Bob Carr, ‘Loose lips on China have cost Australia dearly’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24.05.18
‘…Australia’s flamboyant rhetorical shift against China predated Malcolm Turnbull’s introduction of anti-foreign influence legislation last December. Earlier in 2017, Julie Bishop, in a speech in Singapore, disputed China’s right to leadership because it was not a democracy. Tom Switzer noted in The Sydney Morning Herald this was the first time since Billy McMahon that we were elevating differences over China’s system of government as an issue in the bilateral relationship. Up till then under Coalition and Labor governments we’d set them to one side.
In June last year, the Prime Minister was calling for a bigger US military commitment in our region. It was Australia saying it wants a military build-up in Asia; effectively, to contain China. Hugh White identified this as going further than that of any other US ally, including Japan. And the US ignored it anyway.
Defending Chinese students in Australia from the baseless claims that they were promoting Communist Party policy on our campuses would have been an ideal opportunity for one of our leaders to have toned down the anti-China panic that took off in mid-2017 and introduce some nuance.
When the Prime Minister introduced his foreign interference legislation on December 7, he could have stuck to the departmental script and said it was aimed at no country in particular but simply protected Australian sovereignty. Instead, he parodied a line of Chairman Mao’s delivered in 1949 and rendered it as, “the Australian people stand up”.
What should have been a cool-headed speech became an entirely unnecessary taunting of a country which we have a valuable relationship.
No other US ally – not Japan or any of the Europeans – has thought it necessary to abandon diplomatic practice in the conduct of its China relationship. Nor have US partners like India or Singapore.
Early this year, the Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister seemed to be trying to rein things in. Then there was a new stridency let loose by colleagues. Then deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce said of China, “any state that has the capacity to overrun you is always a greater threat”. A junior minister, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, took aim at China’s aid program in the Pacific. Differences on aid could easily have been listed as a matter for dialogue not a public skirmish.
You can’t say to the Chinese “Oh, that’s only Barnaby” or “Fierravanti-Wells is only a junior minister”. It’s easy to imagine the nationalist outrage if senior Chinese leaders had directed such rhetoric at Australia. We wouldn’t accept comparable insults from any international partner. In foreign relations words are bullets. …
Bob Carr is director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney, a former NSW premier and former foreign affairs minister. His memoir, Run for Your Life, will be published next month.’