Tony Abbott has accused China of bullying its neighbours and warned Australia’s relations with it are unlikely to rise above a “cold peace”.
In a speech to the India Foundation in New Delhi overnight, the former Liberal prime minister promised to champion further engagement with India, suggesting Australia had “put too many eggs into the China basket”.
The comments are at odds with former Labor prime minister Paul Keating who suggested on Monday that Australia’s approach to China has been supplanted by the phobias of security agencies and the hysteria of “pious” and “do-gooder” journalists.
The intervention comes as Liberal MPs are hardening their stance against China, with senator Eric Abetz suggesting on Tuesday the “barbaric” practice of forced organ harvesting may constitute genocide of members of Falun Gong.
Abetz, the chair of the Senate foreign affairs committee, told Radio National he had asked the Australian government its position on the report and the international community needs to tell China the practice is “illegal, barbaric and a breach of every fundamental human right”.
“Genocide – in relation to Falun Gong – is something that might be an appropriate description,” he said. “But the evidence is there the Falun Gong seem to be the main target but Buddhists, Uighurs, house Christians and indeed criminals have all been targeted for organ harvesting.”
Abetz said the practice should be condemned “no ifs and buts” and Australia “should be able to join” with the European Union, US House of Representatives and Canadian parliamentary subcommittee in calling for an international investigation.
Abetz said Australians should be blocked from travelling to China for organ transplants, arguing that to do so condones forced transplants, and universities need to ensure they “are not unwittingly” supporting the trade by having greater transparency on cooperation with Chinese institutions.
According to Abbott in a speech first reported in the Nine newspapers, Australian governments have “carefully cultivated” the relationship with China but must now be “very cautious” about further engagement.
“The often-glossed-over reality is that it’s hard for Australia to be a meaningful strategic partner to a country that thinks it can bully its neighbours on the basis of confected territorial claims that it refuses to submit to arbitration and tries to resolve unilaterally in its favour,” Abbott reportedly said.
“It’s hard for any country to be [anything] other than a client, or a strategic competitor, with a country that still regards itself as the ‘middle kingdom’ and that has now dropped the mask of hiding its strength and biding its time.”
“It’s hard to see relations with China rising much above the level of a ‘cold peace’ any time soon.”
Australia would “continue to offer China the food and resource security it craves and to share our thinking on what makes an economy more prosperous and a society more humane”, Abbott reportedly said.
“We should be very cautious about the kind of technical engagement that leaves us relatively weaker and China relatively stronger.”
On Friday China blocked the visas of Liberal MPs Andrew Hastie and James Paterson, two of the most strident critics of the Chinese Communist party, who intended to travel there on a China Matters study tour.
Alistair Nicholas, the chief executive of China Matters, told Guardian Australia that both China and the two Liberal MPs need to dial back their rhetoric and Australia needs to “speak up for our values in a proper, respectful manner”.