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Q+A recap: Panel takes aim at global ‘bully’ China, debating whether engagement or confrontation is best option


Tensions between China and Australia, brought to the fore during the coronavirus crisis, has taken centre stage on Q+A, with one panellist accusing our key trading partner of being an international “bully”.

Monday’s panel, brought together to discuss the ‘post-COVID world order’, included former diplomat now Liberal MP for Wentworth Dave Sharma, Labor Senator and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove and Australia director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson.

Top-of-mind was Australia’s push for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which recently prompted the Chinese ambassador to warn it could lead to a boycott of Australian products in China.

Viewer Subhash Bhagava asked if Australia should be more careful about its choice of friends.

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Senator Wong said Australia had no choice but to continue trading with China even if it disagreed with its values.

“It’s a great power, it’s a great economic power, and it’s asserting its interests,” Senator Wong said.

“There are differences at times between our interests and we have to constructively and productively navigate those differences.

Penny Wong holds her hands in the air as she sits at the leader's seat in the Senate
Penny Wong called for pragmatism in Australia’s dealings with China.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Mr Fullilove said Chinese diplomats were conducting “wolf warrior diplomacy” — a term that derives from China’s most successful film — looking only to impress Beijing. He said rejecting scrutiny over the coronavirus was “outrageous behaviour”.

Mr Sharma said China needed to take greater blame for diplomatic disputes.

“The Chinese style of defining and putting forward its interests has changed pretty dramatically over the last several years … most notably under this new leadership in Beijing,” Mr Sharma said.

“There is still a tendency in Australia to think if something is going wrong with the relationship, it must be our fault.

‘China showing it’s a bully’

Viewer Tim McLean, an Australian based in Wuhan, criticised the Federal Government and asked why Australia was creating “so much tension with our biggest trading partner”.

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Ms Pearson said Australia made the right call to stand up to China, which she described as a “bully”.

She said China was pushing back against calls for an inquiry into the coronavirus because it was not used to being questioned.

“We very rarely see Australia’s voice on issues in China, and I think that needs to change,” Ms Pearson said.

“What Australia called for … is what any responsible global power should want.

“I understand from the questioner that he’s frustrated that this seems like missteps on the part of the Australian Government, but let’s be clear about where these missteps originated and why we’re in this predicament — that’s because of the mishandling of this crisis in China.”

Asked whether Australia could afford to upset its biggest trading partner and a significant military power in the Asia-Pacific region, Ms Pearson said there was no other choice.

“I think China is showing it’s a bully,” she said.

“[But] the whole world is affected by this pandemic and I really think it’s important that other countries come on board.”

Mr Fullilove said both countries needed the other and business leaders such as Kerry Stokes and Andrew Forrest, who are pushing for Canberra to temper its words, had a “legitimate case”.

“It’s in China’s interests that the relationship get back on track as well, because we supply many of the resources that fuel China’s economic growth,” he said.

“The world is watching how China behaves towards Australia here.

Wife used for ‘hostage diplomacy’?

Activist Sadam Abdusalam again raised China’s persecution of its Uyghur population, demanding his wife and child be allowed to leave the far western region of Xinjiang to join him in Australia.

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He said following Australia’s recent criticism of China, his wife was taken to a police station and questioned for six hours in an incident he called an act of “hostage diplomacy”.

He asked if this was linked to Australia calling for an international investigation into China’s pandemic response.

Ms Pearson called on the Australian Government to do more for the family.

“Has the Australian Government actually sent someone to Xinjiang to try and bring back his son and his wife? I think that really has to happen,” she said.

“It’s completely unacceptable for the Chinese Government to be using an Australian child effectively as a hostage in this sort of political negotiation.”

Asked by host Hamish Macdonald if Ms Pearson thought the questioning was connected to Australia’s push for an investigation, she said it appeared so.

Watch the full episode of Q+A on iview or catch up on Facebook.



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