ALLAN PATIENCE. Schmoozing America, antagonising China

The Morrison government is cleaving ever more closely to the USA, asserting that the two countries have shared values and aligned interests. Meanwhile it has taken to lecturing China about human rights abuses and emphasising how the values of the Chinese Communist Party are anathema to Australia’s cultural values and democratic politics.

“Our alliance with the United States is our past, present and our future. It is the bedrock of our security”. These words were spoken by Scott Morrison towards the end of his Lowy Lecture on 4 October 2019. Subsequently, on 29 October, the Foreign Affairs Minister endorsed the Prime Minister’s unequivocal commitment to the ANZUS alliance: “Our relationship with the United States is firmly fixed in our history and our values – across successive governments and leaders on both sides of the Pacific. […] We reflexively look to the US to take responsibility when there is a problem. That is still the case”. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has now fallen over himself to echo both the PM and the Foreign Minister. In each case, the politicians seem determined to take for granted Australia’s status as a dependent middle power – which means it is a fake middle power.

At the same time, the statements are illustrative of an increasingly outdated orthodox consensus that has been at the core of Australian security policy since 1951. However, as China rises and America, under Trump, appears bent on pulling back from its commitments in the Asia Pacific, the question that needs asking is: Are the politicians really speaking up for Australia’s contemporary regional and global interests? Or are they mindlessly parroting slogans about a reality that is fading into irrelevance as new challenges rapidly confront the country’s foreign and security policy-makers?

In his account of the WikiLeaks revelations about American diplomatic activity, Professor Clinton Fernandez makes the point that the evidence from those revelations show that “Australia remains relatively unimportant in US thinking” (see What Uncle Sam Wants, 2019). Moreover, Trump’s abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies in north eastern Syria makes clear that Australia’s orthodox consensus about the ANZUS alliance needs urgent updating. As The Economist noted: ‘The betrayal of the Kurds will lead friends and foes to doubt Mr Trump’s America. That is something both Americans and the world should lament’ (17 October 2019).

The style of megaphone diplomacy that Morrison and his ministers are currently adopting, about America and about China, is indicative of a worrying shift in Australian foreign policy, away from what a former ambassador to China, Garry Woodard, described as an effective policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards the country’s ANZUS obligations and its relationship with China (see Australian Journal of International Affairs, February 2018).

The shift that the Morrison government appears to be engineering is towards unambiguous commitment to current American security policy (whatever that is at any given moment under Trump), while unleashing an extraordinary barrage of criticism of China’s record of human rights abuses. This is in face of the fact that relations between Beijing and Canberra have become decidedly cool. As another former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, has pointed out: “Never before has Australia been denied access to the highest levels of the Chinese political system as it has been for the past two years. It is in this sense that relations are at their “lowest ebb””.

In her speech on 29 October, Foreign Minister Payne criticised the Chinese government for its mysterious detention of Australian citizen Dr Yang Jun. She did so while simultaneously criticising Beijing for its treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang province. This was a display of extreme diplomatic clumsiness on two strategic fronts.

First, the comments about the Uighur are very likely to muddy efforts to get Yang Jun out of detention and out of China. The minister should recall the Francis James affair, back in 1969, when James, an Australian citizen then visiting China, was imprisoned for three years, allegedly for spying. When Gough Whitlam visited Beijing in 1971, he interceded on James’ behalf, persuading the Chinese to release Francis James and to allow him to return home. The McMahon government sought to overshadow Whitlam’s diplomatic success by arranging for an ambulance and phalanx of cameras and journalists to greet James when he was due to cross the border into Hong Kong. Beijing took offence at this avalanche of publicity and promptly returned James to jail for almost another year.

Second, the Morrison government seems blithely ignorant (or wilfully dismissive) of the fact that in the United Nations Human Rights Council, and in other important international forums, Australia has been seriously and consistently criticised for its own human rights abuses – for example, for its dysfunctional policy-making on Indigenous affairs; and for its cruel disregard for the rights of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. In not a few influential international forums, Australia has come to be regarded as a pariah state, the successor to the old apartheid South Africa. When we add to this the fact that Australia is seen as a “laggard state” on climate change policy, we see a country that is fast losing influence and respect in regional and global forums.

It’s time for Australia to have a serious conversation with itself about how trustworthy (or untrustworthy) the alliance is with the United States, and whether the alliance in its present form actually serves the country’s interests. At the same time, it needs to develop a more subtle and quiet diplomacy with China, to build up better understandings between the two countries. To do otherwise will seriously jeopardise the country’s economy and its security.

Meanwhile, the envisioning of a truly independent Australia, a country capable of standing on its own feet, is long overdue. There is no evidence that the Morrison government has either the talent or the will to advance Australia in this direction.

Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.


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6 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. Schmoozing America, antagonising China

  1. malcolm harrison says:

    My understanding is that China is a collection of minorities, and that especial attention is paid to the needs and rights of minorities. Uighurs and Tibetans are special cases, for different reasons, and I am unfamiliar with the details about Tibet. However the Uighurs have been a special case because of the impact of such groups as ISIS and AlQuaeda recruiting from the Uighur population, and then the subsequent radicalisation of young Uighurs in such regions as Xinjiang Province. However the stories about ‘concentration camps’ and the ‘more than a million Uighurs’ interned in them is western, mostly American, propaganda.

  2. Anthony Pun says:

    First to Robert Fox: Your statements are more likely to be accepted by the Chinese government that Foreign Minister Payne’s, as her statements have been described as hypocritical and double standard. (see comment on:
    There is also a cultural sensitivity in your statements which escape many western megaphone human rights campaigner whose noble efforts falls by the wayside and on deaf ears.
    The most plausible explanation for this blind affiliation with the US is simply vote catching – by pandering to the right political base using the “Trump model”.
    To be constructive, I commented on the SE Asia trip of our PM (published SMH blog 5Nov2019 ) Story: Scott Morrison urges patience on regional trade deal
    SE Asian countries are fairly skilled in driving an independent foreign policy between the two big giants US and China and they do not rely on security relationship or the US military umbrella to protect them because they do not perceive China as the “enemy”. Australia is unable to drive a wedge between the SE Asian countries and China as these Asian nations see Australia as the mouth piece for the US. To increase Australian’s influence and restore the confidence and trust of SE Asia-Australia that existed in the 1950s, PM Morrison need to travel to SE Asia more often with this trade and foreign ministers and re-link old friendship and create a strong multi-lateral relations with her northern neighbors. That’s the only way Australia can begin to understand Asia and more importantly China, and how to deal with our northern neighbors in a mutually beneficial way. Out of sight out of mind would apply to Australia, if she chooses to be isolated by an inflexible alignment with the US.

  3. Rex Williams says:

    Human rights abuses; “a pariah state”, “a laggard state”. All true.

    When you really understand the makeup of Morrison, a narcissist if ever there was one, being the man at the top and then see the weak and ineffective people below, such as Marise Payne and Simon Birmingham, both mentioned above, we should understand that they are all now regarded by all countries in the Asian as sycophants of America, (a country that is well on the way down the slope to a loss of empire), you will understand why in the years ahead, Australia will likely decline rapidly. The last financial crisis we survived.
    Since then, Trump, Morrison. Nothing more needs to be said.

    When it happens, we will be very badly impacted by our loss of business with China, the shedding of our values (1. such as the acceptance of the treatment of Julian Assange as ‘normal’), (2. voting for parasitic apartheid Israel at the UN on every occasion…52 years of disgrace), the needs for non-stop activities of Royal Commissions addressing matters of serious importance to people everywhere and just around the corner, our loss of productivity, food production, manufacturing and the serious increase in unemployment, one of the most obvious indications of a failing state. Did I mention the drought, the Australian dollar at US$ 0.69, more than half of Australia owned by foreigners, with our banks foreign owned as well.

    By choice, we moved from ‘control’ by the UK after WWII while still maintaining the anachronism that is British royalty, and all that means. Since WWII we have been the lapdog for the USA with little if any attempt to project our image as a country with an independent foreign policy. We have never had a truly independent foreign policy. Listening to our current incumbent in Foreign Affairs is truly sickening. A State Department mouthpiece.

    This is perhaps the saddest indictment of Australia in 2019. We have never grown up, never had the courage to stand on our own two feet.

    In this regard, we are not a respected country and even in the USA, seen as something of a joke, dismissed as an errand boy whose opinion on any subject is a foregone conclusion. The White House circus event with Morrison dancing on the US stage confirmed our pathetic status in the world. Ask anyone.

    Learn to live with it. It is Australia now and onwards into the future.

  4. Robert Fox says:

    The strictures by Marise Payne would have been far better received had they gone something like this:

    We note the policy of the Chinese Government towards minorities within China, particularly Uighurs and Tibetans. We have experience in cultural genocide. We took children from their parents, and forbade them to speak their own language; we indentured the adults and children and obliged them to work where we told them with little or no pay. We feel guilt and shame at the terrible results this caused and we urge most strongly that you avoid the same trap into which we fell in the name of national harmony.
    National harmony comes from the peaceful and respectful acceptance of cultural groups.

  5. Evan Hadkins says:

    Can Australia stand on its own feet in defense?

    Could we alone defend against an attack from somewhere that is a credible threat?

    If not why bother with a military? Why not put the money into diplomacy and aid?

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