve net zero emissions “as soon as possible”.
He said coal last year played “the smallest role in our national electricity market this century”.
The UK is hosting the next international climate summit in Glasgow at the end of 2021 and has been pushing countries to increase their level of ambition.
But in a document submitted to the United Nations last week, Australia opted against increasing its 2030 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels.
“This target is a floor on Australia’s ambition,” the update to Australia’s UN pledge – known as a National Determined Contribution (NDC) – states.
An increasing number of Australia’s trading partners, including the UK, Japan, South Korea and the European Union, have committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 while China has set 2060 as its deadline.
After the US presidential election – when Joe Biden prevailed with a platform that included returning the country to the Paris agreement and setting the nation on a course to net zero by 2050 – Morrison said he aspired to get there “as quickly as possible”. The prime minister was denied a speaking slot at a recent climate ambition summit co-hosted by the UK.