ALLAN PATIENCE. Schmoozing America, antagonising China

Nov 6, 2019

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At the same time, the statements are illustrative of an increasingly outdated orthodox consensus that has been at the core of Australian security policy since 1951.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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