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Australia and the China-US Relationships

October 16, 2014

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Distinguished Public Lecture
October 15, 2014
Singapore

It’s an honour to be in Singapore, a privilege to be talking in this Distinguished Public Lecture program.

As Australia’s Foreign Minister I had quoted several times an acute observation by Lee Kuan Yew. It was on the question of the future character of China. He said:

Peace and security in the Asia-Pacific will turn on whether China emerges as a xenophobic, chauvinistic force, bitter and hostile to the West because it tried to slow down or abort its development, or whether it is educated and involved in the ways of the world – more cosmopolitan, more internationalized and outward looking.

I ceased to be Foreign Minister after the Gillard government was defeated on September 7, 2013. I was representing Australia at the G20 in St Petersburg. As the polling booths at home closed I found myself in Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, laying flowers on a memorial to the dead of the Second World War. I found myself reflecting on those mass graves – half a million people buried here – and how trivial it was to be voted out of government in a peacetime election compared to the mighty drama that was played out in St Petersburg between 1941 and 1944.

Like any politician I thought about what I would do out of government. In the spirit of that observation by Lee Kuan Yew, I committed to work on the Australia-China relationship, becoming Director of a newly established think tank, the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney. I thought that this would be a good vantage point from which to observe this vast question being played out. Will China continue its trajectory of economic growth? What will be the character of Chinese power domestically, within China’s borders? And what personality will it assume in world affairs? And what are the implications for Australia and its friends?

“For Australia, foreign affairs and defence policy are getting serious again.” That warning had been laid down by the provocative Australian academic Hugh White. He was making reference to the maritime territorial disputes in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea, each a reflection of China’s rising military power and foreign policy assertiveness, and of China challenging US supremacy in Asia. There were hints of this new seriousness recently from both the Chinese and the American sides.

Promoting her recent memoir, Hillary Clinton observed on June 27 that the Abbott government push for more trade with China “makes [Australia] dependent, to an extent that can undermine [Australian] freedom of movement and [Australian] sovereignty, economic and political.” She went on to say, “It’s a mistake whether you’re a country, or a company or an individual to put, as we say in the vernacular, all your eggs in the one basket.” Her comments brought a brisk response from Australia’s Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, that, “I’m sure that we’d love to export vast quantities of iron ore to the United States but they’ve never shown any enthusiasm in buying them.”

The same week brought forth a mirror-image comment from a Chinese source. Visiting the Australian National University, Professor Wu Xinbo, Executive Dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, addressed the question from the other side. He said there were “limits’’ to the extent to which Australia could tighten strategic cooperation with the United States without putting its relationship with China at risk. This is the first time I can recall such a comment from a Chinese source.

Australia cannot bridle at Professor Wu’s bluntness. Many Australians were startled and, I’m sure, the interest of Beijing piqued, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was reported via WikiLeaks to have told Hillary Clinton on March 24, 2009 he was “a brutal realist on China” and supported a policy of “integrating China effectively into the international community and allowing it to demonstrate greater responsibility, all while also preparing to deploy force if everything goes wrong”. He went on to say that the proposed strengthening of Australia’s navy was “a response to China’s growing ability to project force” and that Chinese leaders were “sub-rational and deeply emotional” when it came to Taiwan.

In 2009 the Australian government released a Defence White Paper that warned “the pace, scope and structure of China’s military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained, and if China does not reach out to others to build confidence regarding its military plans.” In his 2012 book The Rise of China vs The Logic of Strategy the American writer on strategy Edward Luttwak homed in on what he described as Australia’s lead role in organising nations to respond to the more assertive Chinese posture. He wrote:

[F]or all [Australia’s] ever-increasing ethnic diversity, it fully retains the Anglo-Saxon trait of bellicosity…It is not surprising, therefore, that Australia has been the first country to clearly express resistance to China’s rising power, and to initiate the coalition building against it that is mandated by the logic of strategy.

The Gillard government in November 2011 hosted a visit by President Obama who announced the rotation of 2500 marines in the Northern Territory and criticised China in an address to the Australian parliament. There were some Australians who thought the US President provocative. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating said:

…China is not the old Soviet Union. And we would make of course a huge mistake seeking to contain it…This was a speech that really would have been better made in Washington or elsewhere…here we are in our Parliament – not in the American Parliament, our Parliament. The American president gets up and says, “The Chinese model will fail. It is bound to fail.” And then all the speech’s basically hard rhetoric against China.

I, at that time a private citizen, said on my blog:

Like me, the former Prime Minister does not object to a rotating troop presence on Australia’s north but is concerned about how it gets wrapped up in an unmistakable anti-China stance. Why is it remotely in Australia’s interest to take that course?

It wasn’t about us being committed to the US alliance; it was a matter of the way we express that alliance, about how prominent we render it part of our international character, and this is a theme I’ll return to. When I became Foreign Minister in March 2012 I was very much of the view that in our next annual talks with the Americans – that is, the first since the marine announcement – it was appropriate to avoid fresh strategic initiatives like more B-52 bomber flights and more frequent ship visits – both of which had been referred to in the 2011 communiqué – and not jam suggestions of still more Australia-US strategic cooperation into the headlines. Further work on those fronts – more flights and more ship visits – was proceeding anyway in accord with the 2011 communiqué. There was no need to return to it, seizing headlines to underline again an impression that the fullest expression of Australia’s international personality is our strategic partnership with the US.

I recall in my first visit to Beijing being challenged by then-Foreign Minister Yang over the Australian government’s 2011 decision to have US marines rotate through the Northern Territory. My response was, “Just as we attempt to understand China’s foreign policy by reference to its history, so China might understand Australia’s foreign policy by reference to our history.” In this spirit, here is one very bold generalisation about my country: Australians have always aligned themselves with the dominant maritime power of our region and of the world. This is a grandiose way of saying we were happily part of the British Empire – never contemplated a declaration of independence from it – and, after the Second World War, settled on a security treaty with the United States. Or, as an irreverent left-wing acquaintance of mine joked back in the 1960s, “We went from being crown colony to banana republic” – he seemed to imply, without skipping a heartbeat.

The latest Lowy Institute Poll showed that the Australian-American alliance had the support of 78 percent of Australians. Even when George W. Bush was extremely unpopular in Australia there was still strong public support for the alliance. The Australian public was smart enough to draw a distinction between a two-term president they found distasteful and a treaty that met their need for long-term security.

In 2013 Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard succeeded in her submission to the Chinese in favour of annual meetings with the Australian leadership. At the Chinese suggestion this was termed a “strategic partnership”. What, however, does a “strategic partnership” between Australia and China mean in practice? Former Prime Minister John Howard is reported to have declined such a relationship because of the difficulty of this question. The Chinese answer would probably be that a strategic partnership with Australia would be a relationship fleshed with work on:

• cooperation over non-traditional security questions;
• a more pluralistic, less hegemonic structure in Asia;
• building mutual trust; and
• a trilateral framework involving exchange and exercises between Australia, China and the US.

On the Australian side, the priority for the Abbott government has been resolving a free trade agreement.

Elected a year ago, the government inherited this strategic partnership and the challenge of fleshing out what it means. The new government could be said to have gone through three phases in China policy. The first stage was a period of assertiveness or missteps. On October 15, 2013 Foreign Minister Julie Bishop described Japan as “our best friend in Asia”. This was a shift in language. Up until that point Australia had described Japan as “Australia’s oldest friend in Asia”. On November 26, 2013 the government responded to China’s declaration of an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea. The government publicly announced it had called in Chinese Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu to register a protest at the unilateral Chinese no-fly zone announcement. This went noticeably further than the response of likeminded countries such as New Zealand, Canada and Singapore. On November 28, 2013 Tony Abbott baptised Australia as “a strong ally of Japan”. He compared our alliance with Japan with our alliance with America: “We are a strong ally of the United States, we are a strong ally of Japan…” This is the first time an Australian Prime Minister has used such language. Australia is not an ally of Japan. Up until now we’ve described Japan as a friend and a partner or a strategic partner.

The second phase was a period of correction, apparent when Prime Minister Abbott visited Japan and China in April this year. Talk of Japan as ally or best friend was not revived. The Prime Minister said “Australia is not in China to do a deal, but to be a friend” , that Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb and his team would “redouble their efforts and focus single-mindedly” on clinching a free trade agreement and that “[Australia wants] to reassure the Chinese government that we are open for business” . In May when tension arose between China and Vietnam over the positioning of a deepwater drilling rig the response of the Australian government was markedly different from that of the declaration over the air defence identification zone. If anything, the response was understated. A statement was issued in which the Australian minister was not even quoted. Nor was the Chinese Ambassador called in. The government limited itself to a routine repetition of Australia’s position that:

Australia does not take a position on competing claims in the South China Sea, but has a legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation.
Australia urges parties to exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions that could escalate the situation and take steps to ease tensions.

But when Prime Minister Abe of Japan visited Australia in July the government seemed to remodulate again. This may warrant being described as a third phase. The atmosphere around the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit suggests an elevation in Australian-Japanese ties. In this atmosphere one Australian reporter excitedly but wrongly reported that Australia was entering a security pact with Japan. In fact, the communiqué from the Japan-Australia consultations made reference only to a defence equipment and technology agreement long under construction. The communiqué also noted that Australia and Japan “reaffirmed that their respective Alliances with the United States made a significant contribution to peace and security in the region…[and] underscored the importance of strong U.S. engagement in the region and strong support for the U.S. rebalance.”

The visit came at a time when Japan has revised its policy on use of its armed forces, when South Korea as much as China notes nationalist currents in Japanese leadership (confirmed by those woeful visits to Yasukuni Shrine) and when tensions between Japan and China are running strongly.

It is not unreasonable to raise two questions:

• Is Australia elevating trilateral engagement with Japan and the United States?
• Are we veering to some kind of informal or quasi-treaty between Australia and Japan?

Australia has a huge stake in a constructive relationship with China. Our exports to China are double those to our next largest customer, Japan. Moreover, we have a stake in being able to influence Chinese behaviour, responding to the challenge laid down by Lee Kuan Yew in that quote I began with: what will be the character of China as its wealth and power increases and how can the West help shape it? Looking at a territorial dispute between China and Japan, we Australians have no interest in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. We have an interest in a peaceful and lawful resolution of the dispute and in both sides showing restraint. But why would Australia incline – in appearances or in reality – to one side over the other?

The Australian government should go no further than stating that Australia takes no side in the territorial dispute – in who has sovereignty – but urges both sides to avoid provocative action and to settle it in accordance with international law. But Australia should not only be neutral. We should carefully cultivate and reiterate that neutrality. By this test it could be considered unwise that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott attended a meeting of Japan’s National Security Council during his visit in April unless, of course, he had planned a mirror image attendance at China’s National Security Commission. And why not? Our neutrality needs to be nurtured, and re-woven. This is the truest expression of our national interest and such a stance maximises our opportunity to urge both sides to avoid abrupt moves and to urge both sides to manage their dispute.

In my role as Director of the newly established Australia-China Relations Institute I have commissioned a paper by two Australian academics on the subject: “Conflict in the East China Sea: Would ANZUS Apply?” It will be released in Canberra in early November. It presents scenarios in which conflict might flare between China and Japan and reminds us of the American position, confirmed by the President in April, that the islands are covered under the US-Japan security treaty. When asked if ANZUS would apply, Australian Defence Minister David Johnston said in Tokyo on June 12, “I don’t believe it does.” The Australian people, I believe, could rest easy with that position. They would believe it to be common sense and would hope he’s not going to be overruled by any security adviser in the Prime Minister’s office.

It comes down to what kind of an ally of the US we choose to be, and I quoted in my recently published diaries the spectrum of advice on this. One former Australian diplomat, Paul O’Sullivan, said we should aspire to be “a different kind of ally”. That is, consistently in the US camp, supportive at all times. Another, Dennis Richardson, that “our interests are different from a great power’s.” Both positions are arguable. But in the context of the dispute in the East China Sea, the Richardson formulation is the one to guide us.

