Politics

Peter Dutton attacks Penny Wong on China declaring he aims to deter ‘aggression’ on Taiwan | Peter Dutton

Australia’s defence minister has stood by his comments about a potential military conflict over Taiwan, insisting he was not pre-committing Australia to war but declaring he wanted to deter “aggression” from the Chinese Communist party.

Peter Dutton also ramped up his warnings about how China had changed under the rule of its president, Xi Jinping, declaring: “It’s really important that we understand what point in history we are [at].”

Dutton went on the attack on Tuesday in response to a substantial foreign policy speech by the Labor Senate leader, Penny Wong, who accused the defence minister of amping up the threat of war over Taiwan in a “dangerous” pre-election tactic.

Dutton also denied dog-whistling when he told parliament Wong “today doesn’t stand up for” Australian values. Another Labor frontbencher called Dutton’s remark “appalling” and “inappropriate”.

With the Morrison government set to face an election by May, and lagging behind Labor in major opinion polls, there has been speculation the Coalition may seek to make national security a key issue in the lead up to the poll.

Wong, the shadow foreign minister, said Dutton’s “binary” comments about Taiwan were not “the way in which we are most likely to create that incentive” to preserve the status quo.

The Australian government and the Labor party have both raised concerns in recent times about an increase in Chinese military pressure against Taiwan, a democratically governed island of 24 million people, amid Beijing’s long-term goal of “unification” with what it considers its territory.

Wong took aim at Dutton for telling the Australian newspaper earlier this month: “It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action.”

She characterised this as out of step with the US policy of strategic ambiguity, while agreeing that the risk of conflict over Taiwan had increased.

At a doorstop interview at parliament house late on Tuesday, Dutton said Australia needed to “provide a deterrence against actions … because the Communist party has been very clear about their intent in relation to Taiwan”.

He also criticised the CCP over its “completely unacceptable” activities across the South and East China seas, the crackdown in Hong Kong, border clashes with India, and “coercion and grey zone activity and cyber-attacks on our country and on our near neighbours”.

Dutton, a significant conservative figure in the Morrison government, said his comments had been about what might happen if China invaded Taiwan and if the US responded with military action.

He reaffirmed that “in my judgment, it would be inconceivable under the alliance that Australia wouldn’t go to be standing by the side of the United States”. He said he did not think there was “anything remarkable” in that statement.

“But it wasn’t a precommitment – it wasn’t anything other than a statement of reality, and if the Labor party has a different position, I’d like to hear it, because it seems today, that they do have different position,” Dutton told reporters.

On ABC’s 7:30, Dutton accused Labor of “starting to walk away” from its bipartisan commitment to the Australia-UK-US (Aukus) partnership.

He cited Wong’s speech and claimed it “could have been written by Paul Keating”, a reference to the former Labor prime minister telling the press club the Aukus submarines would have no impact on China.

Earlier, Dutton also argued Wong should have condemned China’s acting ambassador to Australia, Wang Xining, over his recent comments that the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine plan would brand Australia as a “sabre wielder” and a “dangerous guy”.

Wang told Guardian Australia last week China’s infamous list of grievances against Australia should be longer than 14 points, and that politicians like Dutton should refrain from “destructive” commentary.

Dutton accused Labor of being “weak” on national security, telling parliament: “I notice the acting Chinese ambassador has been out attacking Australian values and Senator Wong today doesn’t stand up for those values; instead, she folds in a fit of weakness.”

The Labor frontbencher, Andrew Giles, said: “It was an appalling allegation, untrue, inappropriate and carrying consequences – which should not have been made, and should be withdrawn.”

Wong later hit back at Dutton. “Mr Dutton is proving my point by lying about what I said in my speech today, lying about Labor’s position on Aukus and Anzus, and abandoning long-held bipartisan foreign policy positions,” Wong said.

“Labor supports Aukus, we support Anzus, and we are sticking to the long-held bipartisan position on Taiwan, even if Mr Dutton is walking away from it.”

Asked whether his comments were a dog whistle, Dutton said in his 20 years in parliament he could not recall “an ambassador from any other country carrying on the way that the Chinese ambassador has”.

He said the acting ambassador’s comments were an example of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, and Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson should have condemned them.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, accused Dutton on Monday of “extremely absurd and irresponsible” remarks and of “hyping up” the China threat.

Zhao said the submarine deal among the US, the UK and Australia “deliberately escalates regional tensions, stimulates [an] arms race, threatens regional peace and stability, and undermines international nuclear non-proliferation efforts”.

Xi told south-east Asian leaders at a summit on Monday that China would “never seek hegemony, still less bully smaller countries”. The Chinese president said his country was “prepared to sign the Protocol to the Treaty on the south-east Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone as early as possible”.

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But Dutton said China’s criticisms of Aukus did not stand up to scrutiny, in light of its own rapid military build up. He said China had 355 ships and submarines, and that was projected to increase to 460 by 2030. He said the Australian submarines would be nuclear-propelled, not nuclear-armed.

Dutton challenged critics to point to anything he said that was factually incorrect, while conceding “it might be, you know, diplomatically more adequate for me not to make mention of some of these facts”. He said it would be wrong to “pretend that China is like it was 10 years ago”. Dutton said China was “a very different country under the current president”.

In her address to the Australian National University, Wong backed the Australian government’s position opposing the trade actions China has taken against Australian export sectors over the past 18 months – something the Morrison government has labelled “economic coercion”.

Wong said China had changed and its actions across a range of contexts were not “the behaviour of a responsible global power”.

“There will be enduring differences that need to be managed and dealt by whoever is in government,” Wong said.

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