What happens to Australian delegations when they go overseas? They whimper, whine or fawn; they stumble into positions of prostrate foolishness. They resemble, as Malcolm Muggeridge described British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s meeting with the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev, Don Quixote mounting Rocinante, with Sancho Panza by his side. In this instance, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has several Panzas – the Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, Trade Minister Craig Emerson and Financial Services Minister Bill Shorten. It is a true fools cast, and one fitting for a secondary power which is only relevant by the speed it digs up its resources and sends them to imperial powers, current and future.
A previous visit by the current prime minister went wrong. It seemed like an afterthought, clumsy, ill-executed. Her speech was appalling. As with her visit to the United States, the current leader of Australia is incapable of finding gravitas. She is, however, able to hit the hidden shallows. The latest is her insistence on pressuring China to “rein in” North Korea’s belligerent stance, a view that shows how ill-informed the Australian delegation is by the influence Beijing can exert over Pyongyang.
Aside from the usual blunders, Gillard’s press briefings have been slightly better, though the size of this Australian delegation comes across as overcompensation. The Australians want to make their small presence felt at the Boao Forum, a premier trade gathering that hasn’t previously figured too highly on the current government’s list of priorities. No high level representatives went last year.
The Australian opposition has been happy to mock the Gillard government’s approach to China, taking it to task for seeing Beijing as both provider and threat. The critics have a point. The Defence White Paper from 2009 saw China as an emerging power that could be, in time, a problem. In bland prose, the authors assert that the “pace, scope and structure of China’s military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained”. The view, as expressed so forcefully by Australia’s high profile China “expert” Kevin Rudd when he was foreign minister, is that China had to be “managed” lest it become dangerous to US-Australian interests.
This position shows how neurotic Canberra has been to its powerful trading partner. Ever since the creation of the Australian state in 1901, China has been both bogeyman and trader, industrious and terrifying. It is simultaneously a purchaser of Australian resources while posing a security or, in some cases in history, a cultural threat. This tendency must be on a loop, given the Gillard government’s promise of future joint military exercises and links. It is also striking that this is the same government that has made such a fuss about the skilled migration program and the 457 visas, which have given the impression that the government in Canberra is more populist than pragmatic.
Last December, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop led her own “fact finding” trip to the country for a three day tour to see the Communist party heavies. Was this was more for the benefit of China’s Communist Party, casting an eye over the future stewards of a state that follows rather than leads, or for Bishop’s crew, keen to see what they are getting themselves into? Certainly, it was more of the former, given that the Party itself funded the entire trip.
Besides, the opposition had some patching up to do, given that its leader, Tony Abbott, was on record as saying that, “It would rarely be in Australia’s national interest to allow a foreign government or its agencies to control an Australian business.” In some circumstances, this might come across as sensible, but it sent shivers down the spines of watchers of the Australia-China relationship.
As Michael Sainsbury explained in Crikey (December 4, 2012), “The trip was cooked up by Bishop and the party’s emissary to Canberra Chen Yuming – the latest in a long line of savvy ambassadors that count amongst their number Madam Fu Ying, Foreign Affairs Vice-Minister.”
Bishop is also worried by the shifting plates of power. Having visited China regularly, she fears that Australia is looking less alluring to the Chinese market. Australia plays the role of the established geisha of foreign policy, a performer who fears being shunned at any given moment for seemingly more attractive powers that can provide commodities at a cheaper price. For a country that has little in the way of alternative industries, this would be a calamity.
According to Bishop, Chinese investors see Australia as a “sovereign risk,” by which she means that they won’t put money in something less economical than an African state. African states are not impeded by such matters as carbon and mining taxes. For Bishop, the decision of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Tanzania, Republic of Congo, and South Africa so early in his term is not merely a surprise but troubling. As she observes in a post on her site (April 4), “China is seeking to develop mineral and energy resources on the continent and the substantial investment is part of China’s long-term strategy of securing supply lines of critical commodities.”
China is the business power with a large wallet keen to spend money without unnecessary encumbrance. What matters is that those “states” are intent on stealing a march on Australia’s feted role.
The Australian opposition will not do much better should they win in September’s elections. The schizophrenic way Australia engages with China is genetic and total. An Abbott government will likewise mount its own Rocinante, just in different posture. One of their first acts, no doubt, will be seeking a free trade agreement that has been in the doldrums since 2005. Given that the Australian market is swamped with “China made” as it is, the moves are laughable. But then again, so much about this relationship is.