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Jan 28, 2014


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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23 thoughts on “Abbott turning Japanese, China fuming, Bishop stuck in the middle

  1. Peter Bayley

    Tony Abbott is a simpleton and incapable of tact or nuance. The LNP bovver-boy pugalist fixit man was accidentally promoted by a devious Nick Minchin, into a position far in excess of is natural abilities – classic Peter Principle. Now we’ll all suffer the fact until the few good men remaining in the LNP realise the fact and remove him, hopefully ending the charade.

  2. Mark Duffett

    International maritime conventions are a rather kinky thing to flaunt. Presumably the author meant to say that Australia is flouting them.

  3. extra

    How many times will Ms Bishop be prepared to eat the sh*t sandwiches concocted by Tony Abbott’s minders? Julie’s not a mindless follower, and would presumably like to keep her self respect intact. It’s one thing to take a fall for the leader occasionally, but being treated like a doormat is quite another.

  4. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx for this, which explains the Coalition’s otherwise mystifying reversal of policy since Opposition.

  5. TheFamousEccles

    I’ve a strong feeling that the schadenfreude I am enjoying is quickly becoming a guilty pleasure. These clowns are costing us, and not just (but still, significantly) in dollars and cents, but reputation, also.

  6. Stuart Coyle

    He was subject to a lecture by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop about Australia’s decision to create an Air Defence Identification Zone over those very islands.

    I assume the article meant “China’s decision”.

  7. Hunt Ian

    Abbott and co are truly woefully inept. There is no need for Australia to announce that it is rune by neocons pursuing backward neoliberal policies. But they have and we will pay the price for it. The Chinese claim to a few islands close to its shore and not part of the traditional Japanese island chain, which includes Okinawa, is its strongest. We could simply have said we want any dispute settled peacefully but siding with the US and Japan is daft.
    Abbott’s woeful reaffirmation of neoliberal economic policies in Davros is another misadventure. Let’s hope that Rupert’s press dominance in Australia does not give Abbott and Co a second term to extend the damage they have already done.

  8. bjb

    Hunt Ian – if Abbott delivers for Murdoch, irrespective of the damage the LNP is doing to the country, Murdoch will stick by him. As a commenter on the other story today about the VC – Murdoch and his heirs are wealthy enough to insulate themselves from any adverse consequences the LNP’s stupidity make fall upon the rest of us.

  9. tonysee

    1. Hardly a day goes by without Abbott showing us that he’s a devotee of the Dennis Rodman school of diplomacy.
    2. That photo! It looks like something from a horror movie.

  10. paddy

    Bloody good summary M.S.
    Interesting times ahead.

  11. klewso

    Murdoch will dump Abbott when he becomes unelectable – like he dumped Howard in his last 6 months as he crashed and burned and nothing Murdoch’s protection racket could do could save him – to save his own face as “King Maker”.
    As soon as Rudd was elected Murdoch turned his negative whinging PR empire on him.

  12. DiddyWrote

    Hi tonysee, I had been thinking that the associated photos’ of Abbott appearing in articles by Crikey and the Guardian were being selected maliciously until this weekend.
    I inadvertently turned on the tele and my eyeballs were suddenly assaulted by coverage of Abbott giving his Australia day address.
    What in Hell’s name have they done to his face. He looks a goanna with a pair of stick on comedy ears and a comb over.
    Rating: X 18+ restricted.

  13. DiddyWrote

    Hi extra, I wouldn’t worry too much about Ms Bishop, she is quite capable of upsetting the diplomatic apple cart all on her own. Remember how before the election she started boasting in parliament that the Coalition already a secret deal with the Indonesians regarding towing back the asylum seekers. The Indonesians went ballistic.
    Ah well it at least set the tone for later debacles.

  14. klewso

    Not to mention how the Indonesians have had to leak – to correct her account of events involving her and them – since taking over the shambles?

