Newly minted Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton has asserted that his main objective will be to protect Australia’s sovereignty and national interests after a state-controlled Chinese newspaper criticised his appointment.
The Chinese regime mouthpiece, The Global Times, claimed in an editorial that Dutton was a “hawkish” and “extreme populist” political leader with a “strong tendency of racism.”
The editorial said Dutton would see Australia “take further actions to cooperate with the United States to stir up South China Sea issues.”
In response to the attack, Dutton said: “I think they’re half right.”
“We’ll work very closely with the United States because they are our most important ally, but we don’t do that in an antagonistic way; we do that to protect our sovereignty and national interests,” Dutton told Sky News Australia.
“We don’t support the militarisation of ports. We don’t support any foreign country trying to exert influence here via cyber or other means. We don’t want to see conflict in our region,” he added.
Dutton’s appointment to the defence portfolio came about following a cabinet reshuffle that was sparked by allegations of sexual misconduct in Parliament.
Defence analysts have applauded his appointment, saying he would bring “urgency and drive” to the job, which will involve overseeing and implementing the Australian government’s $270 billion Strategic Update designed to bolster the country’s military strike power in the face of increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.
“I think he is going to grab the Defence Strategic Update and realise the urgency of delivery, and push Defence to do a whole lot of things … that aren’t happening at the speed required,” Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute told The Australian.
The minister struck a more conciliatory tone regarding China during his first days in office, however.
“All of us want to see emerging super-nations like China and existing ones like the United States work closely together,” he said.
“Obviously, China has held long-term ambitions in relation to Taiwan, and we want to make sure there is peace in our region, that we can work in a collaborative way with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—with those that run China—and make sure at the same time we can work with those in our region.”
The Global Times followed up his interview with an op-ed, pointing out that Dutton referred to the ruling regime as the CCP and not China.
“This is a subtle difference that reflects Dutton’s own conservative political stance and ideological bias against China. And China needs to pay attention to this,” it said.
Bilateral relations took a dive last year following an eight-month economic coercion campaign by the CCP against Australia that targeted key export industries, including coal, beef, wine, barley, lobster, timber, lamb, and cotton.
The campaign was in response to Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s calls for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in April 2020.
The value of affected exports to China was around $25 billion in 2019, according to the Lowy Institute.
By January 2020, that value had diminished to $5 billion. However, exporters have been able to find alternative markets, while iron ore exports to China have boomed, helping Australia record the fourth-highest monthly trade surplus on record in December.