Australia foreign minister Julie Bishop: Beijing now suggests her comments made to Fairfax which drew a sharp rebuke in Chinese media were bogus. Photo: Ken IrwinOn Monday, China’s most popular tabloid, The Global Times, blasted Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop as a “complete fool” for telling Fairfax Media that she would stand up to China in defence of Australian values. Ms Bishop’s comments were originally published in Thursday’s The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. However, late on Tuesday night, on the eve of China’s highest-ranking general arriving to meet Australia’s top brass and Prime Minister Tony Abbott, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied that Ms Bishop said any of those offending remarks at all. In a remarkable statement provided in Q&A form, the ministry’s spokesman, Hong Lei, suggested that it was Australian diplomats who had informed them that the interview was bogus: Question: Australian media, such as The Age carried reports on remarks made by the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in an interview. She said that China does not respect weakness, adding that Australia should stand up to China. What is China’s comment on that? Answer: The Australian side has clarified that with the Chinese side through diplomatic channel, saying that the Australian Foreign Minister has never made … such remarks. The official denial claimed by China clashes with the on-the-record comments made by Ms Bishop to Fairfax, which were recorded during the interview. The contradiction appears to be a combination of eagerness on both sides to smooth the relations combined with an old-fashioned diplomatic botch-up. After the Chinese government’s denial that the internationally controversial interview happened, the denial was immediately reported by state news agency Xinhua and party-mouthpiece The China Daily and circulated widely on social media. The Xinhua story ran under the headline “Australia denies willingness to confront China”. The English-language editorial criticising Ms Bishop in The Global Times remains online, as well. The “complete fool” description was in the Chinese version, which also remains online. Neither Ms Bishop nor her office have raised any queries about the report in question. The source of the mystery may lie in an interaction that took place between senior diplomats at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) on Thursday. It is understood that the Chargé d’affaires at the Chinese embassy, Xue Bing, was told that “the minister could not have said those things, or words to that effect”. On Monday, Fairfax attempted to clarify this exchange by contacting the head of DFAT’s North Asia desk, Peter Rowe. It received this departmental statement, instead: “Senior departmental and Chinese Embassy officials held a routine meeting late last week. The discussions were cordial and useful.” Following are excerpts from the interview recordings:Bishop: China doesn’t, China doesn’t respect weakness. Garnaut: That’s interesting, you think you lost nothing from that? Bishop: No. Garnaut: The idea that “we have to choose” has been proved wrong? Bishop: Absolutely. …Garnaut: I look at all these dynamics, I look at … Australia’s been very instrumental in tightening security relationships, intelligence sharing, with Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, you know, it’s all there, and that’s partly in response to the possibility of conflicts going wrong with China. Bishop: Well, we’re pragmatic and we’re realistic. We know that the optimum is deeper engagement … but we’re also clear-eyed about what could go wrong. And so you have to hope for the best but manage for the worst. …Bishop: I feel that under the previous governments (Rudd/Gillard/Rudd) there was a level of incoherence about Australian foreign policy. And there were not clear statements of where Australia stood on particular matters. And I was determined to ensure that Australia’s foreign policy was well understood and it was predictable in the sense that if an issue occurred people knew where Australia would stand on it. I don’t mean predictable in a sense that you would always know what Australia is going to do. I just meant that when it came to our values, and our beliefs, we were true to them. So I think that foreign policy under the Coalition is designed to project and protect our reputation as an open market export oriented economy; and so all we do and say supports those values we have on the economic front, and our values as an open liberal democracy committed to rule of law, committed to freedoms, and committed to international norms and being a respected international player. So, when something affects our national interest then we should make it very clear about where we stand and not be ambiguous.
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