Tony Abbott is preparing for an early April trip to China, his first as Australian Prime Minister with his office laying plans to attend the Boao Conference for Asia on Hainan island. His office said the conference is “on the radar” but his China plans are yet to be finalised but insiders say it’s the preferred option. At Boao, China’s shot at a regional Davos-like summit, Abbott will have to face Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The clincher for the itineraries approval will talks with China political supremo Xi Jinping in Beijing.
So instead of being showered with platitudes that new leaders would normally receive from Beijing, Abbott’s trip to China will, make no mistake, be a perilous minefield.
The reason is that in a surprise and rather extraordinary string of comments and events, Abbott has made it crystal clear that he has chosen sides between the United States and its ally Japan, and China.
It’s even more extraordinary that it’s a choice that did not need to be made and one which Australian prime ministers, including Abbott’s mentor John Howard were emphatic that sides did not need to be chosen.
Abbott’s public embrace of Japan (and its key backer the USA) as being Australia’s ‘best friend’ in Asia came with a further surprise: a joint release by the US/Japan and Australia last October after three-way security talks in Bali supporting Japan’s claim to rocky islands in the East China Sea an issue previous governments have avoided like the plague.
If that wasn’t enough to make China’s leadership go nuclear, these two utterly unnecessary moves were followed by a uniquely heavy-handed “calling in” of China’s ambassador in Canberra. He was subject to a lecture by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop about Australia objections to China’s decision to create an Air Defence Identification Zone over those very islands.
None of our business, reckons China. Diplomats were aghast.
Abbott goes into his China event with some form. In concert with his handpicked immigration minister Scott Morrison, the PM has demonstrated breathtaking diplomatic incompetence with Indonesia. There has also been a continued campaign of big-nation bullying against our newest and poorest neighbour Timor-Leste as Australia continues to flaunt international maritime conventions, denying the tiny nation lucrative energy resources.
Abbott sent Bishop to Beijing to try and mollify the Chinese after the ADIZ episode, exposing her to the unprecedented humiliation of being bitch-slapped by her counterpart Wang Yi in front of the global media’s rolling cameras. Even for China, a new level of payback.
As the extent of damage wrought in Beijing has become apparent, the foreign policy commentariat has weighed in, reflecting the broad consensus that Australia’s relationship with China is in considerable danger. In recent days there has been critical and detailed remarks from the foreign policy intelligentsia such as the Lowy Institutes’ East Asia chief Linda Jakobson, whose understanding of China stretches back more than two decade and a coruscating denunciation of Abbott’s approach by former China Ambassador Stephen FitzGerald, posted on John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations website on Australia Day.
FitzGerald’s dark warning is that Abbott’s actions are risking Australia’s newly elevated status to regular bilateral dialogue with China, announced by Julia Gillard during her trip to China last April. Only granted to handful of nations, yet we now risk being quietly removed or, a more Chinese solution, to be effectively (if not officially) downgraded through actions such as sending lower level officials to stand in and only agreeing on all but meaningless agendas. Fitz-Gerald wrote.
To lose that dialogue or have the Chinese not take it seriously would be a major setback for us. And make more difficult the management of our economic relations. And deny us opportunities to resolve through diplomacy and dialogue the many challenging issues we’re going to face directly with China as a Great Power in our external habitat and a force in our domestic politics,
After Kevin Rudd’s 2009 annus horribilus with China, a combination of government missteps and continued fall out from the pitched battle over iron ore pricing, China cared enough about its relationship with Australia to make a serious, pro-active effort to sort things out. It sent Premier Li, then a more junior leader, to Australia waving an olive branch. Naturally, self-interest was the prime motivation with China still finding its feet on overseas investment; Australia would prove its biggest global investment destination over the ensuing three years.
The question now being posited is whether China will bother this time or quietly move Australia down a notch. The signs would be less and less senior official visits, less meetings in Beijing with the right officials for diplomats, visiting ministers and Australian business and so on down the line. In a political economy as intertwined as China, to say that soured political relations will not effect business prospects shows no understanding how things work in Beijing.
In hindsight, on his one brief visit to China as opposition leader in July 2012, Abbott showcased his diplomatic skills and China savvy in one fell swoop by announcing that Chinese state-owned enterprises would not be welcome owners of Australian companies. Choosing partisan domestic politics, a sap to the Nationals, over considered policy that would benefit all Australians he immediately forecast discrimination against China in favour of other state owned companies from Singapore and the Middle East.
At first blush, it’s hard to understand how such an emphatic and potentially devastating unraveling of a carefully constructed relationship could happen in the blink of an eye. Abbott has never outlined any China policy and Fitz-Gerald says the government simply does not have one.
But someone clearly does. Foreign affairs insiders say the policy shift in favour of Japan (read the US) is the handiwork of Andrew Shearer, Abbott’s chief foreign affairs adviser, a former diplomat who once held the no 2 position in Washington. He worked briefly for John Howard and sat out the Labor years at the Lowy Institute;returning to the Libs once it became clear Abbott would triumph last September.
Shearer is widely known to be an active subscriber to the pro US/pro Japan view of the world where China is seen as a rising threat that needs to be contained.Others simply described him as a “neocon”, a shorthand reference to now largely discredited pre-emptive war clique that permeated the George W Bush administration; their legacy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many are concerned about Shearer’s influence, hardly a new view about those who have been in his position. They describe his views as out-dated warning they are not in Australia’s interests.
Fitz-Gerald claimed he has a smoking gun, claiming that the draft communiqué from Australia’s summit with the US and Japan in October, that supported Japan’s East China sea, making Beijing apoplectic, was changed at the last minute; the original DFAT draft replaced by a new, pumped up version, drafted by Shearer.
With Abbott having demonstrated he has, at best, a diplomatic tin ear, it’s the unelected Shearer, with his close connections in Washington, who now appears to be setting Australia’s foreign policy agenda. And in the process, foreign affairs insiders say making radical, possibly dangerous changes.
Policy is the job of cabinet and it’s hard to imagine hard headed Asia-savvy realists like Malcolm Turnbull or Andrew Robb signing off on these changes without a fight. And has Bishop, left to do the heavy lifting in China, visiting 8 or 9 times during her years as foreign policy shadow, executed a 180 degree turn in her views? At no stage, over many years, has she ever given any hint of preferring Japan over China, assiduously describing them in equal terms.
If Bishop and DFAT have been sidelined, even in part, as FitzGerald suggests, the minister must be fed up with mopping up her colleagues steaming dumps on China. Whether or not these changes have been going through Cabinet, savvy Coalition politicians should be asking questions in their party rooms about the growing mess, and possible consequences, of Tony Abbott’s foreign policy.