Commonwealth relying on public servants to engage with China ‘as they always have’, Morrison says

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday November 26, 2020

Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a virtual press conference at Parliament House. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Australian Public Service officials are not expected to solve the problems with Australia-China relations and should focus on engaging with Chinese officials in the same way as they would with those from any other nation, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said.

During question time at the APS200 virtual forum on Wednesday, one public servant asked Morrison if there is any centralised guidance for public servants who have direct working relationships with China, stating that “there doesn’t appear to be a lot of consistency in terms of our approach and how we go about trading off things like domestic commercial interests against our wider trade and relationship interests”.

Morrison said public servants are expected to engage with their international counterparts “as they always have”.

“Our public officials are not burdened with the overlays of the international relations in the same way ministers or prime ministers are. And I think one of the advantages that you would have is to be able to engage on the technical, on the direct, leverage on the relationships that you already have,” he said.

“And I would see that as an important connection, particularly at a time when there are tensions.”

He said he and other ministers are relying on officials to just get the job done.

“Whether it’s dealing with issues on barley or fisheries or any of these sorts of things where there are technical matters being raised, well, we’ve just got to work the problem,” Morrison said.

“I’m not asking officials to solve the international relations issue, that falls to me and ministers and others. And, you know, that’s a complex and it’s a difficult environment.

“Keep up the connections and do all you can to improve them and keep the dialogue going at that level, because business and industry are relying on that to enable us to try and mitigate the impact of some of these measures that are being introduced … Stick within the lines.”

Read more: Australia’s actions ‘wrongly seen’ through lens of China-US strategic competition, Morrison says

Just last week China-Australia relations appeared to hit an all time low after the Chinese embassy in Canberra leaked a document containing 14 complaints against Australia to Nine News, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

However, when accepting the inaugural Grotius Prize earlier this week, Morrison noted that “Australia is not and has never been in the economic containment camp on China” because Australia recognises that the economic rise of China is a good thing for the global economy.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has since said Morrison’s “positive comments on the global influence of China’s economic growth and China’s poverty alleviation efforts” have been noticed.

“On China-Australia relations, we hope Australia will make independent, objective, sensible choices that serve its own interests,” he said.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson on Wednesday discussed Australia’s future challenges in regards to the strategic landscape, including those involving China.

“The rest of the world has done a lot of thinking about China’s power and what it means. But it is less apparent that China has carefully considered other countries’ reactions to its conduct internationally,” she told the ANU National Security College.

“China may have reached a point where it believes that it can largely set the terms of its future engagement with the world. If it has, it is mistaken — and that is because there is far more to be gained for China, and for everyone else, through working constructively and collaboratively within the international system, without resort to pressure or coercion.”

She said that while the future of the Indo-Pacific region depends in part on China’s decisions, it also depends on the decisions made by other countries in the Indo-Pacific, including the US.

This means the main challenge for Australia’s foreign policy is “one of shaping, with other countries, a regional and global order that responds to the new realities of power”.

“Inevitably, we are involved in a competition for influence — because how the regional order evolves will profoundly shape our security and other interests. If Australia did not have an agenda and exercise agency then we would have simply to accept the terms dictated by others,” Adamson said.

Read more: Former Ambassador calls for ‘massive investment’ in diplomacy amid spiraling China relations


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