The East China Sea is clearly a case of the interest of the US – a power with global responsibilities and a treaty with Japan – being different from Australia’s. We are not a great power but a G20 member middle power with a strong economic stake in China’s peaceful and prosperous rise. We are warm to Japan and its values but, like all its friends, have reservations about nationalist currents in its politics. Unlike America we are not Japan’s ally.

If there were a conflict between China and Japan in which the US committed itself to Japan, Australia would not be involved in any military action until our cabinet decided to be. It would not be automatic. Cabinet consideration would be shaped by the nature of the crisis and how it came about. There are likely to be a number of “off-ramps” before it came to an Australian commitment to an American request.

Australia’s economic integration with China is striking and confirms what stands at risk should decades of economic growth in East Asia give way to tension. Even assuming moderating economic growth it is likely to continue robustly. In April Australia’s goods exports to China for the first time reached $100 billion. All the evidence is that the value of exported goods will continue to rise and that includes raw material exports – yes, even in this post-boom period. China is already the number one destination for Australian services exports. That’s even before China’s transition to mature high-income economy is complete. According to some estimates, in 2030 China’s economy will be 2.3 times larger than now and its middle class will be up from 10 percent to 70 percent of its population. That’s an increase of around 850 million people enjoying middle class living standards. That’s a Chinese middle class four times bigger than today.

The Chinese trade with us, of course, because it suits them: Australia is a reliable supplier, adheres to rule of law, and is cost competitive. That’s true. But it’s not unreasonable for Australia to take account of the core interests of a country that makes such a contribution to our economic well-being, where these core interests align with international norms. In this spirit it’s probably useful to imagine how the Chinese might interpret the various shifts and inconsistencies in Australian utterances. For example, the Chinese may think we have an obligation to explain the sentiments captured in the 2009 Defence White Paper. Or what we might mean by “hedging” strategy. In the same way, that is, that Australia routinely says to China it needs to explain more carefully its territorial claims in the South China Sea and relate them to international law.

Again, I think of my own experience of returning Australian policy to some sense of balance after the 2011 visit of President Obama and the abrupt announcement on a marine presence in the Northern Territory. Settling on an unruffled pace; not taking partners by surprise. Former Ambassador to Beijing Geoff Raby warned in 2012:

China understands that we, and others, would want to hedge against some unexpected events in China. It may not openly welcome this, but again, as realists, they would do the same.

To execute a hedging strategy effectively and not create mutual suspicion and hostility, it is important to have a solid basis of trust between China and us. That no longer exists. We should be able to speak openly to China about these issues. We should not be reticent in explaining our hedging to China, but we must also be credible. We can’t seek to engage China on these issues, and then send China conflicting messages about whether we see them as friend or foe. Consistency in our messaging and positioning is crucial.

To revisit the case study I touched on earlier, a year after President Obama announced the marine rotation, we had the option at our annual meeting with American colleagues (the Secretary of State and the Defence Secretary) to grab headlines with a further upgrading of strategic cooperation – B-52 flights out of Australia and steady increase in US ship visits to Fremantle in Western Australia. As Foreign Minister, with the support of senior advisers, I formed the view that it was time to modulate – a useful verb – expressions of security cooperation with the US. We opted to make the 2012 AUSMIN talks a matter of consolidation – “steady as she goes” – rather than generate a new raft of headlines about stepped-up strategic cooperation. As it happened, this suited the US.

Here, I think my instincts were broader than any simple desire to placate an uneasy China. It comes to this: Australians don’t need to project their alliance with the US in every setting – including our relations with Southeast Asia – until it becomes the only expression of our international personality. I think this an even more useful bit of advice to the current Australian government than the last.

Yet the US alliance is a deep expression of our interests. All the more reason, I would argue, not to render it a cliché or caricature.

The Australian desire for an alliance with America was apparent in the early 20th century as Australians faced the rise of Japan after it defeated Russia in the war of 1904-5. Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second and then fifth and seventh Prime Minister, concerned to contain the Japanese and also the Germans in the South Pacific, saw the potential benefits of a geopolitical freeze in the region, a guarantee of existing borders and arrangements. He stole from American history. He said he wanted a “Monroe Doctrine for the South-West Pacific” – a pre-echo of Australian foreign policy as it was to develop 40 years later.

In the 1930s, Australia became increasingly concerned about the security of Singapore given the rise of Japanese power, desperately seeking assurance from the British government that even in the event of a two-ocean war Singapore would hold until naval reinforcements could arrive. In an energetic piece of Australian diplomacy in 1934, Australian Minister for External Affairs John Latham led the first goodwill mission to China, Japan and Southeast Asia. At the conclusion of the mission, Latham told the Australian parliament:

Our next nearest neighbours (after New Zealand), if one may use the phrase, are to be found in those countries which make up what is known as the Far East…It is the Far East to Europe, to the old centres of civilisation, but we must realise that it is the ‘Near East’ to Australia … It is inevitable that the relations between Australia and the Near East will become closer and more intimate as the years pass. Therefore, it is important that we should endeavour to develop and improve our relations with our near neighbours, whose fortunes are so important to us, not only in economic matters, but also in relation to the vital issues of peace and war.

This was a pre-echo of Australia’s post-war commitment to Asia.

The darkest day in Australian history was February 15, 1942, the fall of Singapore, a day when a land army of 20,000 Australians was marched into captivity. Wartime Prime Minister John Curtin had already said on December 27, 1941, “Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.” It was with touching gratitude that Australia received General Douglas MacArthur in March 1942. The renowned warrior brought with him not a US commitment to Australian security but simply the news that he would be based in Australia until America recovered the Philippines and rolled the Japanese back. He was treated as a hero.

Support for the American alliance is deposited in Australian DNA. It’s reinforced by common values.

On September 25, 2012 I sat in the General Assembly and listened to the address by President Obama. The President wrestled with Muslim resentment of attacks on Islam, specifically the YouTube video clip mocking the religion, and how this could be reconciled with the American value – no, he insisted, the universal value – of freedom of speech:

[W]e believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values.

