Stephen FitzGerald. Abbott’s relations with China.

Can you believe the Abbott government has any idea where it’s headed on relations with China? Whatever you think of China’s politics, you can’t just take sides against China or meddle in the tense and volatile issue of China-Japan relations without there being some consequence for our bilateral relations. But the government doesn’t seem to care. From what you can divine from the little it says publicly, it thinks the Chinese will back down under Australia’s glare, and “get over it”. Like the Indonesians will get over it. But the Indonesians, whose thinking we know more clearly, aren’t going to get over it. Abbott and Morrison are so untutored in foreign relations and diplomacy, or so deaf, or both, that they don’t understand something has snapped in Jakarta. It’s not about our policies it’s about the language the Abbott government uses and the lecturing, patronising and racist attitudes they convey. A strong, independent, democratic and regionally influential Indonesia is not going to put up with that any longer and relations are never going back to the way they were before.

And the risk is that at the same time relations with China will be pushed back to at least where they were before Julia Gillard secured agreement for a regular high-level strategic dialogue with Beijing in April last year. This is not only harmful to our bilateral relations and restricting in our scope for managing them in our own interests. It will limit Australia’s capacity to be an effective player in regional affairs and a useful voice in the balancing of US China relations.

The fact is the government doesn’t have a China policy, in any coherent, strategic, long-term sense, and it has laid out no narrative in any speech or document that would give the lie to this assertion. Its handling of the issues with China over the last few months has been in the service more of a neoconservative confrontationist US view of China than an Australian view or Australian interests.

At the US-Japan-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue in the wings of the APEC ministerial summit in Bali in October 2013, Australia put its signature to a communique which “opposed any coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo in the East China Sea”. The problem is, it’s the very status quo itself which is in dispute between Japan and China, and by some interpretations the Chinese case is by no means weaker than Japan’s. Whatever the rights, Australia needlessly and recklessly took sides in a complex dispute in which we have no part, and Beijing of course reacted.

And there’s a bit more. The final wording agreed in Bali was reportedly different from the draft prepared by DFAT, bearing the stamp particularly of the two drafting officials from Tony Abbott’s Australia and Shinjo Abe’s Japan (Tony Abbott’s ‘best friend’ in Asia). The Australian official was Abbott’s Senior Advisor on National Security, Andrew Shearer, allegedly in Bali to ride herd on the neophyte Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and an advocate of bludgeon diplomacy and hairy-chested confrontation of China.

In November, China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone, ADIZ, in the East China Sea. This may be a matter of concern to Australia, but it’s not immediately proximate for us, and it’s one for us that demands skilful diplomacy not confrontation. Australia had a range of possible responses, but Julie Bishop went straight for a public slap down, carpeting the Chinese Ambassador to Australia Ma Zhaoxu to denounce Beijing’s move, and rubbing the Chinese nose in it by talking it up in language that suggested ‘Look what I’ve done!’ The concerning thing about this is that it was bound to achieve nothing other than provoke a tougher, uncompromising position from the Chinese, and so it did. “Irresponsible”, said Beijing. But worse for us, it put diplomacy out of play, again to the detriment of our relations and any role in whatever diplomatic potential there might be for amelioration of the tensions surrounding the issue.

Julie Bishop then made a scheduled visit to Beijing, and we saw on television the famous prelude to her meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. It’s the first time I’ve seen a senior Chinese, during the photo opportunity that precedes such bilateral meetings, vent a disagreement in this way with any country, even with the Japanese at difficult times in their relations. Wang Yi’s body language alone would have been a fairly blunt signal, but his sharp words in front of the media amounted to an official Chinese declaration that relations with Australia were in bad shape. In the history of our diplomatic relations, apart from the Tiananmen massacre we’ve not had such a stand-off. This, at a time when what we need most is to get closely alongside the Chinese and do whatever we can diplomatically to help defuse regional tensions and work on the development of a new order in the Pacific that peacefully accommodates Chinese as well as US power.

Yet in December, when Prime Minister Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine and other countries in the region with an interest in Japan’s wartime record immediately objected and even the US cautioned Japan, Australia said nothing. This is a deeply emotional issue for both China and Korea, who interpret a prime ministerial visit to this shrine as an intentional denial of Japan’s wartime atrocities. And whereas on the two earlier issues the Australian government spoke out when it might to greater effect have chosen a diplomatic response and a public reticence, on this issue it didn’t even refer to it till a month later, and then only en passant in a Bishop interview with the Financial Review, when the incident was well out of the way.

With China, as with Indonesia, disagreements and policy differences can be managed, but it’s the way we’ve gone about it, and the language, and the idea from colonial times that if you speak English to these people loudly and clearly enough they will understand and do what they’re told. And for Beijing, there’s the unmistakable message that on matters it regards as vitally affecting its sovereignty, we stand with a particular US view that doesn’t want to accommodate Chinese power.

Beijing has not got over it. But what will it do in response? So long as it sees benefit for China, it’s unlikely to want to disturb economic relations or derail the FTA negotiations. What’s more likely is downgrading the importance it gives to political and strategic dialogue. But political and strategic dialogue is the one element of our relations we can least afford to lose. It took years to persuade an Australian government to understand this, and when finally it was taken up by Julia Gillard it took a huge effort to get the Chinese government to come to the party.

