CANBERRA • Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan said the government will protect the country's sovereignty and national interest, in response to a warning from China's ambassador that it will "respond in kind" if Canberra joins sanctions on officials accused of human rights abuses.
"That's something we've made very clear is non-negotiable," Mr Tehan said in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday.
"But that doesn't mean that we can't have productive relationships. Good friends always are able to have very difficult conversations."
Tensions have flared over reports of forced labour being used to harvest cotton in China's western province of Xinjiang, prompting several countries to sanction Communist Party officials.
Beijing has dismissed the accusations as politically motivated lies. Late last month, it announced retaliatory sanctions on individuals in the United States and Canada, adding to those imposed on Britain and the European Union.
Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne, in a March 23 joint statement with her New Zealand counterpart, said the government had "grave concerns" over reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and welcomed the measures taken by the US, Canada, Britain and the EU.
Mr Tehan sought to emphasise the importance of the economic relationship between Australia and China as a counter to the mounting political tensions. "That's helped millions in China come out of poverty and helped grow our economy, so we very much think that we can have constructive relationships," he said. "But those constructive relationships will be built on us protecting our sovereignty and our national interest."