Australia is working “hard to prevent” tensions with China escalating to a Cold War, but its allies “know full well” the threat in the Indo-Pacific, the prime minister says.
Scott Morrison was returning from an international trip to Asia and Europe for the G7, where he worked to bolster an international coalition in the face of Chinese economic pressure.
After backing from world leaders during his travel, the prime minister was pressed on whether Beijing’s increasingly assertive posture in the Indo-Pacific could spark a new Cold War.
“We’re working hard to prevent that type of an outcome, and that is achieved by having as much engagement as possible,” he told Sky News in Paris.
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En route to Europe, Mr Morrison met with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong before sideline talks with Japan’s leader, Yoshihide Suga, at the G7.
He described engagement with regional leaders as a “step” towards avoiding military conflict with Beijing.
“That is not an outcome that we would wish for in any circumstance. That is why you take the steps that we do take to ensure that you can get some stability in the region, a free and open Indo-Pacific, of which China is a part,” he said.
New US President Joe Biden, who Mr Morrison met for the first time at the G7, has prioritised alliance-building more so than predecessor Donald Trump, and in March included Australia in an historic Quad meeting focused on the Indo-Pacific.
Mr Morrison said the President’s experience gave him a “deep understanding” of the region, which he was looking to engage “through ASEAN’s eyes”.
“He’s certainly not fresh to these issues, and that is enormously useful in our partnership … He has a very strong institutional understanding of the US system, and the role that the US has played in our region over a very long time,” he said.
After the Cornwall summit, the G7 leaders released a statement demanding Beijing respect human rights, referencing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and anti-democratic crackdowns in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron each backed Australia in the ongoing trade stoush after hosting Mr Morrison for one-on-one visits.
The UK parliament recently voted to extend lockdown measures by almost a month as it grappled with the new Covid-19 Delta variant, a reminder Australia was living “like nowhere else” during the pandemic, Mr Morrison said.
The extension was partly prompted by UK’s delay in barring travel from India as it endured the world’s worst outbreak.
“They could have taken that option, and they didn’t take that option at the time. It highlights the point: once you open the gates of decisions like this, it’s difficult to go back. That’s why we’ve been cautious on those issues,” Mr Morrison said.
During his visit to London, Mr Morrison struck an in-principle free trade agreement with the UK, its first major deal since leaving the European Union.
But the pair maintained markedly different stances on climate change, after Mr Johnson in April committed to a 78 per cent emissions reduction target by 2035 compared to 1990s levels.
“(Mr Johnson) has got a deep commitment (on climate change), I think people in the United Kingdom do also. That’s fine,” he said.
But Mr Morrison has refused to follow other developing nations, committing to a more meagre target, net zero emissions by 2050.
He attempted to bridge that divide during his trip, striking hydrogen technology deals with Japan and Germany, and insisted Australia was adapting to a “new energy economy”.
Mr Morrison will land in Perth on Thursday afternoon, before heading to Canberra to undergo two weeks’ quarantine at the Lodge.