He then said:

I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our constitution protects the right to practise free speech.

Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offence. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs…

We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practise their own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

The writing was masterful, a riveting sequence of short, declarative sentences marching in rhythm. Here again was what I’ve taken to calling the charm – the pulling power, the appeal – of American values. That is, American values at their most generous and noble, as opposed to quirks like universal gun ownership or religiosity. One Australian businessman once told me, in simple summation, that there would never be a question here: “Australians will always prefer American values.” That is, he implied, over Chinese values. When I raised the Obama speech with Henry Kissinger he reminded me that universal values – freedom of speech, for example – don’t exist in the Chinese world view. Chinese civilisation enunciates codes of behaviour, not principles for spreading democracy. One only has to look at the recently published survey of American foreign policy from Truman to Obama – it’s in a book called Maximalist by Stephen Sestanovich – to be reminded of the audacious uniqueness of the post-World War II American mission.

Or as Hillary Clinton herself wrote in a recent review of Henry Kissinger’s latest book World Order:

…what comes through clearly…is a conviction that we, and President Obama, share: a belief in the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order.

There really is no viable alternative. No other nation can bring together the necessary coalitions and provide the necessary capabilities to meet today’s complex global threats. But this leadership is not a birthright; it is a responsibility that must be assumed with determination and humility by each generation.

Some Australians enjoy teasing out alternative futures as they contemplate the re-emergence of China. Malcolm Fraser, conservative Prime Minister from 1975 to 1983, speculates about some of the problems in his recent book Dangerous Allies. In April this year, President Obama pledged US support to Japan in the event of conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Mr Fraser points to a possibility that Australia could be drawn into an unwanted war between a US-backed Japan and China, grounding his reasoning in the increasing military integration between Australia and the US – for example, the decision in 2013 to “embed” the frigate HMAS Sydney with the US Seventh Fleet in Yokosuka, and the 2012 appointment of Australian Major General Rick Burr as one of two deputy commanders in the US Pacific Command, headquartered in Hawaii. The Fraser proposition is that we would lose our independence should a conflict arise. The level of tension, as this audience knows, is very real. So the Fraser speculation is an invitation to a debate.

Hugh White, in a favourable review of the Fraser book, did draw some cautionary messages about it:

Fraser is right that the trajectory of US–China relations today is very worrying. And it is true that America carries some of the blame for this, because the prime US objective in Asia remains the preservation of US regional primacy and it refuses, so far, to contemplate any significant accommodation of China’s ambitions to play a wider role. And he is right to worry that in these circumstances our US alliance could easily draw us into a war with China.

But Fraser’s dark view of America leads him to overlook the chance that America might be brought to accept the need for accommodation with China as the basis for a long-term stable relationship. And his rosy view of China leads him to overlook the value to Australia of keeping the United States engaged in Asia to balance and limit China’s power. The best outcome for us would be an Asia in which America concedes to China enough strategic space to satisfy China’s legitimate ambitions, and at the same time imposes firm enough limits to deter China from pushing for more. In that Asia, Australia could happily remain a US ally, to our great benefit.

On the other side of the argument, there are defence experts who point out that other countries have a similar integration with the US – a Canadian one-star general operating in PACOM, a New Zealand presence – without anybody suggesting it pre-commits them and erodes their independence. Singapore, of course, builds defence connections without an assumption that these mean an automatic commitment.

There is the danger – to push in the opposite direction a moment – of rendering self-fulfilling prophecies. Or, as a former Coalition foreign minister, Alexander Downer, said to me, “If you want a Cold War with China, you will get a Cold War with China”. It would be a mistake for Australian conservatives to think that somehow Washington requires it to relegate our relationship with Beijing to satisfy our ally, even if that recent comment by Hillary Clinton hinted at it. As Kurt Campbell said to me after I briefed him on our strategic partnership with China, “Australia should be the most desired girl on the block.” In other words, we don’t have to choose. We can be courted by both. And, of course, we can weave through all of these considerations a recognition that, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, the US has been in Asia a “benign and constructive power”.

A Chinese interlocutor is likely to remind an Australian that the US-China relationship involves bonds forged over decades. As a reminder of this, both Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger were recently acknowledged in China for their contribution to this relationship – a sophisticated, complicated relationship. A Chinese strategist might suggest that the Japanese could find themselves isolated if they pushed too hard and found their truculence was too much for the US. Worthwhile, I think, to remind ourselves of the importance of that sophisticated, complicated relationship – that between the US and China – the most important bilateral in the world, and that if the two great powers settle on interests in common the rest of us will find we are pushed to the side.

In the meantime, Chinese foreign policy can be expected to develop.

One quality to watch for is the extent to which China will contribute to public goods in international security, such as anti-piracy operations, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, capacity-building, stabilisation and peacekeeping. There’s strong evidence of China, like India, having a growing role in contributing to security public goods. Rory Medcalf in the Australian Journal of International Affairs has recently assessed this:

[T]he perceived furtherance of the common good has obvious resonance with China’s rhetoric about being a harmonious society in a harmonious world. More to the point, China recognises a need to try to offset perceptions that its rise is a threat to others. Beijing’s challenge here is to ensure that any military role in providing public goods does more to demonstrate goodwill than to heighten suspicions…

Let’s push further. Would China ever be willing to host an international policy discussion about the conditions that would legitimise invading another country to stop genocide or other mass atrocity crimes? Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia (1988–1996) and President and CEO of the International Crisis Group (2000–09) found himself asking this question in October last year after a meeting hosted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s think tank, the China Institute of International Studies, attended by various academic practitioners. Although very much a hard-headed realist, Evans allowed himself to entertain a little confidence that it may be possible, with China’s support, to create international consensus “so long missing in Syria” about how to deal with the hardest mass atrocity cases. It’s worth dwelling on this for a moment, even at the risk of appearing to read too much into a straw delicately poised in the wind. Evans found amongst his Chinese interlocutors a widespread acceptance that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine unanimously agreed by the UN General Assembly in 2005 is here to stay; further, the majority sentiment among his Chinese partners had moved on from the days when R2P was seen as a mere cloak for interventionism.

The loss of consensus in the Security Council concerning how to respond to events in Syria is not an attempt by the global South to revive outdated notions of unlimited sovereignty, rather, a very specific reaction to the alleged overreach of the military intervention in Libya in 2011. You will recall that after France, the UK and the US (the P3) had been given a Security Council mandate to protect civilians based on R2P, they were then perceived by Russia and China as pursuing full-scale regime change. But Gareth Evans detected among the Chinese “widespread agreement about how consensus within the Security Council on the hardest cases might be recreated.” The Chinese said the R2P principle should be “enriched” by acceptance of a complementary principle called “Responsible Protection”. This notion had been floated by Chinese scholar Ruan Zongze last year. The core elements of Responsible Protection focus on tough criteria to be satisfied before any military mandate is provided, with conspicuous efforts to exhaust diplomatic solutions. And further – clearly this arises from the Libyan experience – there should be better methods of supervision and accountability to ensure that the “protection” objective remains foremost.

Gareth Evans, who played such a prominent role in the development of R2P, argues that these apprehensions, like the Brazilian initiative that preceded it, reflect serious concerns and “if not addressed, they will make Security Council resolutions in support of military action in R2P cases almost impossible to obtain in the future”. While it remains to be seen whether China will ever champion the idea of Responsible Protection in an upfront fashion, it would be desirable that if they do, it should be welcomed as a move to expand Chinese foreign policy preoccupations – this is a crucial notion – and to assume co-ownership of R2P. Evans concludes, “In terms of getting serious about saying “never again” to mass-atrocity crimes, that is about as positive a development as anyone could hope for.”

In canvassing these questions I’m picking up a challenge described by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in May, addressing scenarios in Asia in the next 20 years. He asked:

Will China be welcomed and respected as a large but benign power shouldering its share of international responsibilities, the way many Asian countries have accepted the US since World War II, or will it be viewed with wariness and apprehension?

The drama of China and the US in Asia is not the only Asian story, however. We have other relationships. As Shakespeare’s Coriolanus put it, “There is a world elsewhere.” One of them is ASEAN.

One Australian academic says “When I’m asked ‘China or the US?’ I answer ‘ASEAN’.” Certainly the Australian government under Tony Abbott has pointed to the importance of ASEAN with the now-Prime Minister saying before the elections he wants more Jakarta and less Geneva in Australian foreign policy, by which he meant more focus on our neighbourhood and less on multilateralism (which conservative governments in Australia tend to disparage). The Australian diplomatic attention to the world of Southeast Asia runs strong and, except for one lapse quickly corrected, Australia has been keen to emphasise ASEAN centrality. During my time as Foreign Minister I appointed the first full-time Ambassador to ASEAN, but more importantly, tried to align Australian foreign policy with ASEAN positions where it was in our interests. It was clearly in our interests to open up to Myanmar. In June 2012 I told President Thein Sein that Australia would lift its sanctions; I was expressing the position that had been pioneered by ASEAN. I committed to lobby other nations in the UN to change the language of the annual resolution in the General Assembly that ignored Thein Sein’s reforms and each year beat Myanmar up all over again. Moreover, I undertook to lobby European foreign ministers to have them lift, and not simply leave suspended, their sanctions on the country. I saw Australia become the biggest provider of aid to Myanmar, with our aid flowing overwhelmingly to education. This was Australia moving in behind an ASEAN lead: support for the reformer Thein Sein in his difficult mission of transition.

If we are guilty of neglecting the importance of ASEAN, it’s in two respects. First, Australian business is not active in ASEAN economies. Second, study of Southeast Asian languages in Australian schools and universities is a distinct failure of policy. Still, the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University tells me that when he was at Oxford and sought Southeast Asian scholars he received no applications; when he was appointed to Sydney he found over 200 Southeast Asian specialists already on campus. Australia has an opportunity to promote and study and interpret the world of Southeast Asia to friends in North America and Europe. Here, the questions are as challenging as they are with China. Will the other nine ASEAN nations follow the Singapore trajectory to first world living standards? How will they manage the challenge of ethno-religious tensions manifest in Myanmar, Indonesia and southern Thailand? And can ASEAN and China reach a robust agreement on the management of maritime territorial disputes and – beyond that – move to resource sharing agreements for which there are three precedents in the region and which must be considered the ultimate answer.

The potential of the ASEAN world has still not fully entered our national imagination. In Southeast Asia Australia can express its relations with both China and the US; here we can build our credibility with our partner China and our ally, the United States. Australia can make a bigger contribution to global affairs if we maximise our opportunities in the region, demonstrating that there’s more dimension to our international character than might at first blush be assumed, or than we ourselves had realised.

Australia hinders progress in Middle East peace process

June 10, 2014

An op-ed by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans and I making the case that East Jerusalem is occupied territory (link here):

Australia’s new policy of refusing to describe East Jerusalem as “occupied”, confirmed by a statement made by Attorney-General George Brandis in consultation with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, will not be helpful to Australia’s reputation, the peace process or Israel itself.

The Abbott government’s new position shatters what has been for nearly 50 years a completely bipartisan position. Neither Fraser and Peacock, nor Howard and Downer either adopted or even explored taking a similar stance. And for very good reason.

East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel in 1967. No other state – not even the US – describes the situation in any other terms. There are multiple Security Council resolutions rejecting Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem. The International Court of Justice in 2004 declared not only that the West Bank was occupied but that this was illegal. The court made no distinction between East Jerusalem and other parts of the Palestinian territories.

If East Jerusalem is not to be referred to as “occupied”, why not Nablus or Bethlehem? If the Australian government can say “occupied East Jerusalem” is fraught with “pejorative implications” what is to stop Ms Bishop applying this to the occupied West Bank as a whole? It is a short step away for the Coalition government to declare that all the West Bank, with its population of more than 2 million Arabs, is no more than a “disputed” territory.

