Australia lacking in strategy to deal with a 'more assertive China': Labor

Australia is the world's most China-dependent developed economy.
Australia is the world's most China-dependent developed economy.PHOTO: REUTERS

CANBERRA • Australia lacks an overarching approach to handling a "much more assertive" China and needs a plan for economic diversification and liaising with Asian allies to handle the emerging superpower, opposition foreign affairs spokesman Penny Wong has said.

"The strategy should be working out how we deal with the effects for Australia and the region of a China which demonstrably is taking a very different stance," Ms Wong told ABC's Insiders programme on Sunday. "The government really does need to stop focusing on splashy headlines and work out what is it doing."

Ties have been fraught since 2018, when Canberra barred Huawei from building its 5G network, and it went into free fall earlier this year when Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent probe into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to trade reprisals.

Last week, he sought an apology from China after a diplomat in Beijing tweeted an image purporting to show an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child's throat. That related to an investigation that uncovered war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan.

"The relationship is obviously in a very difficult and challenging place," Ms Wong said. "Going forward, I think we should assume that a more assertive, at times more aggressive, China is here to stay."

Despite the criticism, the opposition Labor Party has sought to maintain a bipartisan response to China's actions, with Ms Wong saying it is important to "remain unified in our condemnation".

Debate has simmered on whether Mr Morrison was correct to respond so quickly to the tweet.

A visibly angry prime minister called a press conference 45 minutes after it was posted.

Mr Morrison reportedly only spoke with his foreign minister beforehand and Ms Wong said he did not get in contact with Labor.

"It is a big call to go directly, escalate directly, to the national leader and I hope that Scott Morrison thought very carefully about that decision. I hope that he took advice," she said.

China refused to apologise. Instead, the Chinese foreign ministry's top spokesman shot back, asking whether Mr Morrison lacks "a sense of right and wrong".

Asked whether Australia should boycott the Winter Olympics in China in 2022, Ms Wong said the opposition's view - and she understood this to be the government's too - is that the event is an opportunity to focus on human rights.

"China talked about the importance of human rights this week in the tweet," Ms Wong said.

"Equally, I assume that they will therefore recognise the right of other nations and other communities to raise the issue of human rights in the context of the Olympics."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2020, with the headline 'Australia lacking in strategy to deal with a 'more assertive China': Labor'. Subscribe