28 August 2019




HAMISH MACDONALD: Fresh tensions have erupted between Canberra and Beijing after the Australian writer and academic Yang Hengjun was formally arrested on suspicion of espionage. The Chinese government has told Australia to stop interfering in its handling of the case after Foreign Minister Marise Payne insisted that he was not a spy and demanded he be guaranteed basic standards of justice and procedural fairness; with espionage offences carrying, in some circumstances, the death penalty in China.

The opposition is backing the government’s calls. For more details about the specific allegations levelled against Dr Yang, the Shadow Foreign Minister is Penny Wong, she joins us from Adelaide this morning. Good morning and welcome back to breakfast.


MACDONALD: Marise Payne says Dr Yang is not a spy. What’s your view?

WONG: Well look, we’ve been briefed by the government over a number of months in relation to this case and I do want to make a few comments. The first is we are dismayed and deeply concerned by these charges – as are many people in the community – and we also express our thoughts and support for Dr Yang’s friends and family.

As you say, the Australian Foreign Minister Payne has said there’s no basis for the allegations. We continue to call on the Chinese government to clarify the reasons for Dr Yang’s detention and I make the point in the absence of doing so it is understandable that the concerns of the community have been elevated as we’ve seen.

MACDONALD: Some observers are calling this hostage diplomacy connecting this with other matters. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has told Marise Payne effectively to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and refrain from interference in the case. What can the Australian government do here to navigate the geopolitics as well as the specifics?

WONG: Well our relationship with China – which is very important to Australia, but is obviously at times challenging and this is an occasion where we see one of those challenges – must proceed on the basis that Australia is entitled to assert its interests, its values and to protect its sovereignty.

Now, the Australian Foreign Minister has said there’s no basis for the allegation of espionage. Given that, it is entirely understandable that there are concerns being raised in the community that Dr Yang is being detained for political reasons. If that is the case then obviously our belief is that he should be released.

MACDONALD: How does Australia reach a point, from a government perspective, that it’s clear whether these are politically motivated charges?

WONG: I think the Foreign Minister’s call is the right one. She’s made clear the position. I think the fact that at this stage we don’t have clarity around the reasons for detention, as I understand it, is obviously going to give rise to these concerns. That is going to have continued public focus and continued public concern and I would draw that to the Chinese government’s attention.

MACDONALD: Is there now a heightened risk, in your view, of Australian citizens being arbitrarily detained in China?

WONG: We know China doesn’t have the same sort of legal system that Australia does. We know that China’s legal system doesn’t represent the rule of law in the way that we understand it. What I would say is the sort of speculation or concern that’s in your question is inevitable in the absence of clarity from the Chinese government about the reasons for detention.

MACDONALD: I suppose this is a question for our audience; plenty of whom will travel to China for business and other matters pretty frequently. Is there an increased risk in the heightened tension environment geopolitically?

WONG: Well, there’s a couple of aspects to your question there. I think the first point is obviously we are in an era where there is more strategic competition. We are also in a new phase in our relationship with China. I think that is self-evident.

In terms of travel advice – which is really what your question goes to – that’s ultimately a matter that the Department of Foreign Affairs and the government need to consider closely.

MACDONALD: China is the focus of the trade war with the United States. Scott Morrison has been at the G7 in recent days, he’s given us an insight into his thinking about the bigger picture at play. That’s obviously something that your side of politics is thinking about deeply as well. Essentially the point he seems to be making is that China is no longer a developing nation. That means it’s outgrown the trade rules and that someone had to take Beijing on. Do you agree with that assessment of things?

WONG: I agree that the economic balance in the world, that the strategic and economic and geopolitical context is very different to how it was when the WTO was first established.

There are certainly issues in terms of whether or not the current trading rules reflect global realities. We should always make sure that our trade rules – the WTO – are fit for purpose. I would continue assert that – as I think we are seeing – that no one ultimately can win from a trade war.

