Scott Morrison will warn global leaders today that the risk of conflict involving China is rising as the world faces a period of uncertainty not confronted since the 1930s.
In a major foreign policy speech, the Prime Minister will back US calls for a fresh investigation into the origins of Covid-19, including claims that it may have escaped from a Wuhan lab conducting coronavirus research.
Calling on free nations to work as one as they did during the Cold War to fight authoritarianism, the Prime Minister will also renew his calls for a rules-based overhaul of global trade rules to prevent China’s ongoing threats to Australian exports.
“There is much at stake for Australia, for our region, and the world. We are living in a time of great uncertainty not seen since the 1930s,” Mr Morrison will say.
“We are facing heightened competition in the Indo-Pacific region. We need all nations to participate in the global system in ways that foster development and co-operation.
“Australia stands ready to engage in dialogue with all countries on shared challenges, including China when it is ready to do so.
“Patterns of co-operation within a liberal, rules-based order that have benefited us for so long are under renewed strain.”
But it’s his strong call for action on the origins of the Covid pandemic that is most likely to inflame diplomatic relations with China.
“I strongly support President Biden’s recent statement that we need to bolster and accelerate efforts to identify the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Mr Morrison will say.
“Having led calls for an independent inquiry, it remains Australia’s firm view that understanding the cause of this pandemic is essential for preventing the next one, for the benefit of all people.”
It was the Prime Minister’s early call for action that sparked a wave of trade spats with China in recent years over barley, wine and seafood exports.
As Mr Morrison prepares to head overseas for this weekend’s Group of Seven leaders’ summit in Cornwall, he will warn that the World Trade Organisation must enforce trade rules to stop economic coercion.
“A well-functioning WTO that sets clear rules, arbitrates disputes objectively and efficiently, and penalises bad behaviour when it occurs: this can be one of the most powerful tools the international community has to counter economic coercion,” he will say.
“In my discussions with many leaders, I have taken great encouragement from the support shown for Australia’s preparedness to withstand economic coercion in recent times. The most practical way to address economic coercion is the restoration of the global trading body’s binding dispute settlement system.
“Where there are no consequences for coercive behaviour, there is little incentive for restraint.”
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The speech follows months of rising tensions with China over the pandemic, trade and the decision to scrap Victoria’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) deal with China, calling it “inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy”.
China quickly hit back at Australia over what it called an “unreasonable and provocative move”.
“This is another unreasonable and provocative move taken by the Australian side against China. It further shows that the Australian government has no sincerity in improving China-Australia relations. It is bound to bring further damage to bilateral relations, and will only end up hurting itself,” a Chinese government spokesman said.
The Prime Minister will depart Australia on Thursday for Britain, France and Singapore in his most extensive overseas visit since the pandemic began.
Mr Morrison will hold his first face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden and is also expected to hold talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Previewing the trip, the PM will deliver a major foreign policy speech at Perth’s USAsia Centre on Wednesday, insisting a “well-functioning” WTO is the first step towards addressing China’s trade threats.
Mr Morrison will argue an “open, rules-based global system” will benefit all countries.
“The risks of miscalculation and conflict are growing,” he’ll say.
“The simple reality is that Australia’s strategic environment has changed significantly over recent years.
“Accelerating trends are working against our interests. And the technological edge enjoyed historically by Australia and our allies is under challenge.”