The next federal government will need to get Australia out of the “diplomatic freezer” with China.
“It’s going to be a challenge for whomever forms government,” former foreign minister and deputy leader of the Liberals Julie Bishop said on Tuesday, just days out from polling day.
China’s trade bans have hit key agricultural and resources exports and Australia would face further challenges if China and Russia split off from the West into a future financial, technology and trading bloc.
Labor’s Stephen Smith, speaking alongside Ms Bishop on an election panel at an oil and gas industry conference, said he cannot see the relationship changing until China changes.
“There can be a more nuanced approach in terms of how Australia conducts itself,” he told the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association event.
“We don’t need to be engaging in megaphone diplomacy on a daily basis.”
He said China was on a path of “aggression and economic coercion”, in contrast to the “responsible stakeholder” stance it had while he was handling foreign affairs and trade under a Labor government.
Ms Bishop said the Solomon Islands and its new security pact with China represents a broader power competition in the region, where China sees itself as equal to the United States.
“Over my 20 years in politics we’ve seen China become far more assertive, far more aggressive, with the emergence of wolf warrior diplomats,” she said.
Foreign minister from 2013 to 2018, Ms Bishop said Australia is currently in the “diplomatic freezer” with China.
But most nations in the region want to see more leadership from Australia, not less, and they do not want to live in a region where China alone calls the shots, she said.
Ms Bishop said it is challenging for those doing business because the Australian government has traditionally said it is possible to balance the relationship with China as largest trading partner and the United States as economic and security ally.
“But increasingly China is forcing on nations a choice,” she said.
By Marion Rae in Canberra, AAP