SYDNEY (Reuters) - Canberra will hold China to account on issues such as human rights, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said, insisting that staying quiet on sensitive issues is not in the national interest, in comments that drew a rebuke from China.
Relations with Australia’s most important trading partner have deteriorated in recent years amid accusations that China is meddling in domestic affairs. Canberra also fears China is seeking undue influence in the Pacific region.
Souring relations have strained bilateral trade, prompting some business executives to urge Australia’s conservative government to prioritise economic policy above social advocacy.
However, Australia would not be silenced, Payne said late on Tuesday.
“We must respect each other’s sovereignty, but we will consistently continue to raise issues such as human rights, including, as I have said, with China,” she said in a foreign policy speech in Sydney.
“Turning a blind eye to all human rights violations means an acceptance of behaviour that undermines the foundations of international peace and stability. Where there is no challenge, there is no progress,” Payne said.
“We have also addressed the treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang province in China,” she added.
China has been widely condemned for setting up complexes in remote Xinjiang it describes as “vocational training centres” intended to stamp out extremism and teach new skills.
The United Nations says at least 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Payne had “ignored the facts”, particularly with her remarks in Xinjiang.
“This is really not good, and does not benefit the improvement and development of the two countries’ relations,” he told a daily new briefing.
“China has already lodged stern representations with Australia about this, to say this way of doing things is very inappropriate.
“We hope the Australian side can reflect on, and learn, the lessons of the recent disturbances in Sino-Australian relations.”
Trade between the two countries was worth more than A$180 billion ($123.48 billion) last year.
However, several Australian lawmakers have stepped up criticism of China in recent weeks, despite the risk to trade.
China was targeting political parties and universities, Home Minister Peter Dutton said this month, triggering a strong reaction from Beijing.
In September, Reuters reported that Australian intelligence had held China responsible for a cyber-attack on the national parliament and three largest political parties before a general election in May.
China’s foreign ministry denied involvement in any hacking attacks and said the internet was full of theories that were hard to trace.
Payne’s comments came just hours before she travelled to the Solomon Islands, which switched diplomatic ties to Beijing from Taiwan in September.
Australia has moved in recent years to challenge China’s expansion of financial and political influence in the Pacific, which Canberra considers its historical domain.
Reporting by Colin Packham; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez