Penny Wong calls on diplomats to explain Australia-China relationship

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent
Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

Labor’s shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, has called on diplomats to use their “soft power” to explain Australia’s complex relationship with China, saying a well-informed discussion is needed to protect against suspicion and xenophobia.

In a speech to Australia’s global heads of mission in Canberra on Tuesday, Wong said that while diplomats were charged with “explaining Australia to the world” there was a growing need to also share their knowledge and expertise domestically.

“Perhaps this is most pressing when it comes to Australia’s relationship with China,” Wong said.

“China is, and will continue to be, of great importance to Australia, the region and the world. It is a relationship that is both complex and consequential, and only getting more so.”

“The key question for Australia is: how do we best make the relationship work for us?”

Wong, who has called for the department of foreign affairs and office of national intelligence to brief MPs on the China relationship, told diplomats that relevant agencies should determine the form and content of any briefing given to MPs, suggesting they could be similar to those already provided to the business community.

Related: Kevin Rudd accuses Liberals of stirring up hysteria about China

“I believe it would be very helpful for parliamentarians to better understand the points of convergence in our relationship with China, and the points of divergence, and to understand how the Government is handling them,” she said.

“The discussion on China is happening anyway (and) it is in the interest of a sensible, calm and mature debate, and the hope of promoting a bipartisan approach to the relationship, that that discussion be well-informed.”

Wong said that Australians wanted to understand the relationship better, but it was particularly important and consequential for the more than one million Australians who made up the Chinese diaspora.

“The implications of how this discussion is handled in Australia is not esoteric – it has direct consequence for the wellbeing of many of our fellow Australians, and we need to bear that in mind,” she said.

“We must not allow this current discussion to be tainted by xenophobia and suspicion.”

Arguing the relationship with China was often wrongly viewed as a binary – with China portrayed as either a threat or an opportunity, and Australia needing to side with one country over another, Wong said the diplomatic corps could help explain why this approach was often contrary to the national interest.

“The nuance that diplomacy brings to discussion has never been more important”.

Wong pointed to the importance of Australia’s engagement amid the growing tensions between the US and China, saying there was a risk of “becoming collateral.”

She also used the speech to criticise the government for cuts to the aid budget and the decision to shut down the Australia Network and ABC shortwave radio transmission in the Pacific, calling it “a triumph of ideology over interest.”

“In the current context of the Pacific Step-Up it really is an own goal.”

“Foreign affairs is an expression of identity as much as policy (and) without the lack of a fully-formed and all-encompassing soft power strategy, we can never fully maximise our influence.”

Related: Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmao denies donating $100,000 to NSW Labor

Australia’s relationship with China has become more politically sensitive as the trade war between the US and China heats up, with several Coalition backbenchers urging the government to call out China’s authoritarianism.

Labor is also at the centre of a political storm in NSW over donations made by a banned Chinese billionaire property developer, Huang Xiangmo, who was denied re-entry into Australia earlier this year amid concerns raised by security agencies.

In a meeting of Labor MPs on Tuesday, one caucus member asked about how Labor was managing the relationship, raising concern about the prime minister, Scott Morrison, referring to China as a “customer”.

Wong informed MPs that she had not yet heard from the foreign minister, Marise Payne, in response to her request for bipartisan parliamentary briefings on the relationship.