No time to be meekly standing by, placating other lands
IN 2007, historian John Hirst argued that Australians had often felt the need to ask others what they think of our nation, in part because our European origins as a British penal colony conferred a sense of being second-class.
Hirst concluded that we had moved on from that sense of inferiority and had adopted an attitude of “this is who we are and the world can take us or leave it”.
Perhaps Hirst spoke too soon. While we may have experienced a growing sense of maturity in our foreign relations, in some quarters we have seen a desperate need for reassurance from other nations.
Take the recent announcement from China, without warning or consultation, of an air-defence identification zone, which claimed as a matter of sovereignty a huge area of airspace in the East China Sea.
Provocatively, the claimed ADIZ included airspace above the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which China claims but which are administered by Japan.
China demanded that any aircraft passing through its ADIZ had to notify its government of its flight plans, or face unspecified action, presumably military.
Japan and the US responded quickly with strong protests, including flights by military aircraft, without notifying China. Protests followed from South Korea, Taiwan, The Philippines, Canada, Germany and the EU. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, raised concerns about the potential for destabilisation in the region, which could impact negatively on our national interest, particularly if there were increased tensions between our major trading partners.
Bishop correctly pointed out that Australia has a critical economic and strategic interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in the region. Through Qantas, it is also directly affected by the imposition of the ADIZ.
The Chinese government reacted furiously, asserting that it was “completely wrong for the Australian side to make irresponsible statements on China’s establishment of the East China Sea ADIZ”. Indeed, China branded Bishop’s comments as “damaging” to China-Australia relations.
The only response more remarkable than this intemperate outburst was the reaction of some Australian commentators, who quickly fell in to line behind China.
Writing in the ‘Business Spectator’, Fergus Ryan described Bishop’s behaviour as “uppity”, claiming that she had committed a “diplomatic faux pas”. In ‘The Guardian’, Hugh White declared that while Bishop had every reason to be concerned about the ADIZ, she went about it in the wrong way.
Others joined the chorus of criticism of our Foreign Minister, yet there was little corresponding criticism of China’s unilateral behaviour which, as Bishop predicted, triggered a significant increase in regional tensions with Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the US.
China’s actions also contributed to rising anxiety among the numerous nations with competing claims in the South China Sea, with many expecting China to declare an ADIZ covering airspace above this hotly contested maritime region.
The logic of those critical of Bishop appeared to be that China could take provocative and destabilising actions that had the potential to impact negatively on Australia and our region, but that our government should remain silent.
Bishop has admirably stood her ground. Hence, in a subsequent meeting in Beijing with her counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, she showed no sign of being cowed into silence when Australia’s interest are at stake.
However, China upped the ante in its criticism of Australia, aided and abetted by ‘The Australian Financial Review’, which ran a front-page story highly critical of the Abbott government. This included a number of veiled threats from Chinese policy institutes.
One official was quoted as saying “It’s up to Australia to make the effort to create a good atmosphere” while another identified the US-Australia alliance as an “obstacle”, stating that “Australia shouldn’t blindly follow the United States, otherwise there will be economic costs”.
The underlying theme was that Australia had somehow erred in raising concerns and the Abbott government needed to show more subservience to China, irrespective of provocative behaviour from the Chinese government and/or its military.
In another era, this approach was known as “appeasement”.
A second example of what seems to be an inferiority complex came during the furore over the allegations that Australian intelligence agencies had targeted Indonesian political elites in 2009. This happened under Labor’s watch.
Indonesia played a clever game, first by insisting that Indonesia’s intelligence agency Badan Intelijen Negara undertook no surveillance or engaged in any other activity (which begs the question, what exactly does it do with 1800 employees?) and, second, by placing full responsibility for maintenance of the bilateral relationship on Australia.
Yet Indonesian government outrage was highly selective, in that it focused on Australia while pointedly ignoring any alleged involvement of the US.
It was apparently lost on Indonesia that the document that alleged the telephone intercepts was stolen from US computer servers owned by US intelligence agencies.
The tensions in the bilateral relationship, largely confected by the Indonesian political leadership for its domestic audience, played into the hands of domestic critics of Tony Abbott.
It was disquieting to observe the apparent delight of some Australian commentators, who reported each and every aspect of Indonesian displeasure, throwing it out as a direct challenge to Abbott’s legitimacy as Prime Minister. Yet again, there was a prevailing view that Australia was solely responsible for the state of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia, with the Indonesian government devoid of any responsibility.
One of the key tasks of any Australian government is to protect our national interest, in its many and varied forms. This can range from so-called “soft diplomacy”, such as cultural exchanges, to robust exchanges where there are significant differences of opinion.
History should inform policymakers that it is rarely in the long-term interests of any nation to adopt a submissive stance in its dealings with other nations. This is even more important at a time when a rising power might be prone to overconfidence and miscalculation.
The US has spent decades consciously and unconsciously exporting its values internationally, including its support for democracy, freedom of speech, religious tolerance and economic deregulation.
Although this imperfect process does not always lead to success, most commentators other than the extremely cynical would acknowledge that the US has generally sought to be a force for good.
In contrast, the ruling Chinese Communist Party brooks no internal dissent, restricting basic freedoms including that of speech.
It appears to be sending a message that it will likewise brook no dissent from the international community, particularly from those it deems militarily and economically inferior.
If China’s communist regime remains intent on exporting such values, it will become increasingly important for nations such as Australia to voice its concerns, in a similar way to that adopted by Bishop towards the end of last year. While Bishop and Abbott may have to suffer the slings and arrows of those who seek to place Australia in a subservient posture, they clearly recognise the greater danger of standing meekly by, placating other nations at the expense of our national interest.
Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald has written 36 books.
The Weekend Australian, January 4-5, 2014, INQUIRER, p 12.