Beijing: The Abbott government has suffered the ignominy of having its asylum seeker policy publicly criticised by another foreign government – this time China, a country with its own chequered human rights record.
In a sign of lingering bilateral tension between Australia and its largest trading partner, China’s vice-minister of foreign affairs, Li Baodong, said he was concerned about the “very important issue” of the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, especially children, who arrive in Australia by boat.
“Indeed, we have proposed this question very candidly and also stated our concerns,” Mr Li told reporters in Beijing. “We also asked if these refugees will be illegally repatriated to other countries.”
Serious questions have been raised about Australia’s policy of removing asylum seekers to offshore detention centres after violent clashes on Manus Island that left one asylum seeker dead, another shot and scores severely injured.
Indonesia has already criticised the policy of turning back asylum seekers who arrive by boat, saying it "is not conducive to a comprehensive solution to the issue".
China's remarks came in the context of a regular human rights dialogue between Australia and China, this year held in Beijing. In previous iterations, both Chinese and Australian officials have usually responded to questions from reporters with general, boilerplate answers in order not to risk offence, keeping criticisms confined to the meetings behind closed doors.
The leader of the Australian delegation, deputy secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Gillian Bird, appeared to stick to the script. In a series of cautious answers, she said she was “very happy to respond on Australian policies and to explain and answer any questions that the Chinese side had”.
Mr Li reports to the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, who delivered an unprecedentedly public rebuke to his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop last year, after she criticised China’s decision to declare an air defence zone over disputed waters in the East China Sea.
Mr Li was also on the front foot when questioned by Australian reporters on an apparent crackdown and persecution of intellectuals and political activists in China, with the most high-profile cases including rights advocate Xu Zhiyong and Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti.
He said he had made “explanations and clarifications to the Australian side” on the specific cases of Mr Xu and Mr Tohti, and that the rights of Chinese citizens were enshrined by its constitution and rule of law.
But rights groups and governments, including those of the United States and the European Union, have roundly criticised the arrests of activists like Mr Xu and Mr Tohti, while the Australian government has refrained from public comment.
When pushed on what her views were of the arrests of Mr Xu and Mr Tohti, Ms Bird declined to deviate from general statements and said Mr Li had made a good summary of what was discussed between the two delegations.
This was the 15th round of the Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue, which began in 1997.