Monday, November 24, 2014

Australian PM Abbott clueless on how to handle US and China

For a long time Australia's leaders, including Tony Abbott, have told Australians that "we don't have to choose" between  the US and China. But Abbott made a big choice himself last week. He chose to reject stern warnings from Barak Obama not to get too close to China. He chose instead to embrace President Xi's Jinping's vision of Asia's future under Chinese leadership, and Australia's place in it.

Obama's warning came in his major speech in Brisbane during the G20. The headlines were grabbed by the remarkably direct attack he launched on Abbott's climate change policy. But much more of the speech was devoted to an even more remarkable attack on China's ambitions for regional leadership, and a stark warning about the choice that Australia and other regional countries face as we decide how to respond to it.   

"So the question that we face is, which of these futures will define the Asia Pacific in the century to come?" Obama said. "Do we move towards further integration, more justice, more peace? Or do we move towards disorder and conflict? Those are our choices - conflict or co-operation? Oppression or liberty?"

He left his listeners in no doubt at all which choice was which. He  implied that  the US offers co-operation and liberty, while China offers conflict and oppression. Overall the speech was by far the strongest attack Obama has ever made on China's claims to a bigger say in Asian affairs. Despite his own climate deal with Xi at APEC, this was probably the most anti-Chinese speech delivered by any American President since Nixon opened relations with Beijing in 1972.


By speaking here in Australia on the eve of President Xi's address to Parliament, there can be no doubt that Obama's purpose was to warn Tony Abbott against accepting Beijing's vision of a peaceful and harmonious Asian future under Chinese leadership in return for a free trade agreement. Interestingly, British PM David Cameron issued exactly the same warning when he spoke to our parliament just the day before Obama's address.

But Abbott ignored both of them. Instead he enthused over President Xi's speech to Parliament, which was in its way every bit as remarkable as Obama's speech in Brisbane, and much more effective. Obama had overshadowed his message and infuriated his primary target by his riff on climate change which, important though it is, was clearly tangential to the main purpose of his speech.

President Xi's speech, by contrast, was a model of disciplined statecraft.  It conveyed two simple messages - strength and reassurance. Xi calmly and confidently asserted that China would be "the big guy in the room" in Asia in future. And he offered warm assurances that Australia could look forward to a safe and prosperous future under China's regional leadership - as long as "we respect each other's core interests and major concerns".

Abbott took all this on trust. He spoke of that trust at the State Dinner for Xi after his speech. He praised Xi for his commitment to democracy and a rule-based international order. And in what sounded like a direct repudiation of Obama's dark warnings, Abbott went so far as to say that "when I listened to the President today, some of the shadows over our region and over our world lifted and the sun did indeed shine brightly".

This is, by any standards, a remarkable thing for Tony Abbott to say. Even his warmest friends accept that Xi's commitment to democracy stops far short of tolerating any challenge to the power of the Communist Party, and his commitment to a rules-based international order is conditional on China playing a leading role in setting the rules. 

All this suggests that last week Tony Abbott went a long way towards endorsing China's ambition to take over from  the US as the leading power in Asia. In a telling sign, Andrew Robb has since said that Australia will join China's new Infrastructure bank, which we refused to join last month at Washington's request precisely because it enhanced China's regional leadership ambitions.  

Yes, this is the same Tony Abbott who has, until now, built his political career on an ideology rigorously opposed to everything Xi stands for, and who has built his foreign policy on the most fervent support for the US and Japan in resisting China's claims to regional leadership.   

So why did he do it? The obvious answer is the free trade agreement, but can Australia's geopolitical alignment really be brought so cheaply?  For all the hoopla, the  agreement is unlikely to do more for Australia's economy overall than the equally-hyped  US free trade agreement has done - and that is, according to the government's Productivity Commission, exactly nothing. The government estimates the effect of a free trade agreement with Chinais a possible GDP increase  of 0.039 per cent a year, which is so near to nothing that it doesn't matter.

Another answer is that he is just hopping mad with Obama over his climate change remarks, and has chosen to ignore Obama's warnings about China and cosy up to Xi just to spite him. But surely he couldn't be that petty.  

So perhaps the best explanation is also the simplest. Abbott does not know what he is doing. Despite the speeches he has heard over the past  10 days, he underestimates how stark the rivalry between America and China has become, and he overestimates Australia's ability to stand above it. 

He probably believes that what he said last week will soon be forgotten, and he can return to his alignment with  the US and Japan against China whenever he likes, with the  free trade deal in his pocket. He perhaps mistakes such patent insincerity for clever diplomacy. He thinks he has struck a careful and clever balance between China and the US, allowing Australia to maintain a close alliance with one while expanding trade with the other. In fact he is swinging helplessly between the two poles of regional power, siding with  the US one day and China the next, without any clear conception of where we want to end up. 

In the end we cannot afford to side with either of them. Obama's speech showed that he has no answer to China's ambitions except the uncompromising but underpowered resistance embodied in the Pivot – and we know that isn't working. On the other hand Xi showed that China's aim is clearly to exclude  the US from Asia entirely, and that would not work for us either.

The only way to protect Australia's immense interests in the Asian power struggle that came to our shores last week is to think for ourselves about what outcome suits us best, and to act as best we can to promote it. Whether we try to do that or not is the real choice we face.

Hugh White is a Fairfax columnist and professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.  


No comments:

Post a Comment