The government’s statement follows Julie Bishop’s earlier break from bipartisan consensus when she said in Israel in January that she’d like to see which international law has declared Israel’s settlements illegal. The answer is that there is overwhelming international consensus that Israel is in clear breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, specifically Article 49, paragraph 6, which states that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.

Even within Israel, there is distinguished support for that view. Then-legal counsel to the Foreign Ministry and now a leading international judge, Theodor Meron, told Prime Minister Eshkol at the start of the occupation in 1967 that settlements would be illegal, and he adheres to this advice today.

Four leading Israeli lawyers, including former attorney-general Michael Ben-Yair, wrote to Ms Bishop restating the international legal consensus. They said they viewed with deep concern the Foreign Minister’s comments on settlements. So did a number of other eminent Israelis, including four winners of the Israel Prize, the country’s most prestigious award.

None of this means that it is neither desirable nor possible to negotiate a peace settlement in which some of the Palestinian territory now occupied and illegally settled by Israel is recognised as part of Israel, in return for Israel giving up an equivalent land area in return. Every realistic two-state formula envisages some territory swaps.

The successive statements of the Abbott government reinforce the annexationists and rejectionists within the Israeli government, who are now engaged in a torrent of further settlement building, and are utterly unhelpful in creating an environment in which the peace talks that US Secretary of State John Kerry has tried so hard to kick start can resume.

Israeli realists know that indefinite occupation of the West Bank will degrade their own country, maintaining its Jewish identity only at the price of compromising its democracy. As former prime minister Ehud Barak put it so clearly: “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

In March this year US casino owner and mega-donor to the Republican Party Sheldon Adelson hosted a gathering of what is known as the Republican Jewish Coalition, an opportunity for presidential candidates to strut their wares.

When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie referred to visiting Israel and flying over “the occupied territories”, he was immediately upbraided by Adelson and required to issue a clarification. Tea Party Republican orthodoxy prohibits reference to occupation: “occupied territories” are now “disputed” only.

This has never been the American position under any Democrat or Republican president. It should not be the Australian one.

This (political) life

May 5, 2014

Published in The Weekend Australian, May 3-4:

At LAX I get steered on to a bus with other passengers to take us to the Qantas jet. A flight attendant mumbles an introduction to one of them: a tall guy with long blond hair — right out of an SS recruiting poster, could have modelled for Arno Breker’s Third Reich sculpture — ­accompanied by his personal trainer.

It’s clear she assumes I know the actor, but it’s another one of those moments when I run up against celebrity culture. While his persona screams “Hollywood”, I have no idea.

It happened when I was NSW premier, and was especially a problem in the Olympics. I’ve never mastered celebrity stuff. I barely know which is Prince Harry and which Prince William, certainly could not pick between Lady Gaga and Paris Hilton, don’t know their nationalities. I have never been able to fix in my head the names of captains of Australian sporting teams.

In fact, in the pantheon of sporting heroes I would probably recognise only Cathy Freeman or Ian Thorpe. I know it is a disability, especially in Australia, this matter of being born without a sporting gene.

But it works both ways. A bloke came up to me in a Sydney street and said, “Ahhhhh, you’re one of those prime minister fellas.” I accepted the indictment. It did not offend. Why assume everyone has to follow the manoeuvring of the political caste, given we sell ourselves so badly?

It’s a relief to live in a society where one can get by not knowing political leaders. A democracy leaves people to tend their gardens; in North Korea you’ve got to recognise Standing Committee members and the Dear Leader’s forebears. It could be a measure of a healthy mind that he simply recognises someone like me as being “one of those prime minister fellas”.

I float in a similar vagueness about the dramatis personae of celebrity magazines.

For all I know, that Australian Hollywood success on the flight out of LAX might not have recognised me, his country’s foreign minister. After all, he moves in more Olympian circles. He too might simply record that, on the same flight struggling into those prized pyjamas, was one of these “prime minister fellas”.

No complaint. As Bill Clinton was fond of saying, our differences make us interesting, our common humanity is more important.

On the plane I watch the movie A Royal Affair, about the advent of the Enlightenment under absolute monarchy in 18th-century Denmark under the mentally ill King Christian VII. One image stands out: a peasant’s body, tortured on the rack by the king’s police, found dumped in a field. A symbol of royal absolutism.

Who can say the Enlightenment was for nothing?

King Charles won’t help, republicans need a conservative in charge

May 2, 2014

Published in The Australian today, May 2:

When asked about a republic, Bob Hawke would settle on the formula, “Yes … but after Queen Elizabeth II.”

At the time I thought Hawke might have overlooked the public’s ability to make distinctions; for example, to enjoy a fondness for the reigning Queen but be ready to vote for Australia to have its own head of state. Just as later Australians could make a distinction between supporting the US alliance but disliking  George W. Bush and his war in Iraq.

But I thought the Hawke formula also overlooked the warmth bound to flow when Charles succeeded his mother.

On one of his visits I saw him at work in Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. “I like the way you perform your duties!” came a call from the roped-off crowd. “A thousand years of breeding!” came the self-mocking response from the Prince of Wales as he sprang up the steps. An heir to the throne capable of that give-and-take with the public would appear to have inner resources enough, even before the sugar hit of a star-studded coronation.

I record in my diaries my visit to the prince’s residence at Highgrove with our high commissioner, Mike Rann. We were able to converse about biodiversity, grasslands management and the forestry reform in NSW that gave the state 350 new national parks. This heir to the throne was a far cry from historic playboy archetypes, those who became George IV, Edward VII or, briefly, Edward VIII. As I noted in my diary, “Charles would be a good monarch. My republicanism wobbles. Who would we elect in his place? A general? A tennis star?”

But there’s a bigger truth about the state of the republican debate: it is permanently stalled until the conservatives decisively adopt it as their own.

I’m serious about the decisive part. If John Howard had championed a minimalist model and taken it to the Australian people in 2000, a cunning campaign from the Right — from a few dissident Liberals and Nationals — might have undermined it, stirring up a feeling that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, suggesting messy royal prerogatives unspooling on the polished floors of Yarralumla.

