Only a herculean shift in foreign policy, a change of government or major external event will thaw a “frozen” relationship between China and Australia that has been damaged by a lack of diplomacy from Canberra that has compounded over the past three years, according to former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Carr, who was foreign minister from 2012-13, said it was not the substance of Australia’s actions – including calls for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus and its ban on technology from Huawei Technologies Co. – that had damaged ties, but the lack of diplomacy with which Canberra pursued them.
“Both thrusts can be defended. But the diplomacy accompanying the decisions was spectacularly incompetent,“ he said. “Australia-China relations are frozen. We have no relationship, formal or informal. I’m not sure what our embassies do or can do.”
Carr, who was a politician with the Labour Party, said he supported policies that looked after Australia’s interests, but the current Liberal-led coalition’s adversarial approach had contributed to souring relations.
The two countries have been locked in conflict for more than seven months, with China taking a series of trade actions, including banning exports and applying anti-dumping duties, on Australia.
The Chinese embassy in Australia last week provided local media with a list of 14 grievances that had “poisoned” bilateral relations, including Canberra blocking Chinese investments, Australian politicians criticising Beijing and alleged racist attacks on Chinese and Asian citizens in the country.
Carr traced Australia’s adversarial approach to China back to “a flamboyant lack of diplomacy” in 2017, when then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made a speech supporting US military build-up in the region, and former foreign minister Julie Bishop called for increased cooperation with the United States in the Indo-Pacific.
Speaking soon after Donald Trump became US president, Bishop said the US was an ally and “indispensable power” in the region.
“Most nations wish to see more US leadership, not less, and have no desire to see powers other than the US calling the shots,” she said at the time.
“There is a feeling in Canberra that the best expression of Australia’s international personality is to be the closest American ally to Washington,” Carr said. “This eliminates any opportunity for creative middle power diplomacy.
“Australia very deliberately tilted against China in 2017, but with an almost flamboyant heavy-handedness.”
Australia’s lack of diplomacy culminated in a push for an international investigation of the origins of the coronavirus in April, which Canberra pitched as an “anti-China” inquiry, rather than one with the support of China, Carr said.
There was even talk in Australia of sending “weapons-style inspectors” to Wuhan, the initial epicentre of the pandemic, that China saw as deeply hostile, said Carr.
“It was a signal to China that Australia wasn’t interested in a bilateral relationship,” he said. “It looked like we didn’t give a damn.”
Australia also turned a commercial decision on banning Huawei’s technology, which it did on national security grounds, into a model for other Western countries, according to Carr.
“We gravitated towards the most adversarial position on China,” said Carr. “We trumpeted we had gained the approval of Donald Trump.”
Carr, who also served as premier of New South Wales state, said he did not see a way out of the diplomatic mire “unless there is a change in government or a change in China policies”.
Alternatively, an external event such as Washington and Beijing resetting their relations and forging a new path forward could trigger reconciliation, Carr said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government maintains that the ball is in China’s court
in terms of resolving current differences, a position reiterated by trade minister Simon Birmingham in a television interview on Sunday.
Asked why some Asian nations – including those with territorial disputes with China – could maintain workable relations and walk the diplomatic tightrope better than Australia, Birmingham said that was something for Beijing to explain.
“In many ways you’re asking a question that is a question for Chinese authorities as to why they may have chosen to seemingly single out Australia in some way for commentary and/or action in different ways,” he said.