7 October 2016




DAVID SPEERS: Penny Wong, thank you for your time. Can I start on the South China Sea. What is your view about what China is doing, and how Australia should respond?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Obviously there has been a long-standing dispute over various territories within the South China Sea which has manifested in a range of maritime disputes. What we would say, from Australia’s perspective is a number of things. The first is all nations have benefitted from the international system of rules and norms, including in relation to maritime claims. They should be respected. We urge China to do so. We also say that these disputes should be settled peacefully, to urge China and other claimants to avoid any escalation.

SPEERS: You refer to maritime rules and norms. We have an International Court ruling now. It’s gone against China, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped it. If anything, when you look at the imagery, it is building what look like military assets on these islands.

WONG: And we’ve indicated our support for the ruling of the arbitration court. We think it certainly gave some insights into how the relevant convention should be applied in the South China Sea. What we would say to China is we urge you to respect that ruling. But ultimately these are matters that have to be resolved peacefully and whether it’s China or any other nation we would urge peaceful resolution.

SPEERS: The United States position on this, they have done a couple of so-called Freedom of Navigation Exercises. The last one though was back in January, so, some time ago now, and more recently it’s come to light that the Secretary of State John Kerry told his Chinese counterpart, the Chinese Foreign Minister, that it’s time for parties in this dispute to move away from tensions, and, quote, turn the page. How do you interpret that?

WONG: I don’t think there’s been anything said by Secretary Kerry or any person within the US Administration that suggest the United States is doing anything other than what Australia is doing, which is urging China and all parties to respect the system of international laws and rulings.

SPEERS: But what does that mean, “turn the page”?

WONG: You’d have to ask him that but what I would say is this: obviously, we continue, despite the fact we have a difference of views with China in relation to the South China Sea, we continue to collaborate with China, engage with China, on a range of issues, and it is in all of our interests for the US to do so as well.

It is not unusual in a relationship between two nations, and here we have a relationship between two great powers, to have areas of dispute. That doesn’t mean you walk away from areas of collaboration. We want the US and China to continue to collaborate and engage. A good relationship between those two nations is critical to global stability and in Australia’s interest.

SPEERS: But as a US ally, is Australia left in a somewhat confused position as to where the US stands, where the line is drawn and what it is willing to accept from China?

WONG: I don’t think anything that has been said, either by the Secretary or anyone else, suggests the United States is resiling from a position that Australia also holds. This system, the system of norms and rules that the international community has observed, should be recognised, should be continued. And let’s remember this is about access to global commerce, it’s about access to all the trade routes. A very large proportion of the world’s trade cargo goes through the South China Sea.

SPEERS: A lot of our trade.

WONG: A lot of our trade, and this system has served all nations well, including China.

SPEERS: The bottom line though, do you think Australia should now follow with one of these Freedom of Navigation exercises?

WONG: We have always made clear, as the Labor Party, what our policy position is. We should authorise such operations, but those operational matters are ultimately a matter for the ADF.

SPEERS: We should authorise those operations?

WONG: Bill Shorten has made clear what our policy position is, we should authorise appropriate operations and we support Freedom of Navigation, Freedom of Overflight.

SPEERS: Does that mean if we support Freedom of Navigation, Freedom of Overflight, we should demonstrate that?

WONG: I don’t think politicians telling our Defence Forces when and what to do operationally is the way to go. I certainly don’t propose to do that. But Australia’s position, the bipartisan position has been we support Freedom of Navigation, Freedom of Overflight.

SPEERS: Just to be clear on that, is it the role of the Government or the politician to authorise this action?

WONG: Bill Shorten has already made that clear that that is Labor’s position and that hasn’t changed.

SPEERS: So what is Labor’s position?

WONG: I’ve explained that to you.

SPEERS: But is it Labor’s position that the Navy should conduct one of these

WONG: We would authorise Freedom of Navigation exercise, but I’m not going to get into operational details.

SPEERS: But that means yes you would authorise?

WONG: I’ve already said that.

SPEERS: If China takes a further step and declares an Air Defence Zone over one of these South China Sea islands, how would you respond to that?

WONG: Well, firstly I’m obviously not in Government. Second, it is a hypothetical. What we would say to China though is that kind of unilateral action would not be consistent with the desire Australia has expressed for these disputes to be settled peacefully and for the matters to be de-escalated.

SPEERS: So that’s a “back-off, don’t do it”?

WONG: I think, where we’ve got a situation where you have got an area that is so important to global trade, so important to the region, where there is dispute over territorial claims, any unilateral action obviously can escalate the situation. We have consistently said parties should avoid escalation.

SPEERS: Can I ask you about Donald Trump, turning to the US Presidential election there, do you agree with Bill Shorten that he’s barking mad?

WONG: He’s an interesting character isn’t he?

SPEERS: That’s a bit more polite.

WONG: (laughs) I’m very polite. He is an interesting character, but I think there’s a couple of points here. First, this is an election that the American people will decide, not Australian commentators, not Australian politicians. It’s a matter for them.

The second point I’d make is that the US Alliance, our relationship with the United States, is bigger and stronger and more important than any single individual, that’s why it’s lasted for 75 years.

SPEERS: Do you fear though what the consequences might be if Trump becomes President for this part of the world, for the Asia-Pacific?

WONG: What we will continue to advocate for the United States is that the stability and peace of the Asia-Pacific region requires US engagement, continued US engagement, as well as leadership from regional players. And we would advocate that regardless of who was elected.

SPEERS: He’s made it very clear he’s against the TPP, the Trans Pacific Partnership. Would that represent less American engagement in the region?

WONG: There have been a number of concerns which have been raised about the Trans Pacific Partnership, concerns about the content, including in Australia. It has the potential to benefit the region.

I think in terms of what its implications are, I don’t think American engagement in the region is predicated only on the TPP. The United States Congress will make its decision about the Trans Pacific Partnership and what we would say is that US engagement in the region is really important, and it’s been important for a very long time, regardless of who the President is.

SPEERS: There’s also a concern about the Philippines at the moment, with the President there Duterte, particularly in the United States. He says President Obama should go to hell, and that he might break up with Washington. His Defence Chief says the President may have been misinformed about some of the defence partnership arrangements. How concerned are you about some of the language we are hearing from the Filipino President?

WONG: Some of the language is colourful. But as a matter of principle what I would say is this, we all have an interest in a peaceful, stable region. The peace and stability in the region has benefited from both US engagement and regional leadership from countries like the Philippines and others. And I think those principles will continue.

SPEERS: So, you’re not too troubled about what you hear from the President, it’s what the actions are?

WONG: Well, actions always speak louder than words don’t they.

SPEERS: Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, really good to talk to you, thanks for joining us.