A senior Chinese diplomat has accused the Australian government of triggering a downward spiral in the relationship by “conniving with the United States in a very unethical, illegal, immoral suppression” of Chinese telco Huawei.
Wang Xining, the deputy head of the Chinese embassy in Canberra, told the National Press Club that China had “done nothing intentionally to hurt this relationship”, despite the Australian government’s complaints about Beijing trade actions against a range of export sectors over the past year.
Wang argued on Wednesday that China had observed “too many incidents over the past few years” where China’s interests were hurt, including the Turnbull government’s ban on high-risk vendors, such as Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE, from Australia’s 5G network in 2018.
Wang made the remarks on the same day Australia’s most senior foreign affairs official, Frances Adamson, said countries were witnessing “a more assertive, ideological and transactional China” and “uncomfortable” competition between Beijing and Washington.
Beijing took exception to Australia’s early calls for an independent inquiry into the origins and handling of Covid-19 last year, but Wang argued on Wednesday that the downward trend in the relationship began years earlier.
He said Australia was among the first countries to “forcefully” accuse Huawei of posing a possible security threat, but that no evidence had been presented to substantiate those claims. He said Australia had then persuaded other countries to take a similar approach.
“Australia connived with the United States in a very unethical, illegal, immoral suppression of Chinese companies,” he said.
In an apparent reference to Malcolm Turnbull, Wang said that “one of your retired senior politicians claimed in his memoir that he’s the one” who had persuaded the then-US president Donald Trump about the security threat of Huawei.
But Wang said he wanted to hear Trump’s views about this claim to establish “who’s the real culprit and who’s the accomplice”.
Wang also renewed criticism of the Australian government for blocking several Chinese investment proposals over the past few years.
He said he did not see any obstacle for the resumption of a “normal” state of the relationship, so long as Australia provided “a fair and just and non-discriminatory business environment” to Chinese businesses and ensured it did not “obstruct” people-to-people exchange programs.
Wang observed that 2021 was the year of the Ox, a symbol of strength, resilience and perseverance.
“China is not a cow. I don’t think anybody should fancy the idea to milk China when she’s in her prime and plot to slaughter it in the end,” Wang said. “So we are open for collaboration and cooperation, but we’ll be very strong in defending our national interest.”
Wang was speaking at an event to mark the launch of the China Story yearbook, an annual project of the Australian National University’s Australian Centre on China in the World.
He did not answer directly when asked when the Australian journalist Cheng Lei – who has been arrested in China for unspecified breaches of security laws – would be able to see her children again. Wang said Cheng’s case would be “handled according to Chinese legal procedure”.
Wang denied the Chinese government was no longer providing a welcoming environment for foreign journalists following the departure of the final two Australian correspondents, the ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith, last year.
Smith, speaking at the press club event, said he and Birtles had become “pawns in this tit-for-tat political game” between the two countries. He said China’s decision to send public security police to his house late in the evening “was not a decision that was made on the spur of the moment”.
Smith said he had since discovered that security officials had been interviewing some of his friends and monitoring his home for a month beforehand.
“This all followed the Asio raids on the homes of Chinese journalists in Australia, which was obviously the trigger for what happened to us,” Smith said.
Smith said Cheng, a mother of two, had been detained since August last year. “I hope she gets to see her kids again one day, but the prospect of that happening any time soon doesn’t look good,” he said.
A senior BBC reporter, John Sudworth, also left China abruptly, bound for Taiwan, in March amid Beijing’s criticism of the broadcaster’s coverage of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Wang said China welcomed reporters “from every corner of the world” and did not “discriminate against any journalists” but hoped they would present a “true image of China”.
In a separate event on Wednesday, Adamson, the head of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat), said competition between the US and China was “impacting all aspects of global policy”.
Addressing the Asia Society in Melbourne, Adamson said Australian leaders and policymakers were “navigating a new and immensely challenging period in the Indo-Pacific”.
“Pressure on rules, norms and institutions is more acute, and tensions over territorial claims are escalating,” Adamson said. “The deployment of new threats like cyber-attacks and foreign interference is growing in frequency and sophistication. And, of course, Covid-19 has shown that Australia is only as healthy, strong and prosperous as our neighbourhood.”
Adamson said Australia’s engagement with south-east Asian countries “must evolve to support the stable and prosperous neighbourhood we need”.
The Dfat secretary said she had accompanied the prime minister and ministers on visits and in meetings with south-east Asian counterparts over the past five years, and there has been “a discernible shift in the nature of the conversation”.
Like Australia, Adamson said, countries in south-east Asia were grappling with “uncomfortable” trends and “seeking a settling point that does not diminish their voice or agency in the region”.