When Australia’s newly elected conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott unveiled his Cabinet last month, there was public outrage that there is only one woman at the most senior level of government.
The country had been accustomed to seeing a range of women running top ministries, including its first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, in the last government, who won the election in 2010 leading a team with women in senior roles.
In the new Cabinet, that one woman is Julie Bishop, Australia’s first female foreign minister and deputy leader of the Liberal Party, the senior partner in the ruling coalition.
Bishop has already demonstrated her toughness by surviving three party leaders during the coalition’s two terms as the opposition.
Landing the role of foreign minister at a time when trade and defense issues are dominating headlines across the Asia-Pacific region is a big step up from her previous role in 2005-7 as minister for education, science and training. This was after spending three years as minister for aging, a rapid promotion path following her election in 1998 in Curtin in central Perth, the mining capital of far-flung Western Australia, 3,700km from the capital Canberra.
Only a week after the election in July, Bishop embarked on her first official trip in her role as foreign minister, to New York City to chair the United Nations Security Council. Australia had won the seat on the UNSC earlier this year after a prolonged campaign by the previous government. Ironically, Bishop in her previous role as opposition spokeswoman had criticized Labor’s costly pursuit of the seat.
Bishop then flew to Jakarta to join Abbott. On the way she had her first public relations misstep when her Indonesian counterpart Marti Natalegawa released a statement of their meeting in New York. Bishop had described their meeting as constructive, but the Indonesian statement said that Natalegawa had warned her that some of the government’s policies impinged on Indonesian sovereignty. The Indonesians quickly removed the evidence from its website, saying it had never been intended for public release.
In an interview with The Nikkei Asian Review in Singapore last week, Bishop signaled a change in foreign policy direction for the country that will see a fresh focus on the Asia-Pacific region and stronger links for diplomacy, trade and investment.
“It’s very much focused on economic diplomacy. We will be aligning our foreign policy and trade and interests. We will be seeking to project our reputation and protect our reputation as a successful market economy. In that sense, we will be pursuing free trade agreements and a network of bilateral and regional FTAs beyond what we currently have,” she said
“We will be focusing our efforts very much on the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific. That is where our foreign policy assets will be focused — whether it will be military, defense, economic, trade, diplomacy, aid — directed not exclusively but unambiguously on the region.”
She noted that there is an ongoing global “tilt” from Europe to Asia, which now provides more than 50% of the world’s GDP growth, and Australia would be seeking more investment from Asia, being in an “exquisite position to take advantage of that growth.”
The first step in that new focus will be to conclude long-running free trade negotiations with Japan, South Korea and China — deals she hopes to start fast-tracking when she lands in Tokyo on Oct. 15, the first stop on a 10-day trip to East Asia that will also include Seoul, Hong Kong and Beijing.
Bishop outlined an ambitious plan to sign FTAs with Japan, South Korea and China over the next year but said that a deal with South Korea would likely come first and could be substantially hashed out by the end of this year.
“The government views the completion of an FTA with South Korea as a priority and then Japan and China, in that order. If that were to change, so be it. But I am visiting South Korea in October, and (Trade and Investment Minister) Andrew Robb is going shortly thereafter,” she said. “We are hoping to conclude all three within the first 12 months of our government.”
“I hope we will be able to achieve something with South Korea by the end of this year; it may go into next year. There are also the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) negotiations as well, but how the timing goes is obviously something we will have to work on.”
She was more cautious on the U.S.-led TPP, which now constitutes 12 nations, including Japan, Vietnam, Peru and Chile. The U.S. timetable of completing it by the end of the year is now looking doubtful since U.S. President Barack Obama canceled his trip to this week’s APEC conference, as well as visits to other countries in the region.
“What’s interesting about the TPP is that a number of members already have FTAs with each other, so it’s a question of putting all of that on the table and seeing where the benefit lies,” she said. Robb echoed her sentiments, saying Australia needed to be careful not to sign something that may disadvantage it under pressure from the U.S.
Bishop said Australian trade negotiators had been told to move quickly ahead with finalizing the FTA with South Korea, stuck on the issue of Investor State Dispute Settlements, which allow foreign companies to take national governments to court over substantial policy changes that affect their businesses.
