Julie Bishop

Julie Bishop appears determined to leave her mark on history by commissioning a white paper on foreign affairs, Australia’s first in 13 years.

She is also keen to put an end to an increasingly popular joke that, with her immaculate Armani suits, she is the female Andrew Peacock: a man who was seen as an empty expensive suit and who romanced Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine during his days as Malcolm Fraser’s foreign minister.

Yet, even before a word is written, the paper already has its own domestic political agenda. It’s increasingly clear than Australia’s military and security agencies are running foreign policy, with the rejection of Chinese deals in Darwin’s port and, more critically, power infrastructure — both slated home to security concerns.

John Menadue, Gough Whitlam’s cabinet secretary, who had an unrivalled, glittering career across the public and private sector, remains a fearsomely well-connected and astute observer of Canberra. On his meaty blog Pearls and Irritations he asserted that Bishop was determined to seize back the keys to the foreign policy castle from the military and the spooks.

Security concerns over Chinese companies were first raised when Chinese telecoms gear maker Huawei Technologies was barred by former communications minister Stephen Conroy from bidding for the national broadband network, a decision that hewed very closely to the US government’s decision to block Huawei from its market.

Yet for all the lily-gilding about philosophy that went on with the announcement — and there will be significant pieces on aid and trade, too — there’s no hiding the fact that the centrepiece of the paper will be about China, Australia biggest trade partner, which is deliberately unsettling the region in a game of chicken, which it is so far winning.

[RBA, not govt, correctly assesses real China threat]

Bishop’s freshly minted DFAT secretary Frances Adamson will be doing the heavy lifting in a flash test of her capabilities (this will have the added benefit of keeping DFAT’s first lady boss indoors, with fewer opportunities for La Bishop to be forced to share the spotlight).

The Chinese will sniff even a hint of division in the traditionally bipartisan world of foreign affairs and will have well-laid plans to exploit it. So Bishop should be building bridges with Penny Wong and Bill Shorten on this as close to the start of the process; in matters like these, Australia should aim to speak with a single voice.

Adamson, as former China ambassador before her nine-month stint as Malcolm Turnbell’s chief foreign policy adviser, is now in an invidious position. Does Australia finally man up to China and call it out for the myriad things that cannot ever fit with Australia’s “philosophy”, as Bishop has said the paper will detail?

There was also the unfortunate line about Australia helping to shape “the thinking of other nations”. That has worked a real treat with the Cambodian refugees resettlement scheme. And while this was probably not meant to sound as much “white man’s burden”, it so very clearly does.

Add to this the growing stain on Australia’s reputation in recent years in the region, the serial revelations of Australia’s state-sponsored horror (terror?) in the Manus Island and Nauru detention camps, all willfully self-inflicted, which are earning the country opprobrium across the globe and most particularly in Asia.

And just last week, Malcolm Turnbull’s, sloppy, ill-conceived, one-eyed patriot’s view of the Long Tan brouhaha came across as the latest in a growing line of Australian Prime Minister’s to talking down to or making demands the would be all but ignored in the reverse situation with one or others of our Asian neighbours. It will be interesting to see if all this even acknowledged.

[Rundle: at Long Tan, genocidal aggressors lose their right to a memorial]

Still, while many very real issues for Australia’s regional diplomacy are likely to be dodged because they do not exist in Canberra’s mind’s eye, the country should look forward to grown-up conversation, to use one of the Prime Minister’s favorite phrases, about China. A clear-eyed, unemotional conversation is long overdue. It will be an incredibly delicate balance — perhaps impossible to get right in the face of a campaign already locked and loaded against Bishop’s paper.

In this context, Bishop should at least be awarded points for what is arguably craziness/bravery.

The white paper, delivered properly, should also serve as a corrective to the horribly compromised non-event of the Gillard government’s Australia in the Asian Century, produced by former Treasury secretary Ken Henry, who spent five days in Beijing meeting rooms to form his view on the place. It was then rewritten from top to bottom to create one of the blandest policy papers ever written. It was quite rightly consigned to the circular file by the Coalition, so this is their chance to ask the tough questions that have been fudged by every Australian leader since Kevin Rudd publicly challenged China on their home turf on Tibet.

The Chinese appear ahead of the game already: Australia has become a prime target for an amped-up industrial-scale propaganda interference being run by the Communist Party top dogs. They have slammed everything Australian for the brave comments by swimmer Mack Horton against the sports drugs scourge when he targeted a Chinese swimmer who had been suspended for doping.

Yet for all this, the main question being asked in diplomatic circles is: why?

As one former south-east Asian envoy noted to Crikey, “What is this Australian obsession with foreign policy white papers? I do not remember seeing similar products from our Asian neighbours. Why do we have to spill our guts? We should be able to set out our foreign policy in less than 10 lines. We should learn to keep our goals close to our chest.”

Australians should also legitimately be wondering why we are so keen to telegraph policy to the region’s most aggressive power, one we are allied against militarily. Beijing must be cock-a-hoop.

So why, indeed. A simple government discussion paper on China would have done the trick without all the hoo-ha. But as is now clear, it’s politics, stupid, and so this so-called white paper comes with some heavy agendas attached, diminishing a vital and overdue conversation before it has even started. Let’s hope the end result surprises us.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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