A sinking DFAT has given policy making over to ASPI

Jun 29, 2021

Despite the line being spun by recently retired Secretary, Frances Adamson, AC, DFAT appears to be in the process of being scuttled by ASPI.

Speaking as a guest on ABC Insiders on 20 July, the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, gave an unenlightening tour de force of the foreign policy issues facing Australia, from all the way with the USA to it’s all China’s fault, the audience learnt nothing. Well, perhaps not quite.

Ms Payne from time to time appeared to refresh her memory from dot points. Both questions and response appeared to be based on policy developed and articulated by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Perhaps indicating the extent to which DFAT is taking on water after being rammed by ASPI.

If, what the outgoing Secretary of DFAT, Frances Adamson, AC, had to say at the National Press Club, on 23 June 2021, is an indicator of Departmental thinking then it has run up the white flag. It was a defence of the indefensible, it was an apologia for an Australian government that has failed on every undertaking it has embarked on. From Climate Change, Covid, China, the Pacific, Timor Leste, Africa, SE Asia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, renewable energy, manufacturing, universities, Indigenous Australians, welfare, refugees and the arts. You name the issue and the LNP has failed.

I know it is hard to represent and develop policy for a dysfunctional government, but giving it what it wants without a fight is surely just as hard and perhaps it is even harder to administer and comply with its failures. Certainly, that was the case for many public servants and defence personnel with respect to Tampa and children overboard.

Difficulties have been building in the relationship with China for the past five or six years, but instead of seeking to ameliorate areas of difference and points of friction, they have been magnified for political reasons. It was following a ‘conversation’ with Daffy Donald Trump that pushed Skittish Scott Morrison into calling for an ‘independent’ inquiry into the coronavirus last year. Go back and listen to the tone in Morrison’s voice, the cockiness and the arrogance. It rankles many here in Australia, it certainly rankled the Chinese, who at the state level are very alive to nuance. It was crude and that crudity was repeated and reinforced by Marise Payne, Simon Birmingham and more recently Dan Tehan.

There are newspapers, academics and think tanks that seek, and so far, have succeeded, in taking a hard line against China. None of it in my opinion constructive. There is talk of war. All are emboldened and indeed encouraged by the United States, which tells us it has our backs but then actively seeks and succeeds in picking up 40% of the trade we have lost to Chinese sanctions.

For a long time, we had a difficult relationship with Indonesia, a lot of it centred around its takeover of East Timor. There was a strong anti-Indonesia lobby group in Australia, comprising academics, journalists, church and other groups. The US always sought a strong relationship with Indonesia and because of that Australia did likewise. I remember it was not always easy, it was a difficult path within the Department and for the government. Indonesia at that time gave Australia many hard issues to deal with. But the lines of communication were kept open and alive by both sides, despite at times some very acrimonious exchanges. And why were the lines kept open by Australia? Because the government wanted them to be.

And they could be with China. China is looking for an apology for Morrison’s oafish and thoughtless statement, all the more so because he was so obviously the lickspittle of Trump. And he continues to rub salt in the wound, sending Australian war ships to sail with US and UK ships in the China Sea. And why? China is not going to threaten the shipping lanes it needs. Yes, China needs push back on its cyber incursions, its ‘education camps’ in Xinjian and heavy handedness in Hong Kong. And just to be even handed the US needs push back on cyber security, police brutality toward black Americans, gun laws, Iran, Israel and China.

At the Press Club, Frances Adamson said, ‘Few really grasp that this great power (China) is still dogged by insecurity as much as driven by ambition. That it has a deeply defensive mindset – perceiving external threats even as it pushes its interests over those of others.’ The old adage applies. Those in glass houses should not throw stones. The white Australian ruling elite is dogged by insecurity about Asia and has been for so  the past 100, 150, 200 years, take your pick. It has a deeply defensive, if not offensive, mindset. And taking off the rose-coloured glasses, it is fair to say the US has pushed its interests over those of others, big time.

“It (China) is too ready to suspect containment instead of judging issues on their individual merits. This siege mentality – this unwillingness to countenance scrutiny and genuine discussion of differences – serves nobody’s interests.”

China is contained, that is the point of US defence strategy. Surely Adamson is aware of that? And it is extensive and comprehensive, including 7 bases or facilities in Australia. Without making too fine a point of it, I would say Australia has a siege mentality and has since the 1890’s, founded on the Yellow Peril, which is alive and well today.

Raising the list of 14 points of differences, problems and irritants in the relationship, at the Press Club, that the Chinese Embassy raised last year, was not wise or diplomatic if the aim of public discourse is to improve the relationship. This was a Chinese diplomatic blunder, done as part of Wolf Diplomacy which has now been reined in. It was best left. Unless the intention was to kick China in the shin.

Finally, it is not up to China to improve the relationship, it is up to China and Australia. To put it all on China sounds very much like LNP talking points for Sky News.

Adamson has left a sinking ship. It may be salvaged but it will be a different vessel. Policy will not form part of its refurbished functions, that will be claimed by ASPI. DFAT will become a clearing house for down graded information, a meet and greet, hale fellow well met, and a flier of the flag overseas. DFAT oversaw the biggest Australian foreign policy disaster in seventy years with the collapse of the relationship with China. This is not a matter of concern for ASPI.

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