  15. DF

    Peter Bayley (Comment no.1) got it write, I think. Abbott doesn’t do nuance. Instead it is goodies/baddies, heaven/hell, right/wrong, etc. A Manichean perspective on life and humanity – http://wordsmith.org/words/manichean.html

    Slightly off-topic – anyone with any knowledge of body language care to comment on how Abbott never extends his arm when shaking hands? He keeps his elbow close to his waist and draws the other person’s hand towards him, rather than reaching out. Check out the video of him meeting the queen on tv the other night. I saw a snap the other day where he had the other person’s hand between his and close to his stomach, not unlike, I have to say, a priest.

  16. DF

    Further to my earlier email, Abbott’s handshake is not something he has recently developed – watch him here with the Queen a couple of years ago:


  17. Andybob

    I wondered what our China policy was. Now I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  18. Jimmyhaz

    I wonder what Abbott is going to do next, perhaps refer to the Taiwanese as the true owners of mainland China? It seems like one of the few diplomatic hurdles that he has not managed to crash spectacularly into, meaning it’s only a matter of time.

  19. AR

    JimH – don’t give TT ideas, after all that was the policy of Silver Ming, his hero’s Hero until Nixon “recognised” China and the fiction of Formosa was despatched to the scrap heap of history.
    Not quite, our glorious DFAT still insists on referring to that once beautiful island as Republic of China.
    And refuses to call Makedonia by its historical name, using the wankery of FYRoM (former Yugoslav republic of Makendonia) despite the non existence of Yugoslavia. Wonderous are the ways on the stripey pants.
    PeterB – there are plenty of tories who squirm that TT is their leader by virtue of SLoppy’s gutless incompetence & dithering on the day of the spill but, as always, they prefer power to principle.

  20. JohnB

    AR, try calling the FYROM simply “Macedonia” when there is a nationalistic Greek in the room and you will begin to understand that which you evidently do not now.

    Some names are problematic, because there are folk on both sides of a line on a map that claim a single name for their hmeland.

    Try the following:
    China. Think Formosa / Nationalist China / Renegade Province.

    Or Mongolia. Inner and Outer Mongolia… one lies south of the country we know as Mongolia and is part of China. The other is an independent country, by name of Mongolia, and not always sharing a happy history with China.

    Macedonia… Enough said.

    Ireland… Yep, there are two of them, but only one island. One’s a republic, the other is some kind of territorial possession of the English. That has not been an entirely happy situation for several hundred years, although the present is decidedly less volatile than 50 ears back.

    Korea… the war hasn’t officially finished yet. A cease-fire has been in place for 60 years. A lifetime, but much shorter than than the Mongolian thing or the two Chinas issue.

    The list is a long one.

    Get over it.

  21. Liamj

    As if Abbott could even imagine a posture other than servility to the familiar master; its of a piece with his loyalty to the catholic church, regardless of gross corruption and waning power. Thats what the voters chose, so we must be due for a large lesson on the consequences of dated delusions. I wonder will it arrive before the old farts/LNP voters expire.

  22. Venise Alstergren

    Tony Abbott and his talentless front bench have, within a period of five months, taken Australia straight back to the 1950s. Every twitch the Rabbott makes is copied from the handbook of Bartholomew Augustine Michael (call me Bob) Santamaria of the DLP. Ever a destructive and manipulative man Santamaria would be ecstatic watching Tony Abbott’s destruction of his own country.

    So what do we wretched Australians do now? Wait patiently until we are accepted into being one of America’s satraps-their 51st state. (?)

  23. Dogs breakfast

    Like a bull in a ………… well, you get the picture.

    Manichean, I like it. If there is a term for the opposite of that, please let me know. I subscribe to the view that the wiser one gets, the more everything appears to be just various shades of grey, and nothing is black and white.

    If he carries on we might be in a war with Indonesia and China before his first term is up. I thought that was some pathetic hyperbole from Rudd prior to the election, now TA is making Rudd look prescient.

    Assuming we don’t end up at war with anyone, it does make for good comedy. Even the incredible buffoon Alexander Downer knew enough not to take sides in the China/US-Japan divide.


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