An opposition frontbencher has accused the Australian government of having “started a war with China” and allowing the relationship to slip to its lowest level since the Tiananmen Square massacre.
While launching his mostly strongly worded attack on the government’s handling of the relationship to date, the former Labor minister Joel Fitzgibbon also suggested the Coalition should have used this week’s budget to compensate Australian barley growers hit by China’s 80% tariffs.
Fitzgibbon, who is Labor’s agriculture and resources spokesperson, told a National Rural Press Club event in Canberra on Thursday that those farmers had been “directly affected by the poor decisions of their government”.
Appearing at the same event, the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, took exception to the criticism, insisting that the Australian government would not compromise on its values and would continue to seek dialogue with the Chinese government to resolve trade disputes.
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Littleproud revealed that he had most recently sought to have a conversation with his Chinese government counterpart in late August but was told the minister was unavailable.
The disclosure adds to the sense that Australian ministers have been frozen out of dialogue with their direct counterparts since the dispute over Australia’s call in May for an independent global investigation into the origins and handling of the coronavirus.
Fitzgibbon took aim at the Coalition’s handling of the relationship with Beijing – including both the Turnbull and Morrison governments – when asked whether Australia needed to reduce its economic dependence on China.
“Diversifying our markets is the day job of every government,” Fitzgibbon said.
“Are members of the government telling me that they only started thinking about diversifying our markets when they started a war with China? No, of course, we do that every day. I do it in my local economy, in the Hunter region, looking for diversity all the time.”
Fitzgibbon said while Australia needed to stand up for its values and interests, it needed to take steps to normalise the relationship.
He pointed to trade actions taken by China since May, including the barley tariffs, the suspension of imports from five red meat processing plants and the trade investigation into wine.
Fitzgibbon was later asked what he meant by Australia starting a war and how it had done so. “We are in an economic war with China,” he said. “That is a reality.”
“The Australia-China relationship has fallen to a point never seen since Tiananmen Square, probably worse than that point.”
Asked if Beijing bore responsibility for the steps it had taken against Australia, he said China was an emerging global power that was “having tensions with all sorts of countries all the time”.
But he pointed to the phase one trade deal struck between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump this year, saying the trading relationship between China and the US was “to some extent … going OK at Australia’s expense”.
Fitzgibbon said the 2009 defence white paper, crafted when he was defence minister, was “very much about China” but the government tried to “diplomatically weave our way with the language” to ensure it did not offend any country.
He contended that that sort of “diplomacy and statecraft” was gone from the Australian government’s approach.
He pointed to some of the language Malcolm Turnbull had used in adopting a stronger line against China and the government’s changes to foreign investment review board thresholds “which discriminated against China”.
“There’s no conciliatory language coming out of this government, in fact the prime minister doubled down last week,” he said. “There is no sign the Australian government is taking this seriously or taking any steps to repair the damage done by it.”
Littleproud brushed off Fitzgibbon’s line of attack, saying he and the trade minister, Simon Birmingham, would continue to press for dialogue, saying Australia was handling the trade issues in a “calm, methodical way”.
The agriculture minister said it had been “a commercial decision of exporters and industry to hone in on one market” but the government had actively sought to open up new markets since coming to office in 2013.
Littleproud said the Coalition had struck trade agreements with Japan, South Korea, China, Peru, Indonesia and Hong Kong and helped salvage the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the US withdrawal, while negotiations were under way with the European Union and United Kingdom.
“That’s diversification, so with all due respect our track record looks pretty good,” he said.
Littleproud also pushed back at Fitzgibbon’s comment that Australia’s barley farmers had hoped for help in the budget because they had been hurt by “by bad decisions of their own government”.
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“Joel’s saying that this is bad behaviour,” Littleproud said. “Bad behaviour? Standing up for the values and principles of the Australian people?
“That is what we believe. We’re a fair nation, we are a good global citizen, we want to make sure that everyone acts fairly.
“We haven’t undertaken poor behaviour. We have respected and protected the Australian people.’”
Labor has generally sought to project a bipartisan position on foreign policy but has previously criticised the government in general terms over its management of the China relationship. The main criticism from Labor has been that the government has left a leadership void that has been filled by outspoken, hawkish backbenchers.
Fitzgibbon quit as defence minister in June 2009, several months after he admitted failing to declare gifts – two trips to China and a suit – paid for by Chinese businesswoman, Helen Liu.
The post-budget debate between Littleproud and Fitzgibbon was hosted by the National Rural Press Club but held at the National Press Club in Canberra.