The issue had been taken off the negotiating table by the previous government in 2011, for fear of lawsuits by large tobacco companies after Australia became the first country in the world to ban branding on cigarette packets.
“That was a mistake; they should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis,” Bishop said. This appeared to signal a more flexible policy overall for FTAs and may open the door to negotiations with China and Japan over sticking points.
As China continues to pursue its overarching claims for huge expanses of the seas off its coast — well beyond internationally recognized borders — its neighbors increasingly welcome the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia.
HMAS Darwin enters Sydney Harbor as part of the International Fleet Review celebrations on Oct. 4. The Fleet Review marks 100 years since the Royal Australian Navy’s fleet first entered Sydney Harbor. (Reuters)
In Singapore, where Bishop met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, she pointedly raised defense issues. She named Singapore as one of Australia’s two key defense allies — along with Japan — in the region.
“The relationship with Japan is exceedingly important to us, and that is why I will be visiting Japan as my first stop on my Asian trip,” she said.
Australia has angered China by agreeing to host U.S. troops — Marines in the northern city of Darwin — and while the deal was inked by the previous government, it has always had bipartisan support. The ruling coalition has also promised to boost its defense budget, after criticizing the previous government for running defense spending as a percentage of GDP to low levels not seen since before World War II.
The previous government also ruffled feathers in Beijing in its 2009 Defense White Paper — a policy blueprint — by naming China as a potential threat, a position the Labor government backed down from in a reworked document issued last year. Abbott has already commissioned a fresh blueprint for Australia’s armed forces.
The rise of China and its modernizing military has emerged as the region’s biggest security issue, and Australia is locking itself ever more firmly into its defense alliance with the U.S., one that encompasses a range of countries in the region, including Japan and the Philippines.
China and Japan, the world’s second- and third-largest economies, are in a dispute over the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea. In the South China Sea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and China are involved in long-standing disputes over another chain of rocky islets. The prize is the potentially vast reserves of oil and gas under the sea floor.
Bishop was not keen to touch on the matter of China’s growing belligerence, except to say that Australia “would not take sides” in the disputes, which should be resolved in an “international rules-based” manner.
Bishop, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue of maritime disputes during a trilateral strategic dialogue in Bali on Oct. 6.
A joint statement from the U.S.-Japan-Australia meeting opposed any “coercive or unilateral actions” that could change the status quo in the East China Sea, and urged claimants to refrain from destabilizing actions, the U.S. State Department said.
But China quickly warned the three allies to stay out of the South China Sea issue. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “The U.S., Japan and Australia are allies, but this should not become an excuse to interfere in territorial disputes. Otherwise, it will only make the problems more complicated and harm the interests of all parties.”
How Australia’s new foreign minister and her government deal with this issue, far more than how many free trade agreements she can sign, will determine her success in the job.
For the first time in over a generation, Australia has a foreign minister with a difference in Julie Bishop.
It’s not just that she is the first woman to fill the role; Bishop comes with a world view shaped not by institutional factors but by personal interest and engagement. Most importantly, say her supporters, she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.
“Julie has worked very, very hard to understand the portfolio,” an Australian senior diplomat told The Nikkei Asian Review. Her regular visits to countries and regions in Asia, particularly China and Indonesia, provided a sharp contrast to the previous administration’s relative lack of engagement with its neighbors. But despite six years in the opposition role, the foreign minister’s job still entails a steep learning curve.
Diplomats said they were excited because for the first time since the early 1980s they may finally have a minister who listens to their advice.
The Australian media has counted Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s high-level visit to Indonesia, along with Bishop, Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb and a business delegation including the CEOs of some of the nation’s largest companies, as a success.
And despite a reputation for being extremely tough, in person she comes across as warm and charming. She has a surprisingly broad Australian sense of humor and a capacity (rare among senior politicians) for self-deprecation.
Although she was rushed for time, it was these qualities that struck our correspondents when they interviewed her in Singapore last week. These are qualities Australians like to see in themselves and are also the key to the country’s reputation for being relaxed, welcoming and good-humored while still hard-working. While that can be a matter for debate, she certainly fits the bill as Australia’s No. 1 diplomat.
This story first appeared as the cover story in Nikkei Asian Review, 9 October 2013