29 July 2020
LEIGH SALES, HOST: Senator Penny Wong is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Senator Wong, thanks for your time.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good to be with you.
SALES: The AUSMIN meeting in Washington this week has underlined the deterioration of the US-China relationship. What are the implications for Australia of that?
WONG: Let's start with the context of this AUSMIN meeting, Leigh, and remember why it's so important.
It's important because we're facing a world that is far riskier, less stable and more divided as a consequence of the pandemic.
We're seeing rising nationalism, fraying multilateralism, the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, probably the biggest crisis since World War II.
Australia faces very difficult strategic circumstances. And we're going to have to work much harder to secure our interests in this world. And that means we have to work within the alliance and beyond the alliance.
Now one of the issues that you correctly raise, that the world is facing, is escalating competition between the two great powers. And we have to navigate that. And I think that one of the ways in which we do so is by working both within the alliance with the United States, which remains our close friend and principal security partner, but also finding new ways to work with other nations.
SALES: The Australia-China relationship is at one of its lowest points in 50 years. Business leaders here are saying it's not in Australia's interests for it to keep going like that. Is there a path back and what is that?
WONG: Well, as I said, obviously China has become much more assertive about its interests. And we have had deep concerns, as Australia, about the assertion of some of those interests.
But ultimately, we need to find a way to have a productive relationship with China; one that contemplates our values and our interests including our sovereignty, but also recognises the relationship is about real people. It's about jobs and exporters.
And to do that, I think we need better leadership, true leadership from the Government. I think we need to be more strategic and less political about the relationship. And I would encourage the Government to do that…
SALES: …Sorry to interrupt, we've got a bit a delay. Can you give me an example of what you might have done differently among some of the recent decisions that have been made or some of the recent rhetoric?
WONG: I don't think some of the rhetoric from the backbenchers such as Mr Christensen has been helpful.
I think it is important to recognise that we must assert our interests and our values, as I said, including our sovereignty in relationship to China. But at the same time, disengagement or decoupling from China isn't an option for any country, given China's place in the world.
So we have to find a way to work through those differences, and to have a productive relationship with China, in which we never walk away from who we are - our identity, our values and our interests.
SALES: In a recent essay you wrote that during the coronavirus, which as you mentioned is the worst crisis humanity's faced since the Second World War, the international community has been unable to muster anything close to the requisite cooperation. How much of that is due to Donald Trump ceding America's moral authority in the world and leaving a leadership vacuum?
WONG: Look, I think the failure to muster the requisite cooperation, as you quote me, is a great tragedy.
I think the great tragedy for humanity at the moment is we face the worst pandemic in a century and we haven't been able to come up with anything like the cooperation that's required, either to fight the pandemic, nor the economic recovery.
And the drivers of that [lack of] cooperation are many. They are rising nationalism, which obviously includes the 'America First' rhetoric that we see from President Trump, but they are more than that. They obviously include China's increased assertiveness and a failure of any of the great powers to lead a multilateral response.
SALES: Australia signed a new defence cooperation agreement with the US, focused on the Indo-Pacific. How do you think most Australians would feel if Australia, for example, followed Donald Trump's lead and join US freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea?
WONG: Well, first in relation to the defence agreement, much of that builds on the Force Posture Initiatives of the Gillard Government. We will seek a briefing on that but we broadly welcome that.
In any decision, Australia, the government of the day, has to look to Australia's national interests, first and foremost.
But you mentioned freedom of navigation and what I would say is that we have an interest in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; we have an interest in freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight.
But critically important - we have an interest in engaging the region, in upholding the International Law of the Sea. Because, ultimately, that goes to the sort of region we want.
SALES: So does that mean you think that Australia should or should not join freedom of navigation exercises?
WONG: Well, that's ultimately a decision for the government of the day. We have a national interest in freedom of navigation and in the International Law of the Sea.
Ultimately, a decision on freedom of navigation operations in the technical sense is a matter for the government of the day.
But I again make this point; it's critically important we engage the region in any upholding of the International Law - of the UN Convention - because that goes to sort of region we want. We want a region where international law and norms are respected and where disputes are resolved in accordance with international law.
SALES: Do you think Australians would have any appetite whatsoever to follow the US on any sort of foreign policy adventurism under Donald Trump as Commander in Chief?
WONG: Australians expect governments and parties of government to look to our national interests first. We're a US ally, but ultimately we make decisions in Australia's national interests.
SALES: Senator Wong, thanks for your time.
WONG: Good to be with you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.