KIERAN GILBERT: Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, thanks so much for your time. I'm interested in your comments on Julie Bishop's remarks on China today. The Sydney Morning Herald front page says "Bishop to China: Bring it on" Is that the message when it comes to infrastructure in the Pacific that we're sending to Beijing?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, that's the message from the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, but that's not what Julie said. If you look at what Julie's comments were about, and I know a little bit about this, Kieran, because I served previously as Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Our focus is upon being a sustainable long-term partner for our friends in the Pacific. These are, many of them, small island states, they're nations that have a number of really particular challenges because they've got small populations and they've got economies that need to develop and diversify. Part of what they need to look at is what vehicle they use to fund new infrastructure in the region. And so our argument simply is to make the point to them that Australia's a natural partner for them, we'll work together with them in a sustainable way, so that they can build the infrastructure that their economies need.

KIERAN GILBERT: When it comes to the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a big focus when we talk about China, infrastructure in the region and some of the suggestions that this is sharp diplomacy that they're putting in place here, by, you know, engaging in infrastructure builds but then having these small countries in debt to them, therefore under pressure to follow the Chinese lead. Now in relation to that, do you think, as Trade Minister, there is more scope for Australia to engage in the Belt and Road Initiative as dozens of other countries have, to try and shape it the best way that we can with any sort of joint approach that, or joint projects, that might be followed?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, there's certainly scope for Australian businesses to be involved in the Belt Road Initiative. The Belt Road Initiative is part of President Xi's vision for China throughout the region. President Xi, when he spoke, I think it was in Davos, but also when he made comments in relation to Belt and Road at the Belt and Road Forum last year in China. I made the point that, if you look back over time and you look at the history of China's engagement, it's been through these pathways for trade that they've been able to drive prosperity and to drive peace. And that lay at the core of this Belt Road Initiative. So strictly from a commercial point of view, of course there's opportunity for Australian businesses to be involved here. We have really strong trade-

KIERAN GILBERT: But from a Government view as well, there's a chance to ensure any deals done, any joint projects, have transparency, don't see our neighbours indebted.

STEVEN CIOBO: We'll engage. We'll engage in relation to this. I mean, the bulk of the Belt Road Initiative is in relation to infrastructure. And as I said, Australia has a terrific track record with project financing, design, construction, maintenance, repair, all these types of things. So we can certainly work together, and in fact when I was last in China, we signed an MOU for cooperation in third countries on Belt Road Initiative and other initiatives that we can do together. So we are playing a constructive and active role in that space right now.

KIERAN GILBERT: So you can do two things at once?

STEVEN CIOBO: Of course.

KIERAN GILBERT: You know, recognize that it's the Chinese effort to enhance their strategic and political influence in the region, but also try and engage with it along the way to enhance our own position.

STEVEN CIOBO: I think it's important that we always engage in a constructive way in dialogue, in helping to you know, affect a region that we have some say in. Clearly Australia is-

KIERAN GILBERT: Penny Wong, in a speech today, at Australia-China Council business meeting in Parliament is going to say the Government's been too engaged in megaphone diplomacy. Is Julie Bishop doing that today?

STEVEN CIOBO: No. Julie is making a point about Australia's relationship with the South Pacific. We, as I said, wanna engage in a constructive way as a natural friend for these countries. We, together with New Zealand, have been in that space for many, many years and we will continue to be in that space.

KIERAN GILBERT: But megaphone diplomacy's counterproductive, isn't it? When it comes to China?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, you know, I find it a little ironic, frankly, that the Labor Party would lecture people about megaphone diplomacy when they're actually doing a major speech, themselves. But you know, you can sense the irony there. But look, ultimately if you look at the relationship that we have with China, on a trade investment front this is a very broad, very deep relationship. We've seen really strong growth, strong exports. And let's never forget Kieran, the Labor Party, frankly, think that everyone has a five-second memory. When we did the free trade agreement with China, Labor called it a 'dud deal'. When we were doing this deal with China, which is driving exports, driving growth, driving jobs, the Labor Party was condoning the most disgraceful multi-million dollar campaign by Australia's union movement, who were running around saying this was gonna see a flood of dodgy Chinese workers coming into the country. So, you know frankly, the last people that we'll be talking advice off in relation to our dealings with China is the Australian Labor Party.

KIERAN GILBERT: What about the reaction to the Trump tariffs? The Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid says, "The unpredictability of the Trump Administration has become mundane, even boring for China," and that they will, basically, the editorial in that particular paper says that they will return fire in any trade war. This is a real risk right now for not just those two countries but-

STEVEN CIOBO: Sure-

KIERAN GILBERT: Our economy as well-

STEVEN CIOBO: Globally. I mean the more we see trade barriers go up, the more we see tariffs put in place, the less global growth there will be and the fewer jobs there will be. Make no mistake, trade drives economic growth and that drives jobs. It's part of the reason why Australia's had 26 years of continuous economic growth. It's the reason why a third of our country's GDP growth in recent years has come off the back of growing exports. We are opening up export markets globally because we know every time we do that, we drive more jobs in Australia.

KIERAN GILBERT: It's interesting, the Government talks about the rules-based order, and yet everybody sort of focuses, "Oh, that's China, the Government's referring to," but when you talk about the rules-based order, what about the WTO rules?

STEVEN CIOBO: Sure, absolutely. The WTO is critical.

KIERAN GILBERT: Aren't those being breached by the US?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, the WTO is critical. And you know, we're seeing now the imposition of tariffs by the United States in a range of areas, then you're seeing retaliation from China, Europe, Mexico, Canada to name a few. I mean, make no mistake Kieran, tariffs are nothing other than a tax on consumers. So when you put tariffs in place, all you're doing is hiking up the cost for all the consumers out there that are buying those products.

KIERAN GILBERT: And finally, let's get your reaction to this terrible incident in Sydney, the branch meeting of the Liberal Party ended up and a brawl. Obviously, we see robust debates in this place but nothing descending into violence.

STEVEN CIOBO: Look, I don't know the details and I've only seen media reports in relation to it, but of course that kind of conduct is never acceptable, it should never be condoned. I don't know the details so I don't know what happened. But anything that results in assaults is clearly you know, a ridiculous outcome and should never be tolerated.

KIERAN GILBERT: Trade Minister, thanks so much for your time.

Media enquiries

  • Trade Minister's Office: (02) 6277 7420
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555