Even a mischievous Greens campaign — “the people should have a say” — might have agitated the traditional Australian reluctance to change the Constitution. We all know the litany — since 1906, only eight of 44 proposals have been carried at referendums with a majority of votes in a majority of states.

It’s hard to imagine a post-Abbott Liberal prime minister seeing any advantage in elevating the issue. It would likely be opposed by sections of their party.

Meanwhile, Charles succeeds to the throne amid the glories of the first coronation since 1953, his own Prince of Wales hovering dutifully behind him, the heads of grandchildren above the parapet.

As Bronx judge Edwin Torres famously said, “Your parole officer ain’t been born yet.” Australian republicans have got to hope that’s not true of the Australian conservative who will lead his party towards a republic. All republicans can do in the meantime is to probe public opinion and keep polishing a minimalist model.

The one to cleave to is one I’ve long advocated: a simple amendment to the Constitution that declares the governor-general is Australia’s head of state, the post to be filled by a two-thirds vote of the parliament.

Remove the Queen and royal assent. Don’t insert “president” or “Republic of Australia”.

Don’t attempt to codify the reserve powers.

This is the pared-down minimalist minimalism.

But it’s a Liberal prime minister who will sell it, if it is ever to be sold.

For Labor there may even be relief to know that delivering this change is beyond it alone. Relief, and an opportunity to savour the fact that at least the heir to the throne and our head of state is a serious believer in anthropogenic climate change and the need to respond to it with resolution.

The Neville Wran I knew

April 22, 2014

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, April 21.

He gave a lot away in a talk when I was stumbling in my first years as Premier. We stood in the sun at Greenwich to witness harbourside land being handed over for public park, one of his pet enthusiasms. He looked at the crowd and gave me advice: “They’re all happy … that’s the secret. Just give them what they want – it’s easy.” Later he said “Think about that day at Greenwich. Sure they’re never satisfied but who cares? Forget the budget, just spread bread on the waters.”

“Spread bread” was pure Wran.

I admired him most in the toughest phase of his dazzling career, after his 1984 re-election – his fourth and what he called “the sweetest ever” – when the climate soured and mere pub gossip got aired as allegation. I loved his striding performances in the Legislative Assembly when he forensically shredded the mad notion that something called ‘the Age Tapes’ hovered above him. As he fought back I thought of Billy Joel’s lyrics to 1985’s You’re Only Human: to us he was the figure in the song, “the boxer in a title fight” who had to walk into the ring all alone. We knew he’d made mistakes; but who else could pull a primary vote of 57 per cent?

One approach to Labor’s challenges is to tinker with structure – a bit more for the branches here, a bit less for the unions there. There is a different approach – to focus not on structure but ethos and leadership. The ALP, like the conservative parties, is improvised and cobbled together. What animates and unites any ramshackle old party is clever, crafty leadership; winning speeches and punchy one-liners to lift its spirits and direct scorn at its opponents. Wran of course exemplifies the leadership principle; making it up as you go along if it’s done with flair, intelligence. And if it’s entertaining.

His distinctiveness owed a lot to the working class, 1940s inner-city world. Rod Cavalier recalls him talking about criminal gangs firing from the back of a truck “like Tom Mix”. I once heard him refer to old-fashioned opponents in the cabinet as the “plug uglies”. When I told him that he’d need his hiking shoes for an inspection we were making of Kosciuszko he said, “Well what did you expect me to take – my dancing pumps?”

When he stepped down in 1986 he said his proudest achievement was beating the Liberals. This was perverse modesty. And later he volunteered his greatest achievement was saving the rainforests of Northern New South Wales which married Labor politics to nature conservation and – followed Federal and State – produced a rich inheritance for future generations.

If he put votes before economics – “just give them what they want” – there were no financial catastrophes or bank failures and his spending as a share of state product was the most cautious of any state. Return always to the basics. Once he told me, “You’ve got to think of the bloke who makes $400 a week. His wife’s got a lump on her breast. His fibro house at Liverpool is missing a panel. He has a drink going home, she’s locked his dinner back in the oven. He doesn’t care what’s happening in the Upper House, what scandal’s happening … he’s concerned about his job, her health.”

In retrospect long periods of dominance look easy. But my diaries recall Wran told his cabinet once that the government had come through a fight with the doctors which closed the hospitals, a public service campaign over superannuation, a war with the teachers and a strike with the Water Board employees which was pumping “excrement onto the beaches”. Now, he said, we need some peace. Too many cycles like that and retirement beckoned.

I overheard him tell a newly elected Nick Greiner, at the top table for an official function: “Your ministers are irrelevant. They just want to be driven around town in their cars. The fact is everything you need you got to do yourself.” In an egalitarian party he reflected a touch of the Bonapartist.

This is another way of saying he seemed to understand the entrenched pattern of NSW politics post-1941: periods of domination by strong leaders (McKell, Cahill, Askin) and intervening periods of mostly short premierships. The doctors’ strike or the Briese affair and the two-man crewing of trains are forgotten. What’s left, as he says, was a better quality of life. And, as we see it now, a decade flavoured with his big personality.

During his 10 years as Premier, even during the period when on the defensive at the end, nobody doubted we had a leader – not the party or the state, not the business elite nor the broader public like the bloke in the fibro cottage and his wife. Nobody doubted we had a leader. And he never doubted he was that.

The Hon. Gareth Evans – Transcript – Launch of ‘Diary of a Foreign Minister’

April 14, 2014

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Chancellor of The Australian National University and Foreign Minister 1988-96, Sydney, 14 April 2014

Bob Carr took on the job of Australian Foreign Minister believing, as he doesn’t hesitate to tell us, that it was highly unlikely that he would be there for very long. And although he doesn’t put this in quite so many words, it is clear that the approached the role, in these circumstances, with three basic objectives: to keep himself, and Australia, out of trouble; to have a ball; and to write up the whole experience for posterity in the most readable and colourful possible way. On the evidence of our eyes and ears over the last two years, and now of his book, it is clear that, on all three counts, he succeeded admirably.

