Mon, Mar 30, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Australia defends ties with Beijing, calls critics ‘absurd’

AP AND AFP , CANBERRA AND SYDNEY

Australia’s deputy prime minister defended the government yesterday against suggestions it is too close to Beijing, calling the opposition’s attacks “absurd.”

Last week, Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon admitted that he had failed to declare two trips to China that were paid for by businesswoman Helen Liu, a ­Chinese-Australian property developer who is also a long-standing friend, as he is required to do under parliamentary rules.

Fitzgibbon apologized for failing to declare the trips, taken in 2002 and 2005 when he was an opposition lawmaker with a limited travel budget. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he was displeased with Fitzgibbon but that he would keep his job.

But the opposition seized on the trips to question whether Rudd’s government is too close to Beijing. Last week, senior opposition lawmaker Joe Hockey told Seven Network television that he was “concerned about the pattern of behavior,” citing trips by several government officials to China.

Yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard acknowledged that Fitzgibbon had made an error in judgment by not declaring the trips, but said the opposition’s attacks on the government’s China connections were ridiculous.

“This is all getting ... a little bit absurd,” Gillard told ABC television. “We now have the opposition carrying on as if there is some huge conspiracy here. That if you ever met a Chinese person, that if you’ve ever discussed an issue in relation to China, that if you’ve ever spoken a word of Mandarin, then apparently this is all some huge conspiracy against Australia’s national interest.”

Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat to Beijing, and Treasurer Wayne Swan also took trips to Beijing sponsored by Chinese business interests before they were elected to government in 2007.

Both declared the trips.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner and Beijing’s demand for mineral resources such as iron ore helped fuel a 17-year economic boom that ended late last year with the global financial downturn.

Amid intense debate in Australia over moves by Chinese state-owned entities to buy into the country’s vast resource base.

Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull has accused Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of acting like a “roving ambassador” for Beijing.

Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner said Turnbull was running a populist line he believed would resonate with sections of the Australian public.

“China has a vested interest in acquiring our natural resources at low prices,” Turnbull said. “The question is how much has Mr Fitzgibbon not told us.”

“It’s both absurd and it’s a blatant attempt by Malcolm Turnbull to play to latent antagonism toward China in the Australian populace,” Tanner told Sky News.

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