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,” Tehan said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Thursday. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have productive relationships. Good friends always are able to have very difficult conversations.”
International tensions have flared over reports of forced labor 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 about its behavior against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs as politically motivated lies. Late last month it announced retaliatory sanctions on individuals in the US and Canada, adding to those imposed earlier on the UK and European Union.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne, in a March 23 joint statement with her New Zealand counterpart, said that the government had “grave concerns” over reports of human-rights abuses against Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, and welcomed the measures taken by the US, Canada, the UK and the EU.
Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye said Wednesday that people should not be under the illusion “that China would swallow the bitter pill” of meddling in its internal affairs, nor attempts to mount a “pressure” campaign.
Ties between Australia and its largest trading partner have deteriorated since last April, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government called for independent investigators to be allowed into Wuhan to probe the origins of the coronavirus. Since then, Beijing has implemented a range of trade actions against Australian goods, including coal, wine and barley.
Tehan sought to emphasize 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. We’ve made that very clear.”
Separately, the minister, who is also responsible for tourism and investment, said the government is currently focused on getting a travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand up and running before looking to expand it elsewhere.
“We’ll then look at what our other options are. I’ve had discussions previously with my Singaporean counterpart to see whether we might look to be able to expand the bubble to Singapore down the track and I will continue those,” he said. “Obviously there’s opportunities with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, who have all done well when it comes to dealing with Covid-19.”