By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s prime minister on Thursday pushed back over a list of more than a dozen grievances raised by China regarding his country’s human rights diplomacy, independent media and investment policies, saying “we will always be Australia”.
Tensions between Australia and its largest trading partner China have mounted this year, with Beijing imposing a series of trade reprisals after Canberra led calls for an international inquiry into the coronavirus.
Australian government ministers have recently said they want to improve communication with Beijing, but China’s foreign ministry has said Australia needs to “take concrete actions to correct their mistakes”.
China’s foreign ministry in Beijing listed the complaints about Australia’s China policy in a regular press briefing on Tuesday and its embassy in Canberra shared a list of 14 complaints with Australian media company Nine the same day.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday referred to the Chinese embassy’s list and said Australia acted in its own interests. It would not change its policies including having a free media, elected parliamentarians able to speak their minds and speaking up on human rights.
“If this is the cause for tension in that relationship, then it would seem that the tension is that Australia is just being Australia,” Morrison said an interview with the Seven Network.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Tuesday read out complaints about Australia’s actions including “mistakes on issues concerning China’s core interests like Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan”, actions in the Human Rights Council, and support for Taiwan entering the World Health Organization.
China also criticized Australia’s action against foreign interference, and being the first country to ban Chinese companies from participating in its 5G telecommunications network.
The embassy said more than 10 Chinese investments had been blocked in Australia on national security grounds.
“We won’t be compromising on the fact that we will set what our foreign investment laws are, or how we build our 5G telecommunications networks, or how we run our systems of protecting against interference,” Morrison told Nine Television.
‘WOLF WARRIOR DIPLOMACY’
On Tuesday, Australia and Japan agreed on a breakthrough defence pact during a visit by Morrison to Tokyo, prompting a rebuke from China over statements the two leaders made.
Back in Australia, Morrison told media it was a mistake for China to believe Australia acted at the behest of the United States. He said Australia formed trade and defence arrangements with Japan and other countries, and set its foreign investment rules, in accordance with its national interests.
“Beijing is just gradually ratcheting up the pressure,” said Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor, adding the timing was not good for China’s speeches about trade openness.
The White House National Security Council chimed in, saying on Twitter that Beijing’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy was backfiring and “more and more nations worldwide have Australia’s back”.
“The Chinese Communist Party used to be more subtle in its attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of nations,” the Council said of the grievance list.
Richard Maude, a senior fellow at New York-based think tank the Asia Society Policy Institute, said China was trying to get a change in Australia’s approach, trying to polarise the Australian political system on China policy settings, and also sending a signal internationally.
He said the grievance list was “totally tone deaf, and not accepting they have any responsibility for the state of the relationship”.
“The best chance for the Australia-China relationship to settle down is if (U.S. President-elect Joe) Biden finds a model for managed competition with China,” Maude, a former Australian diplomat, told Reuters.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by David Gregorio and Lincoln Feast.)