Features | Politics | Oceania

Australia’s Third Way Nonsense

Australia doesn’t have to choose between China and the U.S., Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop tells The Diplomat. And nor is conflict with China inevitable.

In November, the U.S. and Australia announced a deal under which thousands of U.S. marines will be stationed in Darwin. What do you make of the deal?

The United States and Australia’s intelligence and security relationship has been deepening since September, 2001, and this announcement is an extension of the close engagement between the two countries that has been going on for many decades. I don’t think that it should be overstated given the relatively modest scale of the proposal, and nor should it come as a surprise that Australia and the United States, given their close political, military and cultural links, would make such a deal. We’ve been in a formal military alliance with the United States for 60 years, we’ve fought alongside the United States in every major conflict, and if the United States is seeking to broaden its relations, then Australia is an obvious choice.

The move appears to be part of what has been described as a U.S. pivot toward Asia. Should Australia welcome this?

Absolutely. The fact is that the United States never left the Asia-Pacific – it has always maintained a military and economic presence. I’m not surprised the United States is seeking a deeper and broader engagement with the nations of Asia. The social and economic change under way in Asia is extraordinary – billions of people are experiencing an economic and industrial revolution that’s fundamentally altering nations and consequently strategic balances. So I would be more surprised if the United States was not deeply engaged and focusing on the changes occurring in Asia.

What does Australia bring to the table with its alliance with the United States?

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This alliance is 60 years-old this year, and we’ve obviously been strong military allies. We’ve fought alongside the United States in every major conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries, so from that point of view we can be counted on. And we’re also a country of this region – the Asia-Pacific is where we are based, this is where much of our trade is based, we have strong people-to-people links, and so we can offer perspectives that the United States can draw upon.

Many see Australia’s foreign relations as a choice between the U.S. and China. Is it bound to be that way?

Not at all. We can balance our relationship with our largest trading partner, China, while still having a very strong alliance with the United States. We’ve been balancing this changing relationship for some years now. During the John Howard government years (1996 to 2007) we were able to achieve that balance with the United States as our closest military ally and China. This is one of the points of contention with the current government. Kevin Rudd as foreign minister has argued that Australia should have a new “third way” approach that avoids the extremes of conflict and kowtowing. But that’s a straw man argument and isn’t something any self-respecting nation, and certainly not Australia, has adopted in relation to China. In fact, if anyone is swaying erratically in terms of relations with China it would be the foreign minister.

The fact is that we don’t need a new third way. What we need is a return to the firm and positive diplomacy that the Howard government provided for a dozen years. You can call that pragmatic policy a third way if you need a label, but I think that the Howard government managed to balance the relationship between China and the United States very successfully.

Is there anything the government could have done better with China?

I think Australia’s Defense White Paper in 2009 sent a very mixed message to China. It essentially was prefaced on the idea that China was going to be a military threat to Australia. The issue of the white paper has been raised directly with me in Beijing because there was tacit identification of China as a potential military threat to Australia. I don’t share the view that conflict with China is inevitable, and as history has shown, attempting to chart the course of nation states is a dangerous exercise fraught with speculation and mistakes.

I would say that although I disagreed with much of what it had to say about China, I do think it highlighted the need for China to show greater transparency with regards to its military build-up and long term goals, and I think that when China declared its indisputable sovereignty in the South China Sea it did cause concern throughout the region, particularly with countries with their own claims. And I think that’s why nations in the region are looking for more U.S. leadership, not less, because they do want to maintain a balance between China and the United States.

Overall I think the handling of the relationship with China has lacked consistency. I know the mixed messages cause consternation in China, and the defense white paper certainly did. There were also question marks over the way the government handled the Stern-Hu case. I think the Rudd government’s handling of the case left a lot to be desired.

Kevin Rudd has been hectoring China on certain occasions, and I think some of the things that the government has done haven’t helped the relationship at all. There has been no progress on the free trade agreement, although the relationship between individuals remains strong across many parts of the economy. We do have different political systems, which does lead to some tensions over issues such as human rights. But we’ve always believed that these issues can be resolved by adopting a position of mutual respect. We do have a ministerial-level dialogue with China, although I think more could and should be made of that.

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Do you think the Australian government has been giving enough attention to its more immediate neighborhood?

I think Australia has long looked to the north, and seen the potential that’s currently being realized in Southeast Asia. A key focus of the Howard government was building and maintaining the relationship with Indonesia, for example. Australia also became a member of the East Asia Forum, which I think was one of the key achievements of the government, with the support of countries like Japan. We also have strong free trade agreements with some Southeast Asian nations, and we support the free trade agenda of some countries in the region.

I don’t think Australia is widely recognized as the multicultural nation that it really is. We’ve welcomed migrants from around the world to our shores, and we certainly have many migrants from Southeast Asia, living in Australia and contributing to one of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth.

Why don’t you think Australia has been seen as culturally diverse? Is there anything the government could do to address that perception?

I think we should make more of it in our public diplomacy. We should be making a great deal of the fact that Australia is a nation of immigrants, and that we have people from every corner of the globe here. Not every nation can lay claim to that. This is a positive thing – it’s one of Australia’s strengths as a nation, and we’ve been able to do that in a relatively cohesive way. It’s a remarkable achievement, and I would say it’s the most successful multicultural experiment on earth.

Is there any aspect of Australia’s foreign policy you think has been neglected?

I think the greatest foreign policy challenges occur when there are significant shifts in strategic power. That’s been the case since the Peloponnesian War. We are seeing a shift from a unipolar world to a bipolar world. But I think that strong economic growth in India, in particular, offers potential for another leader in the region. I think that India certainly deserves more attention from Australia generally.

And I think most definitely from an Australian perspective, Papua New Guinea deserves much more attention. The events of recent weeks have proven that the Australian government should have been paying much more attention to the country. Papua New Guinea remains one of the poorest nations on earth, despite having enormous potential through a mining and resources boom that’s currently under way. However, it has been politically unstable in recent times, with the ill health of the long standing prime minister, Sir Michael Somare. He was essentially sacked from his prime ministership in his absence, and a new prime minister and cabinet took over.

Sir Michael challenged this in court, and the court overturned the decision to install Peter O’Neill as prime minister. There was a stand-off as the country essentially had two prime ministers, each of whom appointed their own governor general and cabinet.

So the country was in chaos. Fortunately, the military stayed out of it, and there will be a political solution. But the fact that our neighbor was on the brink of considerable conflict was quite troubling, and I feel that the Australian government didn’t have its focus on what was happening there.

Julie Bishop is Deputy Leader of Australia's Liberal Party and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Shadow Minister for Trade.