Singapore: Scott Morrison says Australia will not take sides amid escalating tensions between the United States and China, as China’s Premier Li Keqiang hailed Mr Morrison’s ascension to the leadership as an opportunity to repair the Australia-China relationship.
Mr Li also told Mr Morrison that Australia should provide a non-discriminatory and fair environment for Chinese investors. In the past 2½ months, Australia has blocked Huawei from bidding for the 5G network and vetoed the takeover of the APA Group by Hong Kong’s CKI Group.
With the US and China locked in a trade war and competing for regional influence, the temperature rose a notch on Thursday when US Vice-President Mike Pence told the ASEAN summit in Singapore that “empire and aggression has no place in the Indo-Pacific”.
He said the US was a seeking “collaboration, not control”.
“Our vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation. It only requires that nations treat their neighbours with respect, and respect the sovereignty of our nations and international rules and order,” Mr Pence said.
US President Donald Trump chose not to attend the summit, nor the Asia-Pacific Economic summit, which begins on Saturday in Papua New Guinea, but Mr Pence said that should not be mistaken as a sign the US was disengaging with the region.
“The United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific is steadfast and enduring,” he said.
Although Australian security policy is in lock-step with that of the US and other regional allies, including Japan, Mr Morrison said Australia would continue to try to navigate the tensions between the regional superpowers and nurture relations with both, rather than take sides.
“Our relationships with each of these major partners are different, and they’re both successful. Australia doesn’t have to choose and we won’t choose,” he said after Mr Pence’s comments.
“We will continue to work constructively with both partners based on the core of what those relationships are.”
Mr Morrison met Mr Li late Wednesday night on the sidelines of the ASEAN/East Asia Summit.
In a dig at former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and former foreign minister Julie Bishop, under whom the relationship grew testy, Mr Li told Mr Morrison the leadership change represented a “turning point”.
“This is the first annual dialogue between the Chinese premier and the Australian prime minister after you took office,” he told Mr Morrison.
“This is also a meeting that is a turning point after our ups and downs in relations.”
He also pointed out the need for “equal-footed cooperation” and that “we need to approach our relations with a view of mutual benefit”.
A translation of the meeting provided by China’s Foreign Ministry also mentioned Mr Li tackling Mr Morrison over foreign investment.
“China will continue to open its door and build a business environment that equally treats domestic and foreign businesses. China also hopes Australia [will] provide a non-discriminatory and fair environment for Chinese investors,” Mr Li said.
In his short time in office, Mr Morrison has sought to strike a more diplomatic tone with Beijing, even if the Pacific pivot he announced before coming to Singapore is regarded as trying to block China spreading her influence in the South-West Pacific.
The pivot included $3 billion in infrastructure loans and grants and five new diplomatic posts.
This was in addition to a separate trilateral infrastructure initiative involving Australia, the United States and Japan, which is a rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and will be road tested at this weekend’s Asia-Pacific Cooperation summit in Port Moresby.
On Thursday, Australia expanded the Pacific Labour Scheme to all Pacific island countries in another diplomatic gesture.
On Friday, Mr Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will sign an agreement in Darwin, which will see increased military cooperation between the two allies.
These moves have prompted a testy response from Beijing with China’s Vice-Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang saying the Pacific region was “not any country’s sphere of influence” and accusing Australia and her allies of a Cold War mentality.
Mr Morrison rejected this, saying Australia was not trying to exclude anyone, a point he made to Premier Li.
He noted there would be difficulties from time to time but a mature relationship should be able to cope with these.
“These dialogues are an important part of continuing to manage that partnership and to identify issues and to be able to see areas that we are able to work more closely together, and to work through issues that from time to time we have to.”
He did raise with Mr Li the issue of the South China Sea.
Labor leader Bill Shorten is also promising a more nuanced approach to China and the US if elected.
“A future Labor government will not view China through the prism of worst-case scenarios,” he said.
“China and North Asia is crucial to our export markets, a lot of our economic success is built by the rising middle-class of China. At the same time, we’ve got to respect our traditional, historic, alliance with the United States. What we have to do is practice foreign policy with an Australian accent.”