Trade Minister Steve Ciobo seems to have emerged at the China lobby’s apparent inside man in the government, parroting Beijing’s line on the South China Sea. Based on the precedent set by the ousting of Labor’s Sam Dastyari, it’s unclear why he hasn’t been forced to recant, or been sacked.

In an extraordinary interview yesterday on Sky News, Ciobo refused repeatedly to offer a position on China’s aggression in the South China Sea, and even refused to endorse the view of his own colleague, Defence Minister Marise Payne. China has recently upped its militarisation of illegal artificial islands in the South China Sea with long-range bombers. Australia, which maintains neutrality on the South China Sea territorial dispute but supports international law, expressed concern about it. “We urge all claimants to refrain from destabilising actions, including the deployment of advanced military equipment to disputed features,” Payne said on Monday, repeating the government’s (bipartisan) line on the issue. “We have raised our concerns about militarisation in the South China Sea as part of our enduring, broad dialogue with China.”

But yesterday, Ciobo refused to back Payne or initially offer any view on China’s aggression, telling Sky’s David Speers that he was “not going to get engaged in a commentary” or “[lecture] other countries about what they can and cannot do”. But then Ciobo went further and specifically echoed Beijing’s own claim about the South China Sea, that it is an internal matter for China:

Speers: It’s a pretty simple question. Should China be landing long range bombers on a disputed island in the South China Sea?

Ciobo: Well that’s a decision for China.

This directly contradicts Payne’s and the government’s line. But it also almost directly echoes the claims of Labor’s Sam Dastyari, since ousted from the Senate for his links with the China Lobby. In June 2016, at a Chinese media-only press conference, Dastyari contradicted Labor policy by saying that “the Chinese integrity of its borders is a matter for China.” 

In late 2017, after the exposure of Dastyari’s remarks and details of his links with Chinese lobbyists, like billionaire property developer Huang Xiangmo, the government launched a ferocious campaign against Dastyari that resulted in his departure from politics. The focus of the government’s campaign was that Dastyari was in effect a traitor for peddling Beijing’s lines in contravention of both his party and the government’s position.

On a recent trip to China, Ciobo lavished praise on China and its dictator Xi Jinping and criticised “scare campaigns” about Chinese investment in Australia — despite it being his own Coalition that has cracked down on Chinese investment in agriculture, “strategic” assets and real estate.

In his Sky interview, Ciobo also defended another billionaire, Chau Chak Wing, identified in parliament on Tuesday night by Ciobo’s colleague Andrew Hastie as an unindicted co-conspirator in a US bribery case with links to Chinese overseas influence campaigns. “With all of the dealings I have had with Dr Chau, I have never been concerned about any aspect of the dealings I have had,” Ciobo said. “[Nothing] untoward, or anything improper about it … I would also note that Dr Chau has brought action against those who have suggested otherwise.”

Previously, Ciobo has defended the activities of former Trade Minister Andrew Robb for his Chinese employer Landbridge, and lauded the efforts of Australian companies to become involved in China’s One Belt One Road strategy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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