Australia has once again shown little sign of complying with China’s demands as it went on the offensive following horrific allegations of sexual abuse in Xinjiang’s controversial internment camps.
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the reports detailed in a BBC investigation were “deeply disturbing” and called for intervention from the United Nations to urgently investigate.
Beijing, which has categorically denied any forms of abuse inside its labour camps which have housed more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities to date, hit out at foreign interference over the allegations it claims have come from actors, branding them “fake”.
Pressed on Ms Payne’s comments at China’s Foreign Ministry press briefing on Thursday, spokesperson Wang Wenbin said “fair-minded foreigners” were welcome to find out the truth on Xinjiang however it would not tolerate fabrication of the camps’ practises from outsiders.
“We are firmly opposed to interference in China's internal affairs by any country or individual under the pretext of human rights, and to the hyping-up of the so-called "investigation" in Xinjiang by someone who is already convinced that we are guilty,” he said.
A vocal stance on human rights abuses in Xinjiang from the Morrison government is one of many disagreements between Beijing and Canberra that have seen relations plummet during 2020 and subsequently prompted a series of trade sanctions slapped on Australian exports.
Foreign Minister doubles down on position
In recent months China has called on Australia to make significant concessions on a number of positions it holds regarding issues involving China if it wishes to rebuild its economic relationship.
However on Thursday, Ms Payne appeared to double down on its stance regarding Xinjiang.
“Australia has been consistent in raising our significant concerns with the human rights abuses in Xinjiang,” she said in a statement.
“These latest reports of systematic torture and abuse of women are deeply disturbing and raise serious questions regarding the treatment of Uyghurs, and other religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
“We consider transparency to be of utmost importance and continue to urge China to allow international observers, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, to be given immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang at the earliest opportunity.”
The stance is a bold, yet unsurprising move from the Morrison government, which has repeatedly stressed it will not abandon its core interests and standards simply to appease China.
While Australia is joined by the US and the UK in condemning the latest allegations arising from the internment camps which China says are used to re-educate Uyghurs in a bid to nullify religious extremism, Ms Payne’s comments once again show Australia’s tendency to take the front foot and press China on matters it disagrees on.
After all, just months earlier it was China who went for the jugular following a report that revealed Australian soldiers had unlawfully killed Afghan civilians. That attack was optimised by foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s antagonising and now infamous tweet which shared an artist’s graphic creation depicting an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child.
Australia must tread with caution
Yet Nathan Attrill, a researcher focusing on Sino-Australian relations at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, warned Australia must be careful when confronting Beijing if it wishes to repair the damaged relationship.
“We are not ‘gum stuck to China’s shoe’ as described by one Chinese state media outlet, but Australia needs to understand the limits of its influence over Beijing,” he told The China Story blog by the Australian National University’s Australian Centre on China in the World.
“Acting unilaterally is foolish when the stakes are so high. Indeed, acting in concert with our allies and partners in the region, with similar interests, is essential.
“Australia needs a new ‘China policy’, one which is prepared to break from the past if need be, and one which sees China for what it is, not what we wished it were.”
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