Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has been criticised for suggesting Australia might support US trade sanctions on China, with his comments labelled “potentially very dangerous” by one expert.
Mr Joyce, acting Prime Minister while Malcolm Turnbull attends the G20, said Australia would “obviously have sympathy” for economic sanctions imposed by the US against China over its trade relationship with North Korea.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was forced to shut down talk of sanctions, with a spokeswoman saying: “The Australian government has no plans to introduce economic sanctions on China.”
Despite the statement, Labor seized on the comments on Thursday, describing them as “utterly irresponsible”, while one expert said they were “potentially very dangerous”.
“It’s economically dangerous. If we punish our largest trading partner what does that mean for our economy,” ANU China expert and economist Jane Golley told The New Daily.
“It puts us right in the middle where we don’t want to be. If you reduce trade between the two largest economies in the world, everyone feels the effect of that.”
Mr Joyce said on Monday that trade sanctions against China would “pale into insignificance against what would happen if North Korea continues down this path”.
The regime claimed its first successful intercontinental ballistic missile test this week.
Mr Joyce’s comments followed a warning from US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley that countries trading with North Korea could face sanctions – which most viewed as a threat aimed at China.
US President Donald Trump himself tweeted on Wednesday: “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40 per cent in the first quarter. So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!”
On Thursday, security analysts said Mr Joyce’s comments should not be over-interpreted and were not overly surprising.
“‘Sympathy’ is a slightly odd formulation because it doesn’t say ‘we will’. To me that doesn’t sound like a final decision has been made but it weighs on the side of support,” Lowy Institute International Security Program director Euan Graham told The New Daily.
“North Korea has been much easier for Australia to deal with as long as it doesn’t connect to the China relationship. That is the bigger risk.
“If the US interest is in secondary sanctions with Chinese entities that do business with North Korea, if the US is looking for its allies to support that position, then that would become a bilateral issue between Australia and China.”
Bates Gill, an international and Asia-Pacific security expert at ANU, said Mr Joyce’s comments were not surprising given the government’s previous tough talk towards Beijing on the issue.
“The bigger question is why now? The US government had already signalled the levying of sanctions on Chinese banks – so-called ‘secondary sanctions’ – because of their dealings with North Korea,” he said.
“In short, it’s somewhat predictable that we’re going to move in that direction. Clearly the Chinese are not doing all they can to bring pressure on North Korea.”
Acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said the Deputy Prime Minister was “all gung-ho on getting into a trade embargo with China”.
“I think a sober reflection would say that China has played an important role, both through diplomatic and economic means of putting pressure on North Korea not to engage in missile testing.”
Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Mr Joyce had been “utterly irresponsible”.
“What he needs to recognise is that the empty threats he makes would only serve to punish and harm Australian businesses, Australian exporters, including agriculture, and damage Australian jobs,” she said.
Australia’s trade relationship with China is worth $150 billion a year, far in excess of next-ranked United States ($69bn) and Japan ($60bn) combined.
The New Daily contacted Mr Joyce’s office for comment.