The shadow foreign minister and Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, will use a keynote speech to the Australia China Business Council to argue that politicians and business leaders must guard against “racial fault lines from our past being allowed to resonate today”.
With the bilateral relationship between Canberra and Beijing under significant strain, triggered by the Turnbull government’s crackdown against foreign interference, a number of key players, including Cheng Jingye, the Chinese ambassador to Australia, will gather in parliament on Tuesday for an annual networking session organised by the council.
Malcolm Turnbull, the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, and Wong will address the high-powered session over the course of the day.
The national president of the Australia China Business Council and former Victorian premier, John Brumby, will acknowledge – according to a speech circulated in advance – that this year’s session occurs in “challenging circumstances”.
“While the trade and investment relationship remains robust, the deterioration in the government-to-government relationship has the potential to undermine our business opportunities and future success,” Brumby will say.
He will tell the group the role of the council is to leave “politics to our elected politicians, but I would be doing a disservice to our members and the feedback they have provided over recent weeks and months if I didn’t call out the current challenges to the relationship. To put it bluntly, the relationship needs reset and repair – to return to a position of mutual trust, respect and friendship – to the long-term benefit of both Australia and China.
“And to be clear, this doesn’t mean compromising Australia’s values or interests. The choice is not about whether to protect our national interest or engage more closely with China – rather, it is about how to protect our national interest, which includes a positive relationship with China”.
Last week two new flashpoints emerged in the relationship. The Turnbull government headed off a bid by the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to build an underwater telecommunications cable for the Solomon Islands, using the aid budget to fund the proposal.
Reports also pointed to the likelihood of Huawei being banned from participation in Australia’s 5G wireless network on national security grounds. There was also debate about whether the company would have to register on the government’s proposed foreign influence transparency register.
Wong will argue on Tuesday that the government “has fallen short in its management of this key bilateral relationship”. According to a speech extract, Wong will say “a more considered, disciplined and consistent approach is required”.
“It’s not in our longer-term interest for ties to be strained. Nor is it in China’s. What the Australia-China relationship needs is stability based on mutual understanding”.
The shadow foreign minister will also call on political and business leaders to deploy sensitivity and sophistication in the debate about Chinese influence. “As I remarked in my first speech to the parliament, Australia’s diversity can be an aspect of our shared identity, or it can be the fault line around which our community fractures.
Wong will acknowledge that, given the differences between China’s political system and Australia’s, differences of opinion in the relationship are inevitable. She will say that the divergences “have become more apparent as China has become more confident in asserting its interests under President Xi”.
She will also acknowledge that there are no quick fixes, and the current pressures in the relationship are likely to persist in the event Labor wins the next federal election.
She will acknowledge it is possible that “challenges in the relationship may intensify. But what government can and should avoid is making things harder than they need to be.”
Wong will say Australia must assert its national interests “just as China asserts what it sees as its interests, but it is possible for us to assert our interests and safeguard our sovereignty, without being offensive and inflammatory”.
By Katharine Murphy