Australia's leader backs foreign minister's work on China

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's prime minister on Tuesday rejected a former diplomat's opinion that the country needs a new foreign minister to thaw relations with China.

Geoff Raby, who was Australia's ambassador to Beijing from 2007 to 2011, used a scathing column in The Australian Financial Review newspaper to call for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to be replaced.

"Since Australia decided to adopt a policy of strategic mistrust towards China, any resemblance of influence has waned to the point where relations are now in the freezer," wrote Raby, who now owns a business consultancy in Beijing.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull backed Bishop, the deputy leader of his conservative Liberal Party, who has served as foreign minister since 2013.

"I was disappointed by that article. It's utterly wrong. Julie Bishop is doing an outstanding job," Turnbull told reporters.

"Every time she goes out on the world stage, she makes Australians proud. She's a formidable foreign minister, a great diplomat and a great colleague," he added.

Raby wrote that Bishop had not visited China, Australia's most important trade partner, in more than two years.

"She angered China by making the most strident public comments on the South China Sea of any foreign minister and last year, in an utterly bizarre speech in Singapore, said China was not fit for regional leadership," Raby wrote. He was referring to a speech Bishop gave in Singapore in which she said China can reach its full economic potential only by embracing democracy.

"The prime minister needs to replace Ms. Bishop with someone better equipped for the demands of the job," Raby added.

Turnbull said last month that "there is certainly some tension" in the bilateral relationship over his government's proposed legislation to ban foreign interference in Australian politics.

There had been "some misunderstandings and mischaracterization" of the legislation in the Chinese media, Turnbull told Melbourne Radio 3AW.

A top Australian diplomat told a Senate committee in March that the bilateral relationship was going through "complex and difficult issues," but rejected a media report of a diplomatic deep freeze.

Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, described The Australian newspaper's headline — "Cold war: China's freeze on ties" — as "just wrong."

Bishop backed Adamson's assessment at the time.

"Despite some of the commentary in Australian and Chinese newspapers, we are not experiencing a 'freeze' in diplomatic relations with China," Bishop's office said in a statement in March.

"Australia's deep diplomatic engagement with China continues as normal," the statement added.

China protested in December against Turnbull's announcement that Australia will ban foreign interference in its politics — either through espionage or financial donations. The move was motivated largely by Russia's alleged involvement in the 2016 U.S. election and China's growing influence on the global political landscape.

The Chinese foreign ministry said then that Turnbull's remarks were prejudiced against China and had poisoned the atmosphere of China-Australia relations

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