The Sydney Morning Herald
By Peter Hartcher
When Tony Abbott met Barack Obama in the Oval Office, his opening proposition was one that American presidents very rarely hear: “What can Australia do to help?”
The offer at their June meeting, confirmed by US and Australian officials, made an impression. Presidents and potentates from around the world line up to make requests and demands of US presidents. Abbott did not want to be yet another supplicant.
A month later, MH17 was targeted and destroyed by Russian separatists in Ukraine as they wage undeclared war. Vladimir Putin said Russia was blameless: “Undoubtedly, the state on whose territory this happened is responsible for this awful tragedy,” was his response. Ukraine, in other words.
But, while other leaders politely reserved judgment over culpability, Abbott didn’t hesitate: “This is only happening because Russia wants to stir up trouble,” was his immediate reaction.
“Russian proxies using Russian-supplied equipment [are] doing terrible things.” The Wall Street Journal wondered whether Abbott were playing a “bad cop” to Europe’s polite “good cop.”
Watching Abbott’s forthright performance, Obama remarked to aides: “We need a few more Tony Abbotts in the world,” according to US officials.
It wasn’t long before Washington took Abbott up on the offer of help. The US asked for Australian assistance in the humanitarian mission of saving the Yazidi refugees trapped on Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain this week. Australia unhesitatingly put two C-130 Hercules transport planes into the effort.
The planes were stationed at an Australian airbase in Dubai. The base itself, and the 500 or so Australian personnel stationed there, is concrete evidence of Australia’s readiness to join US missions in the Middle East.
In the same week, Julie Bishop defied Russian pressure and Russian trade sanctions. She plainly named Vladimir Putin’s covert invasion force as it approached Ukraine.
“Any intervention by Russia into Ukraine under the guise of a humanitarian crisis will be seen as the transparent artifice that it is,” said the Foreign Affairs Minister as Moscow dispatched a 280-vehicle convoy to resupply its separatist forces waging war inside Ukraine.
“Australia would condemn in the strongest possible terms any effort by Russia to enter Ukraine under the guise of some kind of humanitarian mission,” she said.
Bishop was not the only voice raised in warning, but Moscow singled her out for special rebuke. Even though the EU president, Jose Barroso, “warned against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian”, it was Bishop that the Russian ministry for foreign affairs targeted the next day:
“Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has gone farther than others in making irresponsible innuendoes against our country even though one would think that her position presupposes building bridges between countries, not destroying them.”
Was Bishop intimidated? Not at all. She turns the onus back on to Russia: “I think Russia should follow its own advice and build better relations with Ukraine,” she shoots back. “That would mean withdrawing their support from the Russian separatists in Ukraine, and that includes Russian military support,” she tells me.
Russia has sought to punish Australia, together with a raft of other countries, by imposing trade sanctions. It has banned the import of Australian agriculture imports, which, last year, were worth some $400 million. Australia’s global farm exports in 2012–13 were $38.2 billion.
The federal government is helping farmers to find alternative markets; it is not relenting in any way. It is now weighing trade sanctions against Russia.
Bishop has not only “stared down” Russia, as a headline in this newspaper claimed this week. The woman whose stare can explode a concrete garden gnome, as demonstrated by the ABC’s Chaser team, has also been put to the test by China. And won.
In doing so, Bishop has freed Australia from a long-standing, self imposed subservience to the Middle Kingdom.
At issue was China’s sudden, unilateral claim on the airspace over the East China Sea last November. It was a direct challenge to the airspace of of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
It was especially aggressive because China said that any non-civilian aircraft flying into its air defence identification zone needed to submit prior notification or face “defensive emergency measures” at the hands of China’s air force. In other words, risk being shot down.
In reality, it was escalation of China’s territorial struggle with Japan for the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, which sit under the flight zone. The US branded China’s move as “destabilising”. Within days it defied Beijing by flying two B-52 bombers through the claimed air zone, without prior notice and without consequences. Others also criticised China’s abrupt declaration.
Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister reacted strongly. She called in China’s ambassador to rebuke him, and issued a public statement: “The timing and the manner of China's announcement are unhelpful in light of current regional tensions, and will not contribute to regional stability. Australia has made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea.”
China waited until Bishop visited Beijing the following month, and gave her the treatment. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Wang Yi, met Bishop then called in the TV cameras for a so-called “pic fac,” where pictures are taken but nothing substantive said. But it was a set-up. With the cameras rolling, Wang scolded Bishop.
She had “jeopardised bilateral mutual trust and affected the sound growth of bilateral relations”. The moment he finished, and before Bishop could respond, the cameras were ushered out. It was, said a senior Australian diplomat, Peter Rowe, who had been present, the rudest thing he’d seen in 30 years.
In Australia some China watchers and some in the media adopted the pre-emptive kowtow that has been a persistent feature of Australian life for decades. This is the automatic assumption that Australia is in the wrong, that China is in the right, and that Australia should expect to be righteously punished for its impudence.
This is the position assumed by prominent business figures Kerry Stokes, for instance, and James Packer, after Australia and the US announced the rotating deployment of US Marines through Darwin. Stokes said he was “physically repulsed” by the decision because it showed Australia had chosen sides. He seemed not to have noticed that Australia has been in a military alliance with the US since 1951.
Packer said that “we, as a country, have to try harder to let China know how grateful we are for their business.” Bishop, of course, was unapologetic.
And what has happened? Absolutely nothing. Well, nothing negative. Trade and investment continues. China’s President, Xi Jinping, has asked to accelerate negotiations over a free trade agreement with Australia.
“If ever there was a moment when the Chinese were going to complain about the alliance, the occasion for it would have been when General Fan visited in July,” says the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings.
Fan Changlong is one of the two vice-chairmen of China’s Central Military Commission, making him one of the two most senior military leaders. “But the most substantive thing that happened was that China agreed to join trilateral military exercises with Australia and the US,” reports Jennings. “In fact they’re pretty happy with the state of the relationship.”
Even when Abbott embraced China’s arch-rival, Japan, in a new military embrace, the relationship has continued to thrive, untroubled by anything other than token protests from Beijing.
And when Bishop held a meeting last weekend with Wang, the man who had scolded her so rudely over the air defence identification zone, what happened? The meeting was cordial, ran well over time, and mainly concerned the two countries’ shared problems. The air zone did not come up.
Not only is there a complete absence of negatives and a continued flow of positives; Beijing seems to have eased up on its gratuitous lectures to Australia through the mouthpieces of its state-owned media.
Bishop, in short, has freed Australia from the self-imposed subservience of the pre-emptive kowtow. “We are not afraid to stand up for Australia’s interests,” she says. And the Chinese know it too. She stood up to the bluster of Chinese diplomatic theatre and found it was bluff.
Bishop rejects the standard self-description of Australia as a middle power. “Middle of what? There are something like 186 countries, so that makes us the 90-something country.” She prefers to call Australia “a top 20 country”.
Of course, the foreign policy of the Abbott government has not been perfect. Australia has yet to fully recover from the early bungling of the relationship with Indonesia, for instance. And while Abbott does not lack enthusiasm for the US alliance, he may yet need to learn restraint.
A conservative who correctly warned against the folly of the 2003 invasion of Iraq from the outset, Tom Switzer, of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, has a wise word for Abbott in case the US makes a few more requests over Iraq: “It is one thing to help provide humanitarian relief for those poor defenceless people in the Kurdish north. It is another thing altogether for an Australian government to even think about committing military forces to this mess-in-potamia. The national interest does not justify intervention, the political support does not exist and can’t be mobilised.”
Still, on the evidence to date, Australia under Abbott and Bishop has struck a foreign policy pose as the plucky country.
This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald