Dutton-style bullying should not be a tool of diplomacy, particularly with regard to China, writes Bruce Haigh.
The Coalition is not strong on foreign policy, preferring the United States to take the lead and provide direction. Were it not for trade, Australia under the Coalition would have a weak relationship with China.
Australia followed the U.S. into war in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and is prepared to follow them into war against Iran. It has sought confrontation with China over their claim to the South China Sea. The U.S.-led confrontation has not deflected China and, short of war, is not likely to. Confrontation has gained nothing but hostility. I am not arguing appeasement but rather a change in tactic. China will act with stubbornness and aggression if forced into a corner or suffers a loss of face.
The United States has handled the COVID-19 crisis badly. President Donald Trump has made an even greater fool of himself with crazy prevention pronouncements all of his own creation. His push to get businesses open is likely to prolong the spread of the virus, further undermining the U.S. economy, thereby prolonging recovery time around the globe. He has behaved badly, more so than Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who failed to inform the world of the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan for some weeks and suppressed the voice of concerned doctors.
Trump needs to be called out. He is proving to be a dubious ally. That has not prevented Prime Minister Scott Morrison from playing to Trump's ego and pledging loyalty. Loyalty to what?
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, not content with shirking his responsibility for the spread of the virus in Australia through the unauthorised docking of the cruise ship Ruby Princess in Sydney, has sought deflection by seeking an inquiry into the cause and spread of the virus. His remarks were clearly directed at China and have drawn an angry response. Dutton-style bullying should not be a tool of diplomacy particularly with regard to China.
China is embarrassed. It is conducting its own investigations in its own way. It clearly wants to prevent anything like this happening again. Dutton has gone off less than half-cocked. He has done more than muddy waters. Had he or his Department consulted DFAT he might have been cautioned to desist or given a more appropriate course of action.
As it is, he may well have brought an end to Chinese students studying in Australia. China may move to prevent the trade in students. Morrison has been an echo chamber for Dutton’s crude and ill-advised foray into foreign policy against Australia’s largest trading partner. He has been unbelievably foolish. Has consideration been given to China sourcing minerals from elsewhere and restricting terms of trade if she feels attacks are politically motivated — that is at the instigation of the U.S.?
Australia’s unwillingness to look after foreign students stranded in Australia will not have gone unnoticed. India might well follow China in banning their students from studying in Australia. We have undermined our international standing with a further display of our mean-spiritedness.
In another exercise in deflection, Trump waded into the World Health Organisation (WHO). Morrison followed, believing he has some international standing because of the low number of COVID-19 cases in Australia. It is typical Morrison spin. It is too early to say if Australia has avoided a bullet. COVID-19 could come back to bite and Morrison would be flat on his face.
Trump is trying to blame anyone but himself for his COVID-19 stuff up. There are issues with the management of the WHO just as there are with other UN agencies. Shortcomings generally revolve around insufficient funding, which sees these organisations dancing to the tune of major donors in order that funds are forthcoming. But there is also corruption and nepotism. By all means, call for an enquiry, but money has to be put where the mouth is and not in the middle of a pandemic.
Australia’s neglect of the Pacific has seen China take advantage and push aid on our near neighbours. In case there is any doubt about what is going on, after the recent devastating cyclone in Vanuatu, China managed to fly in assistance to the stricken country before Australia, blocking the runway and forcing a Royal Australian Airforce Force plane with supplies to turn back to Australia. Hardball. The U.S. will not stick its neck out for us in the South Pacific.
China will come out of COVID-19 better than America. It will be China that repatriates regional and African debt. It will be China that steps in to provide medical help should it be required in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and perhaps Indonesia. Australia has dropped the ball in those countries where its aid contribution is half what it was ten years ago and our voice was lost with former Foreign Minister Downer’s axing of Radio Australia. They can be expected to assist African states should it prove necessary. Australia has a limited presence and profile in Africa.
The outcome of the virus will likely see Chinese power and influence increased and that of America diminish.
The Labor Opposition should be seeking to contain Dutton and Morrison. They should be putting an alternative narrative to China. They should display the courage and skill of Gough Whitlam when he was among the first of the Western countries to recognise China, shortly after coming to power in December 1972. It was a relationship enhanced by Hawke and Keating without damaging the relationship with the U.S.
The Coalition set the tone of their relationship with the U.S. with the embarrassing catch cry, “All the way with LBJ”, referring to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, during PM Harold Holt's visit to Washington in 1966. The Liberal and National parties haven’t changed, but they must. The conservative right-wing research institutes and think tanks, sections of the mainstream media together with the IPA must be marginalised in order that Australia has a respected and influential place in the region.
It must be diplomacy, not Dutton. In terms of our relationship with China and America, the boat must be balanced if Australia is to get through the uncharted and rough waters ahead.
China has already threatened to cease buying Australian beef and wine if Australia refuses to withdraw its calls for an inquiry into the causes of the spread of COVID-19. What dills we have for political leaders.
Bruce Haigh is a former Australian diplomat and a political commentator. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @bruce_haigh.
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