There are economic consequences – risks to the financial sector, financial markets – which we’ve seen. There are broader risks and we would continue to encourage the US and China to resolve their trade differences. Having said that, I think it is reasonable to say that the global circumstances are very different, so the reforms of the WTO to reflect those is a sensible way forward.

MACDONALD: I’m interested in understanding what you think about this – whether Donald Trump’s personality and his involvement in this is actually distracting from what is a necessary stoush effectively; that much of the global trading community ultimately needs to have anyway with China.

WONG: I don’t think that those things necessarily follow. We know that the President has a certain political style – no president has tweeted, for example, in the way that he does. I think that there is a question about how we best go about reforming the World Trade Organization and global trading arrangements. Australia’s got a deep interest in that. We’re a trading nation where one in five Australian jobs depend on trade. We have an interest in trade rules not being determined by the size of the economy or by economic and political weight, but by being open, fair and transparent. We’ve got an interest in that.

MACDONALD: Scott Morrison has talked about a ‘what next’ moment in history as in what happens next in terms of China and it becoming part of a new global architecture, perhaps recognising it as a major power alongside the United States in more of the global geopolitical architecture. He hasn’t given a lot of detail of what that might look like. Do you have a vision of what that might look like?

WONG: I think that’s been underway for some time, that discussion, and there has been discussion about reform of the International Monetary Fund arrangements. There’s obviously been the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was Chinese led or Chinese initiated.

There’s currently a discussion in relation to World Trade Organization rules. There are a whole range of discussions which should occur about whether or not the current global architecture reflects China’s weight in the world. But I suppose what I’d say is I don’t think that discussion is necessarily helped by a trade conflict, which has obvious consequences for the global economy.

MACDONALD: We heard in the news that you’d written to Marise Payne early last week asking that all MPs have access to briefings on the relationship with China. Was that approved?

WONG: Oh, did she say yes or was my letter approved?

MACDONALD: Did she say yes?

WONG: I understand what she said on Insiders was that she wasn’t convinced by the need for briefings. My observation would be we are having a discussion about our relationship with China. It’s a relationship that matters greatly to Australia. There’s no scenario where China is not a key part of so many aspects of Australia’s future, including the architecture and shape of our region.

If we’re going to have that discussion, I would rather it was informed and sensible and reflected the national interest rather than having Liberal backbenchers who want to make a name for themselves making a splash in the paper. That was my motivation in writing to her.

MACDONALD: A few questions about domestic politics. The New South Wales corruption inquiry into allegations that back in 2015 the Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo gave the Labor Party an Aldi shopping bag stuffed with $100,000. The Prime Minister had a question for federal Labor, it is this – what does $100,000 buy you?

WONG: I think you can look at how I and the federal Labor Party have operated in relation to the China relationship and will see we have consistently been clear about Australia’s sovereignty and stood up for Australia’s interests. It is disappointing the Prime Minister would make those sorts of, frankly somewhat grubby comments.

More broadly, obviously there is some concerning evidence before the commission. I’ll wait to see the findings before I’m going to comment on a daily basis. I would make the point that Mr Morrison and his party continued to take foreign donations well after the Labor Party voluntarily refused them.

I’d make the point that it was only after delay from the government and the Labor Party advocating for it that foreign donations were banned in our political system, as they should be.

MACDONALD: It is worth pointing out that it’s the same administrative arm of the party –the state secretariat – that runs campaigns for both the federal party in New South Wales as well as the state party. So it’s a relevant question, isn’t it?

WONG: Well if the question goes to whether or not the position we take on certain policy matters is influenced, I think our record and my record as foreign spokesperson speaks for itself – that’s demonstrably is untrue.

MACDONALD: Many of our listeners will remember Sam Dastyari.

WONG: And Sam Dastyari was required to resign from parliament.

MACDONALD: Penny Wong, we always appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

WONG: Good to speak with you Hamish.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.