Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan expresses 'respect' for Damien O'Connor but criticism mounts over China comments

The Australian Trade Minister has expressed "respect" for his New Zealand counterpart despite mounting criticism of Damien O'Connor for calling on Australia to practice "more diplomacy" with China.

O'Connor, who took on the Trade portfolio following Labour's landslide election victory last year, appeared on CNBC's Squawk Box Asia programme this week after signing a free trade agreement (FTA) between New Zealand and China.

He was asked about Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta's offer to "negotiate a truce" between Australia and China at this year's APEC summit as the countries' relationship remains at an all-time low. The minister said New Zealand's size and independence had given the country an opportunity to be a mediator.

"I can't speak for Australia and the way it runs its diplomatic relationships, but clearly if they were to follow us and show respect, I guess a little more diplomacy from time to time and be cautious with wording, then they too, hopefully, could be in a similar situation," O'Connor said.

Those comments didn't go down well in Australia, with multiple media outlets reporting that government officials were "infuriated".

O'Connor told Newshub on Thursday afternoon that he had spoken to Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan to reiterate New Zealand doesn't speak for Australia on its relationship with China. 

"New Zealand has an independent foreign policy, which allows us to maintain both our closest partnership with Australia and a mature relationship with China."

Hours later, Tehan released a statement saying Australia's relationship with China is "based on an assessment of our national interests". 

"We pursue engagement with China on the basis of mutual benefit, and the complementarity of our economies makes us natural trading partners. We are always open to dialogue as the best way to resolve differences."

Tehan, who became the Australia Trade Minister in December, also spoke to ABC's RN Drive on Thursday night, saying he had a "good discussion" with O'Connor and that he hopes to speak to him again more formally next week. 

Asked if O'Connor had apologised for his comments, Tehan stayed mum, but did express "respect" for the New Zealand minister. 

"I am not going to go into the details of the conversation. He has put out a statement this afternoon. I respect the fact that he has done that."

"I have a lot of respect for the New Zealand Trade Minister. He has been very welcoming towards me since I have taken over the portfolio… I really appreciate the fact that he initiated picking up the phone this morning and giving me a call."

Tehan reiterated that New Zealand was Australia's closest friend and that he had "nothing but warmth towards New Zealand".

Criticism mounting

Despite that, there is growing criticism of O'Connor's remarks. 

In an article published by Australian think-tank The Lowy Institute, Victoria University of Wellington professor of strategic studies Robert Ayson said O'Connor had "stepped into some diplomatic doo-doo" in "spectacular style". 

"There is a longer-term problem O’Connor’s silly comments feed into: the idea that New Zealand still sees China as a lovely big market and is blissfully unaware that China has been busy coercing some of Australia’s and New Zealand’s partners in the South China Sea and that under Xi Jinping, China’s human rights record from Xinjiang to Hong Kong is objectionable. And that China is hardly doing its trade reputation any good by coercing Australia."

Ayson said Jacinda Ardern, the "overstretched Prime Minister", may now "need to be brought into the game to bat cleanup again".

Phil Lynch, director of the International Service for Human Rights and former head of Australia's Human Rights Law Centre, said he was "really proud" of Australia's approach to human rights in China. 

"Perhaps the New Zealand Government should be less craven and unprincipled on China and share the burden a little more."

Among others reported on Thursday to be frustrated by O'Connor's comments was Liberal MP and former diplomat Dave Sharma. He said the remarks weren't "particularly insightful or helpful", while Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said O'Connor "could learn a little more about diplomacy and just did". 

On the other hand, James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said Australia could learn something from New Zealand - but it would be "reluctant to admit that". 

"New Zealand is a proud liberal democracy. It is a "Five Eyes" [intelligence] partner. It cares about sovereignty. It has prevented Huawei from participating in its 5G network. It has criticised China on issues around human rights and international law," he said. 

"And yet, it has just struck an upgraded FTA whereas the last meeting Australia had with China toward the same objective was in November 2017."

Eyebrows were raised earlier this month when New Zealand was the only Five Eyes partner not to sign a statement condemning China for its arrest of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Mahuta instead expressed her concerns separately. New Zealand has joined statements in the past.

There have, however, been some recent tensions between New Zealand and China.

Last year, Beijing rebuked New Zealand for suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in light of China's decision to pass a controversial national security law for the city.

New Zealand has also called out China's treatment of the Uighur people in the Xinjiang region. Ardern raised human rights issues with Chinese President Xi Jinping while in China in 2019 and Aotearoa has also co-signed several statements on the issue, including in October. Last week, there were calls for New Zealand to step up its criticism by declaring the repression of the Uighurs a "genocide". 

Relations between Australia and China soured early in 2020 when Australia called for an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19. As a result, China added trade strikes of more than $20 billion on Australian exports including barley, wine, cotton, coal and beef. 

The war of words intensified in December when a senior Chinese official posted a digitally-altered graphic of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of a young Afghan child on Twitter.

New Zealand registered its concern with Chinese authorities over that image.