Opinion piece – The Schoolyard Diplomacy Must End

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The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP

Deputy Leader of the Opposition

Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development 

Opinion piece – The schoolyard diplomacy must end 

Originally published in The Australian Financial Review - 11 February 2014 

In 1971, Gough Whitlam visited China as part of a Labor Party delegation.  That was one month before US President Richard Nixon made a similar visit that would change the course of global politics.  Prime Minister Whitlam’s foresight on the importance of China was again witnessed in 1973 when he returned to the country, this time as the first Australian Prime Minister to do so.

China’s ascendance is just one of the seismic shifts occurring in today’s geopolitical landscape.  The realignment of economic and strategic weight toward Asia in recent decades is something new to Australian foreign policy.  Engaging in this new environment is a delicate business, requiring both skilful diplomacy, and a nuanced understanding of Australia’s international relationships (longstanding and new).  Sadly the current government is struggling on both fronts.

Even before the election, experts including the Australian National University’s Professor Hugh White, observed that Beijing was wary of Tony Abbott.  It wasn’t a good start, and the Government’s actions since have done nothing to dispel China’s misgivings.

Last year, the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, admonished China when she summoned the Chinese Ambassador to her department demanding an explanation about his country’s behaviour – then issued a media release about it.  This was a major diplomatic misstep that earned Ms Bishop an unprecedented public rebuke from the Chinese Foreign Minister when she was in Beijing.

The Abbott Government’s pivot to the US has seen a change in language too.  Ms Bishop has made a point of ignoring the fact that China is our biggest two way trading partner to award the US the title of 'most important economic partner’.  While the US-Australia direct investment relationship is also significant, what is China to make of the Government’s determination to rank and grade our friends?  It’s the kind of rhetorical inelegance which reminds us of Mr Abbott’s simplistic “baddies versus baddies” assessment of the Syrian conflict.

Basic factual errors on the Prime Minister’s part have also raised eyebrows in our region, like calling Japan our ‘ally’.  Our relationship with Japan is one of longest, strongest, and closest in our region, but not formally an alliance.  That was a significant misuse of a word with a very specific diplomatic meaning.  This came on top of Ms Bishop’s insistence that Japan was our ‘best friend’ in Asia.  Not one of our best friends, but decidedly top of the rankings.

The Government’s bungling, ham-fisted diplomacy has arguably led Australia’s relationship with China to its lowest ebb since before Whitlam’s historic visit.

So why would the Government allow ties to be damaged with our largest trading partner, merchandise export market, and a nation that is set to become the world’s biggest economy by 2025?  What would drive the Coalition to risk our near-term economic interests and long-term security interests so recklessly?  The answer is a deep misunderstanding of the world of diplomacy.  The Coalition sees our relations with the US and China as a zero-sum game – that is, becoming closer to one must move us away from the other.

This type of Cold War thinking has no place in a world with growing multi-polarity.  US Secretary of State, John Kerry, recently advised against zero-sum thinking in relation to the Ukraine.  And the US and China continue to work to strengthen their own relationship, with US Vice-President, Joe Biden, recently warmly welcomed in China.  Labor’s achievements in government completely invalidate the zero-sum approach too.  Then Prime Minister Gillard had President Obama visit and we agreed on stronger defence ties with the US.  During the same term, Gillard made a historic visit to China and established a high level strategic partnership.

The US-China relationship will shape the future of our region like no other factor.  It is in Australia’s interests to ensure this relationship is characterised by dialogue, and underpinned by trust and an understanding of the importance of cooperation.  This cannot be achieved by unthinkingly taking sides or clumsily ranking relationships.  While both China and the US already engage with each other on their own, Australia has something unique to offer.  Australia has an obvious cultural bond to the US, underpinned by a shared anglosphere heritage.  That combined with our growing ties and economic complementarity to China, as well as our large Chinese diaspora, allows us to play a role no other country can.

Beyond our bilateral relationships, we can help facilitate a good China-US relationship through multilateral engagement.  Having a rules-based international system which engages and adapts to rising powers like China is the best way to ensure long-term peace and stability.  As a middle power, our strength lies in our ability to influence and build like-minded coalitions with others.  Working alongside neighbours like Indonesia, we can help magnify our voice.  Multilateralism effectively acts as a force multiplier.

For all this we need policymakers who are adaptable, seek out new opportunities and avoid emerging threats.  At such a phenomenal time in global history, pursuit of our national interests and values will not be furthered by a schoolyard style ranking of friends.  It is inexcusable for Mr Abbott and Ms Bishop, with an entire government bureaucracy at their fingertips, to be blind to something Whitlam and Nixon saw so clearly 40 years ago.


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