This is serious. It’s not a case of being pro-China or seeing Asia through a Chinese prism, which is what the proponents of the US policy of denial pretend. To lose that dialogue or have the Chinese not take it seriously would be a major setback for us. And make more difficult the management of our economic relations. And deny us opportunities to resolve through diplomacy and dialogue the many challenging issues we’re going to face directly with China as a Great Power in our external habitat and a force in our domestic politics.

What will happen, if the Indonesian government turns to China to supply or even directly assist its navy in the protection of Indonesia’s sovereign borders? And China obliges? And they turn to Abbott, Bishop and Morrison and say: “you, of all people, ought to understand”?

If you meddle in someone else’s issues by taking sides when you’re not a party principal, can you really believe they might not meddle in yours?


Dr.Stephen Fitzgerald was former Australian Ambassador to China


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11 Responses to Stephen FitzGerald. Abbott’s relations with China.

  1. zwetschgen says:

    Some Chinese officials have also indicated intent to declare an ADIZ over the unfortunately named South China Sea. What would Australia’s position be to this kind of move, which could potentially control, or threaten the world’s and especially Australia’s, import / export shipping lanes to China and all of East Asia north on Indonesia. Australia dare not allow such a zone, but at the same time dare not jeopardize our exports to China. Were China to shut off this Sea, they could effectively strangle/ruin the Australian economy and with our manufacturing and replacement parts industry effectively offshored to Asia, make Australia easy pickings in the even of any serious confrontation.

  2. Greg Hogan says:

    Stephen Fitzgeralds’ suggestion that Beijing and Indonesia might start a dialogue on border protection is not so far-fetched. For whilst Julie Bishop lectures the Chinese on their proclamation of an air navigation zone, the Chinese are likely to have not missed that Morrison’s Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) is towing Indonesian-flagged vessels across the High Seas (HS). Australia is a signatory to the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC). Australia can legally assert its sovereignty and push back asylum boats from its Territorial Sea (TS) out 12 nautical miles from shore, and may even control migration in its Contiguous Zone (CZ ) out 24 nmiles from shore. But not the reported practice of towing boats back across the HS to Indonesia’s TS. There is no treaty, no customary law, and no bilateral agreement that gives the Australian Navy any authority whatsoever over irregular migrants on Indonesian-flagged boats on the HS. Dare say the hypocrisy of the Bishop’s lecture together with the Morrison-OSB’s HS action will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing. People who live in glass houses…..

  3. Tim says:

    Abbott and Bishop have lots of things to learn. Only fool rush in.

  4. Carlos says:

    Some interesting comments, but you’re really just skirting around the issues. There are some very simple truths about a global economy that requires constant growth, ever growing consumption in non-renewable resources each year, and a resource rich and sparsely populated continent like Australia with a fraud of a military sitting under a hungry mass of humanity. And let’s not forget that – we’re all part of the one human family. Unfortunately, the goodies haven’t been fairly distributed for quite some time…
    We’ve all sat in front of the tele and done nothing about it…can’t expect the new tough guys on the block to be overly sympathetic now can we?
    In any event, it doesn’t really matter what Abbott says – we’re a pawn, and that role has been set since at least Keating’s day on the Sun. Australian citizens have been sold out by generations of second rate criminals in charge of its defence policy – so we will have no choice in the coming decades. Australian Admirals would be lucky to clean carpet in the US Navy, and the fact that they don’t speak up tells you all you need to know about them. Muppets. A real Admiral, like a Rickover, and a real Defence Minister, like a Schlesinger, could tell you where it was headed since the 60s. Australia will likely be thrashed like a gibbon in a potato sack in a decade or two. That’s what happens when a nation tolerates a Navy so ridiculous that pretend Admirals can tout a criminal disgrace like the Collins submarine with a straight face.

  5. A response to Dr FitzGerald’s article from an Interpreter contributor, who argues that the critique is overstated and that Abbott is not the first PM to make a slow start to the China relationship:

  6. Matthew Robertson says:

    I would like to know whether any country has a “China policy, in any coherent, strategic, long-term sense.” Where is this programmatic document? I have also not seen the PRC’s policy vis-a-vis the US and other countries, either. Has a former Australian government had such a policy?

  7. Phil says:

    Diplomacy at its best????

  8. I just don’t understand where Abbott and Bishop think they are going with China. It amazes me because their hardline approach seems to be contrary to the interest of the Lib/Nat’s own constituency of miners, farmers and others whose business interests depend on maintaining favourable relations with China (Westpac comes to mind). There is a very real risk that China will come into conflict with its neighbours in the near future. Is the Abbott-Bishop plan to blindly follow the US in any such confrontation, even if this is contrary to US and regional interests?

  9. chris schacht says:

    An excellent analysis. Peter Costello was right when he said that Abbott would be the first DLP/NCC Prime Minister of Australia. Chris Schacht

  10. Graeme Bull says:

    I also . . “wake up with dread; what next? At my age I should not have to. Australia has tied its future to other countries too many times before . . and we have sacrificed our youth! This last weekend, we again celebrated our national identity as a free, open and mature world citizen. We must not again march thoughtlessly into ideological minefields sewn by other world citizens’ priorities.

  11. Yes, I was amazed when Australia through Julie Bishop became involved in the spat over those tiny disputed islands between Japan and China. We seem to be lurching from one blunder to the next. The un- diplomatic wrecking ball erratically being hurled about at random. What has taken years to slowly build up, being demolished by oafish totally inept behaviour and choice of belittling language.
    Dear, oh dear! I wake up with dread; what next? At my age I should not have to.

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