China

Penny Wong flags cooperation on climate change as Australia tries to reboot relationship with China


Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, has flagged working more closely with China on issues such as climate change as part of ongoing efforts to reboot the fractured relationship after years of public confrontation.

As Anthony Albanese signalled publicly his willingness to meet with China’s leaders during the week-long international summit season in Cambodia, Bali and Bangkok, Wong used a major foreign policy speech in Australia to articulate her objective to stabilise relations with China.

Australia’s foreign affairs minister said any rapprochement would not be easy because the two nations had different values and different interests. Wong said as China increasingly sought to assert itself in the world, the differences between Canberra and Beijing had “become harder to manage”.

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But she said her objective as foreign affairs minister was to “navigate our differences wisely – something, in fact, we believe both our countries should do”.

Albanese’s clear public overture to China on Saturday night followed confirmation the president of the United States, Joe Biden, will meet the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at the G20 summit in Bali on Monday.

Speaking to reporters in Phnom Penh, Australia’s prime minister welcomed the looming conversation between the US and China.

“Out of dialogue comes understanding and we need more, not less, in today’s uncertain world,” he said.

Australia’s foreign affairs minister noted in her speech that she had met twice with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, as part of a cautious diplomatic thaw after the Labor election victory in May.

Wong said their dialogue had been frank, encompassing human rights, the current trade dispute and sensitive consular matters.

“I have said to him that Australia’s approach will be calm and consistent,” Wong said. “We seek to cooperate where we can and will disagree where we must.

“I have made it plain that we will speak out as necessary on the issues that matter to Australians, including human rights and upholding the international rules to which we have all agreed, and I have been clear that we believe the removal of impediments to Australian exports and the full resumption of our bilateral trade would greatly benefit both Australia and China.”

Wong said her objective was to work out areas of “mutual benefit in our relationship, and we are open to working with China in other ways, including to address major transnational challenges like climate change”.

With Albanese opening his international summit program in Phnom Penh by meeting Ukraine’s foreign affairs minister, Dmytro Kuleba, on the sidelines of the Australia-Asean summit, Wong reiterated Australia’s expectation that China use its influence with Vladimir Putin to end the illegal Russian invasion.

She declared the “world looks to China” as a great power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

While Labor is clearly pursuing a stabilisation of the China relationship, it is also engaged in significant outreach with Asean nations, which have different views about the challenges associated with China’s rise.

As well as courting Asean countries, Australia has also pursued a rapid-fire courtship of Pacific nations to try and repel Beijing’s soft power offensive with island states.

Albanese on Saturday used his opening remarks at the Asean-Australia summit to emphasise the centrality of the Asean region to Australia’s foreign policy and to underscore Australia’s commitment to partners and regional values, which he characterised as “the cherished ideals of peace, freedom, social justice and economic well-being”.

Back in Australia, Wong said Asean was “central to managing today’s challenge in our region”. She said the Indo-Pacific region and south-east Asia was on the frontline of great power competition.

“Now, and for the foreseeable future, we face the theme of great power competition in different variations,” Wong said. She said we cannot be passive “when big powers flout the rules”.

But she said Australia also had considerable agency. “We are more than just supporting players in a grand drama of global geopolitics, on a stage dominated by great powers.”

Wong said that agency extended to Australia’s relationship with our most important security partner, the United States. “We do ourselves and our American partners no favours if we are not exercising our own agency, and standing as a reliable partner of choice in the region.

“Indeed, that is the principal value we add to the alliance”.

Wong said Australia needed to tread its own path. “If Australia can be effective in our diplomacy, especially in multilateral and mini-lateral groupings, we have will more chance of upholding the international order, maintaining our independence, exercising our agency, and achieving the equilibrium that is the basis of sustainable peace and prosperity.”



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