Penny Wong says she is open to meeting with Chinese counterpart at G20

Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, has signalled she is open to meeting her Chinese counterpart at a looming meeting of G20 foreign ministers, but she has warned any diplomatic thaw will require the removal of Beijing’s “coercive” trade sanctions against a variety of exports.

Wong was asked during a visit to Singapore on Wednesday to disclose whether or not arrangements were now in place for a conversation at the G20 meeting in Indonesia later this week – and if so, what her message would be to China’s Wang Yi.

Australia’s foreign minister told reporters she believed that both countries had an interest in “stabilising the relationship” and ministers in the Albanese government were “open to engagement, and that extends to the G20 also”.

Wong said at a joint press conference with her Singaporean counterpart, Vivian Balakrishnan: “Obviously these arrangements are very fluid, but that stance of being open to engagement, that willingness to engage, remains our position, including at the G20.”

Borrowing a locution from the Singaporean prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, Wong characterised the relationship between Australia and China as “complex and consequential” and she said the new government in Canberra intended to remain “calm, considered and disciplined” in public pronouncements on the relationship.

But she said any rapprochement would need to be predicated on “the importance of those coercive [trade] measures being removed” and respect for the international rules-based order, because “power and size ought not to resolve differences”.

She intimated there were a spectrum of views in the Indo-Pacific and south-east Asia about China’s rise, but the principle of respecting sovereignty was “shared by many countries in the region even if they have different views on other issues”.

“If you want to continue to have a region and a nation prosper, you want a certain degree of predictability around things like your trading arrangements,” Wong said.

Australia’s new trade minister, Don Farrell, confirmed this week Wong was in talks to meet Wang Yi. Asked if the pair could meet soon, such as at the upcoming G20 meeting in Indonesia, Farrell told Guardian Australia: “I don’t exactly know, but it looks like the answer to that is yes. I think there are positive signs.”

Australia has complained about China’s trade sanctions against a range of exports including meat, crayfish, timber and coal, and is currently pursuing trade disputes in the World Trade Organization over anti-dumping tariffs on Australian wine and barley.

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Wong in the past has vowed to take every opportunity to demand the Chinese government scrap “unjustified trade strikes” – a message she repeated in Singapore on Wednesday.

But in Australia, Farrell struck a more conciliatory note. “So at the moment the plan is to proceed with those [disputes]. Obviously if the opportunity arises to have a different set of discussions, whereby we can nut out a compromise situation, then I’d be fully supportive of going down that track.”

Wong will go to the G20 foreign ministers meeting after her program in Singapore.

On Wednesday night she gave a broad-ranging address to the Institute of Strategic Studies outlining the new government’s view about regional engagement, and ahead of a possible meeting with her counterpart she challenged China to exert its influence with Russia to end the illegal invasion of Ukraine.

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Wong declared the region and the world were “now looking at Beijing’s actions in relation to Ukraine”.

Australia’s foreign minister said China had an obligation as “a great power, a permanent member of the Security Council, and with its no limits partnership with Russia” to exert influence with Vladimir Putin. If China was prepared to do that, that “would do a great deal to build confidence in our own region”.

Wong said the Albanese government’s foreign policy view was Australia must find its security “in Asia, not from Asia – and that means, above all, in south-east Asia”. She said Australia wanted “to continue to build alignment together and with others to help shape outcomes in ways that support our collective interests”.

“Regardless of the character of leadership Beijing chooses to demonstrate, we all have our own choices to make, and our own agency to exercise,” Wong said on Wednesday night. “We are more than just supporting players in a grand drama of global geopolitics, on a stage dominated by great powers.

“It is up to all of us to create the kind of region we aspire to – a stable, peaceful, prosperous and secure region,” she said. “It is up to all of us to work towards a strategic equilibrium in the region.”

She also addressed the Aukus partnership, which remains an irritant in Australia’s relations with neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

In late June, Malaysia’s foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, said his country’s concerns about the Aukus nuclear submarine pact remained unchanged after meeting Wong in Kuala Lumpur.

Wong said in a region where strategic equilibrium allowed countries to make their own sovereign choices, “including about their alignments and partnerships”, it should be unremarkable “that Australia would seek enhanced defence capability from our allies, in the form of nuclear-powered submarines”.

With regional partners concerned the submarine tie-up between Australia, the US and the UK would fuel a regional arms race, Wong said Australia had no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons. And implicitly addressing concerns that Aukus was hatched in secret, Wong said Australia would “keep our key partners informed as we progress”.

The Guardian

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