Australia’s foreign policy mess on China

Michael Sainsbury

“I came here to buy beef,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, told the assembled hundreds at an all in business lunch at Parliament House on March 28 to celebrate all this Australia and China. “But all I got was chicken,” he continued, glancing at the dry piece of bird on his plate that was, by all accounts bone dry.

Not once but three times would Li, a rare Chinese leader who speaks fluent English, go off-piste to refer to this monumental, emblematic miss by the organisers of the lunch and his visit generally.

“They just don’t get it, they really don’t get it, “ one trade veteran noted of the overall government’s attitude to both trade promotion and China generally.

More evidence, for the keen-eyed, of the stunning lack of imagination or insight on the government and bureaucracy: joining the PM and his deputy on the top table as one of our best and brightest on China was Liberal Party antique Warwick Smith. Lovely bloke but sans any serious China connections and well past his use by date.

But the lunch was just the trailer, a sneak preview that all may not be right in Australia/China land; the ensuing few days would see a mesmerising slow train crash that is going to take some time to clean up.

In so many ways, Li’s comment about getting chicken was true, with Australia’s foreign policy apparatus resembling this past week nothing quite so much as the dead chook bound for Li’s plate, heads chopped off running around in circles, spurting blood.

As own goals, go, they do not come any more spectacular than the bewildering collapse of the bilateral Australia China extradition treaty that was quietly sitting in a drawer unto being tabled, no one has actually figured out why, two weeks ahead of Li’s visit.

The desperation that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, usually a woman with rigid say-little discipline, displayed trying to beat backbenchers into submission once the government belatedly realized it would not have the numbers said it all.  NFI.

China, of course is furious Australia would have joined France, Spain and Italy in having such a treaty and no matter what you think of the ethics of the thing any legal recourse China would have had to retrieve the corrupt Party members who have poured in told gazillions into Australia now taken away. It will have to resort the illegal rendition tactics it can and will use, potentially further souring relations, but that will be another story. Indeed in what has been seen as a tit of tat measure, China cancelled a visit by Australian politicians traveling to check out its, ahem, legal system. It is unlikely to be the last

The unfolding domestic political disaster of the collapse of the treaty’s ratification, to the point where its doubtful any Australian government will be able to resuscitate it for years to comes capped of a remarkable run for Bishop. A week earlier she slammed China in Singapore, saying it would not reach its potential until it became a democracy but in case she had not noticed China is doping pretty damn well in the region, thank you.

One by one Southeast Asian countries are – if not falling in behind China, at least opening their doors ever wider to it and making peace. It may be galling for La Bishop but the only properly function democracy of the 10 ASEAN states right now is Indonesia. So she’s kind barking at the moon. What ever happened to realpolitik?

On top of that, at the weekend, Bishop told an unprecedented three day assembly of Australia’s ambassadors that crossed over with the end of Li’s visit, in cosmopolitan downtown Canberra that they had to be wary too of Donald Trump’s “economic nationalism”. Oops, she did it again.

The next day, headlines were bleating about her warnings of an Islamic “caliphate”, FFS, on Australia’s “doorstep”. Never mind, The Australian (who carried the hysteria in its terror spot on page 1) that the Philippines isn’t nowhere near our doorstep, the Indonesians could not have been happy with the rank Islamophobia.  The final cut was the leaking of a letter to China’s government demanding and improvement in human rights, signed by Australia, country running offshore prison camps, but not the US or the UK.

Pissing off the Chinese, Americans,  Indonesians and allah-knows who else in one week takes a very special sort of effort and Bishop should take a bow for blowing up five years of carefully cultivated non-opinion in one fell swoop. In the process she may well have torpedoed what must have been growing leadership ambitions – or then again, maybe that was the problem in the first place?

Meanwhile, back at DFAT, departmental captain Frances Adamson’s school assembly – the ultimate triumph of process over policy – had been called to tabulate responses for Bishop’s Foreign Policy White Paper. But after last week an already very ambitious project (Minister) is now effectively dead in the water.  It is now destined to be about as intellectually and strategically convincing as the fleeting Australia in The Asian Century White Paper – a limp lettuce leaf of document hat Labor, in its own wisdom, has vowed to follow should it be returned to power. So much to look forward to.

How did we get here when? Former Ambassador to Beijing Geoff Raby blames the wrong-headed rise and rise of “values based foreign policy” on both sides of the house.

“Foreign policy should be interests based,” Raby told Little Red Blog. Countries don’t permanent friends they have permanent interests and Australia is not prosecuting its interests very well.”

But wait, as the late night infomercials say, there is more. At the weekend, while Li was still in the country, one of Australia’s best China scholars, University of Technology professor Feng Chongyi, Australian resident but Chinese citizen – and critic – was kidnapped had by China’s security thugs, and not released guarded Guangzhou hotel room for over week. Bishop and the government’s roar seems to have suddenly deserted them. Feng’s colleagues former Foreign Minister Bob Carr and James Laurenson did not sign a petition being circulated by the global academic community demanding Chinese leader Xi Jinping released him.

Carr, in fact was living it up in Beijing that week on an all expenses paid junket with Australian including Malcolm Farr, Troy Bramston on his first China visit and Hamish McDonald on his millionth. Carr was said going to make that last resort of the pro-Beijing scoundrel  “private representations.”

Unlike Feng, Carr’s Chinese billionaire – backed China institute at UTS is renowned for its pro-Beijing line so he was not losing any sleep, wondering if he’ll make the plane home.

As Feng’s daughter, too, made an impassioned plea for her father’s release and a phalanx of global Chine scholars issued an open letter top Chinese leaders the only sound that could be heard in Canberra – cut adrift from the certainty of US foreign policy under Donald Trump –  was the desperate scratching of the feet of headless chickens, still running around the yard.