19 April 2018




KIERAN GILBERT: I spoke a bit earlier this morning to the Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong. She’s had briefings in Washington over the last 24 hours with the Pentagon, CIA and FBI among other talks there and I started by asking her what she has made of Donald Trump’s approach to North Korea.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: I have said before that we welcome the opening of dialogue with North Korea if it can lead to a de-escalation and more importantly in the long-term if it can lead to the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

It is logical that the President would ensure that the meeting is prepared and this appears to be what Mr Pompeo has been doing.

What I would say though is that we have to approach this with some degree of scepticism. We’ve seen North Korea previously make commitments that it hasn’t adhered to. We have seen North Korea behave somewhat erratically. So one thing that is very important is to make sure whilst all this is going on that the international community remain united and resolute in continuing the pressure on North Korea, both diplomatically and economically through the sanctions regime. This is not a time to let up any of that pressure.

GILBERT: While this has been some progress, if you were told that this was going to happen a couple of years ago I don’t think many people would take you seriously. This is extraordinary really in terms of how fast this has progressed isn’t it?

WONG: It is certainly a different approach from the approach that Kim Jong-un has taken until this year. We saw an increase in the tempo of testing, an increase in the level of rhetoric from North Korea, and that was from a reasonably high base in terms of the rhetorical aggression.

This is a different approach. It remains to be seen if he is genuine and it remains to be seen if there can be progress. That’s why it is so important, as I said, for the international community to remain united in continuing the pressure on the regime, notwithstanding any change in their rhetoric, or any change in the approach they are taking.

GILBERT: Is it possible, and is it your view, that the Trump approach, it’s unpredictable but maybe it’s thrown the likes of Kim Jong-un off kilter? The argument’s being made that it has had a similar effect on China in terms of making them more likely to cooperate on this front. Do you think it is doing the same thing when it comes to that rogue regime?

WONG: I think that it is very difficult to tell. It’s possible, it’s possible also that the sanctions are biting, it’s possible there is a combination of factors, some of which we are not aware of which has led to the regime, and Kim Jong-un in particular, making a decision to go down this path or to try this path for a period of time. But I think the more important thing is how it is handled from the global perspective and the global community has to continue to put the pressure on.

GILBERT: One thing that the North Koreans I guess would be looking at would be Trump’s response elsewhere, and along with the UK and France, where they responded very quickly and forcefully against that suspected chemical attack in Douma. So, I guess any suggestion that he might not act if they cross a red line, well, he’s showing that he will.

WONG: I’m not sure you can extrapolate from the limited strike in relation to the use of chemical weapons and make a broader proposition about what the US response might be to any other particular provocation.

Certainly in relation to the former, that is the use of chemical and biological weapons against civilians that the Syrian regime engaged in, the Opposition has made clear we support the response, from not just the US, UK and France, three permanent members of the Security Council, for the reasons I’ve outlined. The world has made its view clear in terms of the prohibition of the use of these weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons and we do need to ensure that that norm, as best we are able to, is enforced. That’s why we supported that strike.

GILBERT: I understand your point, it obviously makes a lot of sense, you wouldn’t extrapolate from one to the other given the enormity of any such action on the Korean Peninsula. But the thing that I guess many people are observing is the change in dynamic around Donald Trump with John Bolton the well-known super hawk, as they call him, very much a hawkish individual from the Bush Administration, now his national security adviser and also Pompeo himself, the CIA Director and Secretary of State designate, someone you might have to work with as of next year, that he too is hawk on these matters.

WONG: There has been a change in the personnel in the Administration, quite a substantial number of changes. Also, obviously, as you said, at the National Security Adviser level and the Secretary of State level, pending confirmation. There is no doubt there has been some strong statements made here in the US, and more generally about North Korea.

What we all want to see is the denuclearisation of the peninsula. We all want to see that done peacefully. We hope that can occur. It’s certainly a hard task. What we do need to ensure is, as I said, we continue the pressure of the economic and diplomatic sanctions that have been put in place and which have been adhered to and enforced and participated in by many members of the international community including China.

