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 spokeswoman Penny Wong 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,” Wong told ABC’s ‘Insiders’ program. “The government really does need to stop focusing on splashy headlines and work out what is it doing.”
Australia is the world’s most China-dependent developed economy and finalized a free-trade agreement with Beijing in 2015. Ties have been fraught since 2018, when Canberra barred Huawei Technologies Co. from building its 5G network, and went into freefall earlier this year when the prime minister called for an independent probe into the origins of the pandemic, leading to trade reprisals.
On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison 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 alleged war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan.
“The relationship is obviously in a very difficult and challenging place,” Wong said Sunday. “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 Wong saying it’s important for Australia to “remain unified in our condemnation.”
Debate has simmered on whether Morrison was correct to respond so quickly — and in person — to the tweet. A visibly angry prime minister called a press conference 45 minutes after it was posted. Morrison reportedly only spoke with his foreign minister beforehand; Wong said he didn’t get in contact with Labor.
“In diplomacy you always have to think carefully about how you calibrate your response,” she said. “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.”
China refused to apologise; instead the Foreign Ministry’s top spokeswoman shot back, asking whether Morrison lacks “a sense of right and wrong.”
Asked whether Australia should boycott the Winter Olympics in China in 2022, Wong said the opposition’s view — and she understood this to be government’s too — is that the event is an opportunity to focus on China and a legitimate time for questions of human rights.
“China talked about the importance of human rights this week in the tweet,” Wong said. “Equally, I assume that they will therefore recognize the right of other nations and other communities to raise the issue of human rights in the context of the Olympics.”