Morrison hits back over China grievances

Addressing rising tensions with Beijing, Aussie PM says: 'We will always be Australia'

AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON.
AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON.

SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday pushed back over a list of more than a dozen grievances raised by China regarding his country's human rights diplomacy, independent media and investment policies, saying "we will always be Australia".

A Chinese official gave a dossier to Australian media containing 14 grievances, highlighting the increasingly fractious relationship between the two nations. "If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy," a Chinese government official reportedly told three prominent outlets on Wednesday.

Among the complaints are Australia's strict foreign interference laws, the country's ban on Huawei's involvement in its 5G network and decisions that blocked Chinese investment projects on "national security grounds".

Mr Morrison said the "unofficial document" came from the Chinese embassy and would not stop Australia from setting "our own laws and our own rules according to our national interest".

"We won't be compromising on the fact that we will set what our foreign investment laws are or how we build our 5G telecommunications networks or how we run our systems of protecting against interference in (the) way we run our country," he told Channel Nine TV.

"If this is the cause for tension in that relationship, then it would seem that the tension is that Australia is just being Australia," Mr Morrison said in an interview with the Seven Network.

The document also claimed Canberra had engaged in "incessant wanton interference" in China's affairs while singling out Australia's call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.

It accused Australia of "siding with the US' anti-China campaign and spreading disinformation" about where the virus originated - a particularly sore point for Beijing.

The United States weighed in on the diplomatic rift yesterday, with the White House National Security Council saying on Twitter that "Beijing is upset Australia took steps to expose and thwart Chinese espionage & to protect Aussie sovereignty".

"It's encouraging to see a growing number of countries following Canberra's lead in taking such steps," the tweet continued.

On Tuesday, Australia and Japan agreed on a breakthrough defence pact during a visit by Mr Morrison to Tokyo, prompting a rebuke from China over statements the Australian leader and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga made.

Back in Australia, Mr Morrison told media it was a mistake for China to believe Australia acted at the behest of the US. He said Australia formed trade and defence arrangements with Japan and other countries, and set its foreign investment rules, in accordance with its national interests.

Relations between Canberra and Beijing have reached a new low in recent months, leaving Australian government ministers unable to persuade Chinese counterparts to even accept their phone calls.

The rift has left Australian exporters exposed as their largest trading partner places a series of retaliatory bans on agricultural goods including beef, barley and timber.

"Beijing is just gradually ratcheting up the pressure," said Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor, adding that the timing was not good for China's speeches about trade openness.

Mr Richard Maude, a senior fellow at New York-based think-tank Asia Society Policy Institute, said China was trying to get a change in Australia's approach, trying to polarise the Australian political system on China policy settings, and also sending a signal internationally. He said the grievance list was "totally tone deaf, and not accepting they have any responsibility for the state of the relationship".

"The best chance for the Australia-China relationship to settle down is if (US President-elect Joe) Biden finds a model for managed competition with China," Mr Maude, a former Australian diplomat, added.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2020, with the headline 'Morrison hits back over China grievances'. Print Edition | Subscribe