Trade Minister Damien O'Connor under fire after urging Australia to practice 'more diplomacy' with China

Trade Minister Damien O'Connor is under fire from MPs across the ditch after he urged Australia to practice "more diplomacy" when dealing with China. 

He made the remarks speaking to CBNC's Squawk Box Asia programme after being asked about Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta's offer to mediate a truce between Australia and China as their relationship declines. 

"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 could hopefully be in a similar situation," O'Connor said. 

The remarks have riled some Australian politicians, such as Liberal MP Dave Sharma, who told The Sydney Morning Herald: "I don't see this advice from New Zealand as particularly insightful or helpful."

"The idea that Australia's tone or wording is somehow responsible for challenges in our relationship with China is one we fundamentally reject and is at odds with reality," he said.

"It betrays a lack of acquaintance with basic facts that I would not expect from a close friend and partner like New Zealand."

O'Connor told Newshub he has spoken with his Australian counterpart to reiterate that New Zealand does not 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."

Trade Minister Damien O'Connor.
Trade Minister Damien O'Connor. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, sources said O'Connor's remarks have "unsettled" members of the Australian Government who believe its trans-Tasman neighbour has relied too much on Australia to stand up to Beijing's growing assertiveness. 

It comes as relations between China and Australia deteriorated after Beijing objected to a number of moves by Australia, including the banning of Chinese company Huawei from its 5G network, and calling for an independent inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic. 

China has responded by slapping trade strikes of more than $20 billion on Australian exports including barley, wine, cotton, coal and beef. 

Meanwhile, New Zealand signed an updated free trade agreement (FTA) with China on Wednesday, giving us faster access to Chinese markets and a reduction in tariffs for paper and wood products. 

Australian Liberal MP Dave Sharma pictured with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Australian Liberal MP Dave Sharma pictured with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo credit: Getty

Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald, James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said Australia would be "reluctant" to admit that Wellington might have a better way of handling China. 

"But some facts remain. 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."

But New Zealand's relationship with China has been tested. In July, the Government suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in light of China's decision to pass a controversial national security law for the city. 

China responded by suspending Hong Kong's extradition treaty with New Zealand. The Chinese Embassy urged New Zealand to "stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs" and do more to promote the good aspects of the relationship. 

It comes as Australia exercises caution about New Zealand's latest COVID-19 outbreak. It has extended its travel bubble suspension for another 72 hours after another two family members tested positive, who stayed at the same managed isolation facility as the Northland case. 

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she retained confidence in our systems and processes but acknowledged the decision was for the Australian Government to make.