30 March 2023

Laura Jayes, Host: This week a delegation is attending the Bo’ao Asian Business Forum in China. It’s the first Australian representation at the summit in over half a decade, a positive step in thawing icy China relations given the circumstances. Now, the government is attempting to thread a diplomatic needle here, maintain a strong foothold in our region, appease China’s strong rhetoric after the AUKUS submarine deal and re-establish trade connections – and this is all happening at the same time.

Let’s take you live to China now. The Assistant Trade and Manufacturing Minister, Tim Ayres, joins us. Good to have a connection from China.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Trade Minister: Hello Laura.

Laura Jayes: So, what are you picking up from the Bo’ao Conference?

Assistant Minister: Well, it’s an enormous conference, really. It has business leaders from across the region, including from our hosts here, the Chinese Government, government representatives from across the region and, of course, representatives of the Chinese Government. As you say, I’m the first Australian Government representative to travel here since 2016 and it’s an important opportunity to prosecute the argument for Australia’s interest.

Laura Jayes: How is the reception?

Assistant Minister: Well, it’s been a very warm reception here. Had a series of constructive and positive meetings with members of the business community, including the Australian business community, some of whom are here, and also with my Chinese counterpart Vice-Minister Wang Shouwen, who I met with yesterday. So, it’s already been a series of useful engagements on behalf of the Australian Government and I’m looking forward to two more days here, Laura, before I hop on a plane and come back home.

Laura Jayes: There’s a lot of businesses and a whole economy, a lot of people relying on trade and therefore on you, Minister, to get these sanctions, all of the sanctions dropped, and get our trade back on track. Once you come home from China, what does success look like? Are you aiming to make serious inroads there or are you managing expectations a little bit better?

Assistant Minister: Well, as Don Farrell said the other day, these trade impediments weren’t imposed overnight and they won’t be resolved overnight, but we are on a purposeful, calm and consistent trajectory here where there’s been engagement at ministerial level, including my meeting with my counterpart earlier this year, Don Farrell with the Chinese Commerce Minister shortly following that and an invitation has been issued; we expect a meeting over the coming weeks and months between Don Farrell in China. Now, at every opportunity, including at official level, where there’s been very detailed discussions about these trade impediments, we are making the case for the Australian national interest. There has been some progress. Your viewers will have seen that coal imports to China have not just been contracted for, but coal has arrived in Chinese ports.

Laura Jayes: Coal is a good thing sometimes, then?

Assistant Minister: Well, we aim to be a reliable partner for the export of our commodities and products, and coal and gas are important, and it is an important objective for the government to secure the return of coal into the Chinese market. Now, that has occurred. There is still some progress to go, progress over issues like seafood, wine and barley that are the subject of WTO disputes.

This is going to require careful and thorough and consistent application over a period of time. These trade impediments should never have been imposed in the first place. They’re bad for Australian exporters, arguably bad for Chinese consumers, but they are bad for the confidence of participants in the region in the rules-based order and in normal trade. We’ve been making that case consistently and we’ll keep making it, and I’ve been encouraged by the access and the constructive discussions that have occurred thus far.

Laura Jayes: Okay. Well, you’re in China. We appreciate you talking to us from China because transparency is really important when we’re dealing with one of our biggest trading partners, but the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, has not been so forthcoming. He as a Premier is going or in China at the moment on a trip there to talk about trade and education. He refused to take media with him. He’s only done one interview with state-owned television. That was out of Hong Kong. Do you think that’s acceptable when we talk about how important democracy is?

Assistant Minister: Well, it’s been - I’ve read the reports from the Australian press and Premier Andrews has had his offices brief the department, he’s engaged with the Government prior to his departure. I mean, it is a challenge – 

Laura Jayes: Engaged with the government, sure, but – 

Assistant Minister: Engaged with the Australian Government.

Laura Jayes: What about the rest of us, i.e., the public?

Assistant Minister: Well, it is a problem, to be fair, that there are no Australian journalists in China.

Laura Jayes: But isn’t that the point? Isn’t that the point, that if you believe in democracy and you’re the Victorian Premier, you’re going to China – and yes, I understand how difficult it is for journalists to get there, but he could have used this opportunity at the very least to make a point, saying, “I’m getting to China. We need to get the relationships back on track. Our trade is important but we are a democracy in Australia; a central tenet of that is a free press. Therefore, I’m bringing them with me”? It’s not unreasonable.

Assistant Minister: As I understand it, his objectives are around issues like the education sector in Victoria and the access of Chinese students to the education sector and a range of similar issues. I can’t speak to his media schedule or his itinerary, but I’m sure that he’ll be available on his return for interviews. It is a problem, Laura, that there’s no [indistinct] in China – 

Laura Jayes: He hasn’t put himself up for an interview for a while. That conference you’re at, I’ve been there. I’ve been there with previous leaders. I’ve been there with, I think, two previous leaders. So, it’s not, you know, beyond our capacity.

Assistant Minister: Well, I think it is certainly the case that in 2020 and 2021, and 2022, that Australian journalists have not been able to be in China. We have different systems, of course. In Australia, we value freedom of the press and freedom of movement and these concepts. They are important to our understanding of democracy. It would be a good thing if there were Australian journalists in the corridors of the conference that I’m at and in China more broadly. It would serve to mean that there was better information, better analysis, and, you know, so it’s in the interests of both countries, in my view, as well as in the interests of the press gallery. I know there’s a lot of interest in this subject and, you know, I’ve tried to do as much media engagement, not just with the international press and the Chinese press who are here, but also with Australian media while I’ve been on this trip.

It’s not perfect and I expect that Mr Andrews is encountering the same challenges, and, you know, we’ve got to focus on what our objective is here and we’ll raise these issues in a consistent and calm way as we work to stabilise the relationship.

Laura Jayes: All right. Tim Ayres, we really appreciate you speaking to us from Bo’ao. We appreciate the line staying steady for us and no mysterious cut-outs. It’s been good.

Assistant Minister: That’s very good. All right. I’ll see you in a week or so.

Laura Jayes: See you soon.