GILBERT: You’ve had briefings today at the Pentagon, with the CIA, FBI as well. Obviously you have been preoccupied but in London four members of the Five Eyes nations, including Prime Minister Turnbull, issuing a strong rebuke against Russia for not respecting the rule of law from cyber crime, to that attack in Salisbury against that former spy. I guess this would have featured during some of your discussions as well in Washington?

WONG: Russia’s activities have become increasingly well-known to the broader public. We’ve seen not only the attack in Salisbury that you referred to, but we’ve also seen a lot of disinformation, a lot of misinformation being promulgated through mainstream media and social media.

In addition, in the last 48 hours or so, there has been a decision by the US, UK and Australia to essentially name and shame and indicate that Russia was responsible for the cyber attack that was discussed.

I do think it is important to make clear to Russia that the international community does expect adherence to certain norms and the behaviour that I’ve outlined and that you referred to in the Prime Minister’s statement is not consistent with those.

GILBERT: Finally, the last issue I want to canvass with you is the front page of The Australian today is a rare interview with the Chinese ambassador to Canberra. Ambassador Cheng has said a number of things. I’ll read them to you and get your reaction to them. He’s said if there is a growing lack of mutual trust in the long run it may have some undesirable impact – this was in the context of trade relations with China. He says from the latter part of last year we have seen a kind of systematic irresponsible negative remarks and comments regarding China which has caused adverse impacts on bilateral relations. What do you say to his concerns, very clear concerns expressed by China’s representative in the paper today?

WONG: I’ll respond, not just to him but to you and more generally. I think we have to distinguish here between substance and tone. In terms of substance, as I have said, safeguarding Australia’s sovereignty is above politics and that is manifest in many ways. One of the ways in which it is manifest is Labor’s support, in fact Labor’s promulgation of legislation to ban foreign donations for some time and our indicated support for the appropriate set of laws to seek to prevent foreign interference in our political processes. So that is the substantive position.

When it comes to tone and language we have seen a deal of clumsiness from this Government. I have said this before, I think we saw the Prime Minister engage in language which was unnecessary towards the end of last year. We saw the then Deputy Prime Minister Mr Joyce make some irresponsible remarks suggesting that China was a worse threat than the terrorists. We have seen clumsy language from Connie Fierravanti-Wells.

Every government, every Australian government of both political persuasions has had to manage differences with China. We are seeing that this government’s management of those differences has been characterised by too much clumsiness in recent times.

GILBERT: My understanding is that the embassy in Beijing is basically being frozen out of contact with official channels and has to go through think tanks and that sort of thing to get any sort of understanding of what the Chinese Communist Party government thinks about Australia. In that context how do you resolve this? How do you smooth it over? Do you think the Prime Minister needs to go to Beijing, meet with Xi Jinping and have a frank discussion? Is that how you do it? How do you smooth out these very clear tensions?

WONG: We need to become better at managing difference. The government needs to become better and less clumsy at managing differences in the relationship.

It’s not a new thing for Australia’s national interest to be different to China’s national interest. That has historically been so and will continue to be so over time. There are times we agree and there times we disagree, it is always so.

How you manage that at a political level is important and I think the one factor I have observed in these last months is the tone and language from some of our political leaders has been unfortunate.

GILBERT: Ambassador Cheng says as we have said repeatedly we have no intention nor have we in any way intervened in the Australian political process. Do you accept that? Because a lot of security experts, analysts, say they would repudiate that.

WONG: Australia should ensure that our sovereignty is safeguarded and I think that this does require changes to our regulatory framework. It does require the prohibition of foreign donations and it does require greater transparency when it comes to the lobbying efforts on behalf of foreign governments from a range of different nations. I think that transparency and disclosure is an important part of updating the regulatory framework.

The United States has had that type of legislation for some time, a little different, but the same principle as the legislation that the committee of which I’m a part is currently considering. Now, that is an issue that we should progress in a bipartisan way.

GILBERT: Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong joining me from Washington a bit earlier this morning.

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.