Tony Abbott is preparing for his first trip to China as Prime Minister in early April, and is expected to attend the Boao Conference for Asia on Hainan island. At Boao, China’s attempt at regional Davos-like summit, Abbott will have to face Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The clincher for the Abbott’s itinerary will likely be talks with Chinese political supremo Xi Jinping in Beijing.

Far from a simple display of goodwill, Abbott’s trip to China will be a perilous minefield, make no mistake. In a surprise and rather extraordinary string of comments and events, Abbott has made it crystal clear that he has sided with the United States and its ally Japan against China. It’s even more extraordinary that it’s a choice that did not need to be made; previous Australian prime ministers, including Abbott’s mentor, John Howard, were emphatic that sides did not need to be chosen.

Abbott’s public embrace of Japan (and its key backer, the US) as being Australia’s “best friend” in Asia came with a further surprise: a joint release by the US/Japan and Australia last October supporting Japan’s claim to rocky islands in the East China Sea, an issue previous Australian governments have avoided like the plague.

If that weren’t enough to incense China’s leadership, these two utterly unnecessary moves were followed by a uniquely heavy-handed “calling in” of China’s ambassador in Canberra. He was subject to a lecture by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop about China’s decision to create an Air Defence Identification Zone over those very islands. None of our business, reckons China. Diplomats were aghast.

Abbott goes into his China event with some form. In concert with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, the PM has demonstrated breathtaking diplomatic incompetence with Indonesia. There has also been a continued campaign of big-nation bullying against our newest and poorest neighbour, Timor-Leste, as Australia continues to flout international maritime conventions, denying the tiny nation lucrative energy resources.

Abbott sent Bishop to Beijing to try to mollify the Chinese after the ADIZ episode, exposing her to the unprecedented humiliation of being slapped down by her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in front of the global media’s rolling cameras. Even for China, a new level of payback.

As extent of damage wrought in Beijing has become apparent, the foreign policy commentariat has weighed in, reflecting the broad consensus among the foreign affairs intelligentsia that Australia’s relationship with China is in considerable danger. In recent days there has been critical and detailed commentaries by the Lowy Institute’s East Asia chief, Linda Jakobson, whose understanding of China stretches back more than two decade, and a coruscating denunciation of Abbott’s approach by former China ambassador Stephen FitzGerald, posted on John Mendaue’s blog Pearls and Irritations on Australia Day.

FitzGerald’s dark warning is that Abbott’s actions are risking Australia’s newly elevated status of having regular bilateral dialogue with China, announced by Julia Gillard during her trip to China last April. That status is only granted to a handful of nations, yet we now risk being quietly removed or, a more Chinese solution, to be effectively (if not officially) downgraded. FitzGerald wrote:

“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.”

After Kevin Rudd’s 2009 annus horribilis with China, a combination of government missteps and continued fallout from the pitched battle over iron ore pricing, China cared enough about its relationship with Australia to make a serious, pro-active effort to sort things out. It sent Li, then a more junior leader, to Australia waving an olive branch. Naturally, self-interest was the prime motivation, with China still finding its feet on overseas investment; Australia would prove its biggest global investment destination over the ensuing three years.

“Many are concerned about Shearer’s influence, hardly a new view about those who have been in his position. They describe his views as outdated and warn they are not in Australia’s interests.”

The question now being posited is whether China will bother this time or quietly move Australia down a notch. The signs would be fewer senior official visits, fewer meetings in Beijing with the right officials for diplomats, visiting ministers and Australian businesspeople. With China’s political and economic climates tightly entwined, Australian business relations would also suffer.

In hindsight, on his one brief visit to China’s opposition leader in July 2012, Abbott showcased his diplomatic skills and China savvy in one fell swoop by announcing that Chinese state-owned companies would not be welcome owners of Australian companies. Choosing partisan domestic politics, a sap to the Nationals, over considered policy that would benefit all Australians, he immediately forecast discrimination against China in favour of other state-owned companies from Singapore and the Middle East.

Abbott has never outlined any China policy, and FitzGerald says the government simply does not have one. But someone clearly does. Foreign affairs insiders say the policy shift in favour of Japan (read: the US) is the handiwork of Andrew Shearer, Abbott’s chief foreign affairs adviser, a former diplomat who once held the No. 2 position in Washington. He worked briefly for John Howard and sat out the Labor years at the Lowy Institute, returning to the Libs once it became clear Abbott would triumph last September.

Shearer is widely known to be an active subscriber to the pro-US/pro-Japan view of the world where China is seen as a rising threat that needs to be contained. Others simply describe him as a “neocon”, a shorthand reference to the now largely discredited pre-emptive war clique that permeated the George W. Bush administration; their legacy is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many are concerned about Shearer’s influence, hardly a new view about those who have been in his position. They describe his views as outdated and warn they are not in Australia’s interests.

FitzGerald claims he has a smoking gun, saying the draft communique from Australia’s summit with the US and Japan in October, which supported Japan’s East China Sea case, was changed at the last minute; the original DFAT draft was replaced by a new, pumped-up version, drafted Shearer.

With Abbott having demonstrated he has, at best, a diplomatic tin ear, it’s the unelected Shearer, with his close connections in Washington, who now appears to be setting Australia’s foreign policy agenda. And in the process, foreign affairs insiders say, making radical, possibly dangerous changes.

Policy is the job of cabinet, and it’s hard to imagine hard-headed Asia-savvy realists like Malcolm Turnbull or Andrew Robb signing off on these changes without a fight. And is Bishop, who was left to do the heavy lifting in China, visiting eight or nine times during her years with the opposition foreign policy portfolio, capable of executing a 180-degree turn in her views? At no stage has she ever given any hint of preferring Japan over China, assiduously describing them in equal terms.

If Bishop and DFAT have been sidelined, even in part, as FitzGerald suggests, she must fed up with mopping up her colleagues. Whether or not these changes have been going through cabinet, savvy Coalition politicians should be asking questions in their party rooms about the growing mess — and possible consequences — of Abbott’s foreign policy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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