He slid effortlessly into the presentational role at home and abroad, and kept himself out of trouble with the media (even maintaining, miraculously, the adoration of Greg Sheridan for the whole of his tenure – not the five weeks maximum that I told him was the previous record).

He kept Australia’s flag comfortably flapping through countless multilateral forums and bilateral exchanges; contributed significantly to our spectacularly successful UN Security Council bid (though he graciously acknowledges the central and critical role of our UN Ambassador Gary Quinlan in that success); saved us from at least one spectacular own-goal (on the Palestinian statehood issue, which I will come back to); and navigated his way through what has been, and will remain, Australia’s biggest current and future foreign policy challenge by not offending either Washington or Beijing.

He obviously revelled being back in the middle of the action, and basking in the company of the world’s great, good and glamorous (although it’s also clear that he derived huge and genuine pleasure from his less obviously glamorous encounters in the South Pacific and the African Commonwealth).

And he has given us a book which, in describing all this, captures, as well as anything you’ll ever read, both the crazily sleep-deprived, adrenalin charged, exhilarating and frustrating life of a contemporary foreign minister – and the crazy combination of excitement and despair, idealism and cynicism, that characterizes domestic Australian politics.

Cabinet diaries – a sub-set of the larger rather genre of political diaries, and the much larger one still of political memoirs and autobiographies – tend to fall into two distinct categories, as Bob himself noted back in 1999 reviewing Neil Blewett’s diary of the first Keating Government . One kind focuses on “providing the arguments and raw material for historians” (of which Richard Crossman’s record of the Wilson Government in the UK in the 1960s is the daddy of them all, and Blewett’s a reasonably clear Australian example). And the other kind focuses on “providing episodic colour and personality” (of which the leading Anglo-Saxon example–until now–has been Alan Clark’s wonderfully tasteless and entertaining diaries of the Thatcher years in the UK).

Of course most such diaries try to do both to some extent: all policy debates and no egos, infighting and eccentricities would make for a pretty dull read; while all colour-and-movement, with no real policy substance at all, would be a little too much like daily journalism as it is now practiced to be worth putting between hard covers.

But there is a noticeable distinction within the genre, and it is pretty clear on which side of the line Bob’s diary falls. To the extent that he had any role model for his own diary, I think he would be the first to acknowledge that it was Clark rather more than Crossman.

There’s plenty of incidental meat for analysts and historians to relish – how could there not be with so many encounters at such a high level on so many issues with such key players? But he doesn’t pause very often or for very long to analyse in detail the multiple policy issues with which he wrestled, or to explain how they were resolved within government or advanced in international negotiations. It is not that kind of book. His primary target – and he has hit it — is a general audience interested in reading a very skilfully written account of what it was like to be there.

There are not many of us in Australian public life who have had that privilege, of being there.
I was one of them, and a great many people, as a result, have been asking me over the last week how Bob’s experiences, and his approach to the role, compared with my own when I was Australia’s Foreign Minister. So I hope you won’t mind me spending a little time telling you.

The short answer about the nature of our experiences is that they were remarkably similar, even if many of the issues we dealt with were different. I don’t just mean here the manic pace of it all, the stresses of travel even at the front of the plane, the strain of constant tight-rope walking in one’s public utterances, the pressures of meeting the expectations of domestic constituencies, the sense of exhilaration and excitement on the big occasions and when things go well, and the disappointment and despair when they don’t.

I mean also that sense which we both had – although Bob has been subject to some pummelling over the last week for the way he put it (in terms of not feeling ‘humble’ in the presence of the great) – that Australia thoroughly deserves any place it can win at the top international tables, that competent Australian representatives can match it in any company, and that we can be justly proud of the contribution Australia has made and can continue to make as a good international citizen.

There is an issue, about which some in the Government have been particularly critical, about the propriety of putting those experiences quite so fully on the record so soon after the event. (I have to say that I feel something of a wimp in this respect, waiting nearly 30 years to publish – as MUP will in August – my own diary potentially offending my colleagues in Hawke-Keating Cabinet in the mid-1980s, rather than the less than 30 weeks it has taken Bob to potentially offend his colleagues at home and abroad.)

I don’t think Bob has much to be apologetic about in this respect. No confidences of any consequence are revealed, and certainly nothing of any security sensitivity. Some of the exchanges he retails have the potential to be slightly embarrassing to the participants – and go further by way of revelation than I might have been prepared to as Foreign Minister 20 years ago. But times have changed, and much more is out and about in the media, and social media, than ever used to be the case. I don’t believe that any of our relationships will be prejudiced, or future dialogue made more difficult, by what he has recorded.

On the question of Bob’s and my approaches to the job, there are some evident differences between us, partly reflecting the difference in the circumstances in which we held office, and partly just because – although we have a number of literary/historical and other nerdy interests in common, have been friends for a long time, and he kind enough to describe me as his mentor in this book – we really are very different kinds of people, with very different personal and political styles.

As to the circumstances in which we held office I knew, like most of my predecessors, that in the absence of catastrophe I would have at least three years in the job, and hopefully rather longer; whereas Bob knew that only a political miracle would give him longer than 18 months. And having a longer time horizon certainly enables you to be patiently proactive in creating and building diplomatic initiatives, rather than essentially just reacting, however deftly, to events.

The other contextual difference was that I had the enormous good fortune of working to two Prime Ministers, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who each in their different ways had fine instincts for the issues and dynamics of international relations, and who instinctively understood the nature of the relationship which must exist between Prime Minister and Foreign Minister if things are not to end in tears, viz. mutually respectful, highly communicative and interactive, and always willing to find common ground on sensitive issues and not to resolve them simply by the PM pulling rank.

Bob, by contrast, had much more difficulty in all these respects with Julia Gillard, although she did have many admirable prime ministerial qualities, including great professionalism in mastering complex briefs, and very effective interpersonal skills, evident in her international as well as domestic dealings, as I can personally testify.

But beyond the very different contexts in which we operated, we have also been very different in other ways. And I’m not just talking here about my total lack of interest in knowing what “steel-cut oats” are, let alone eating them, and my total lack of ambition – as will be apparent – in achieving “a concave abdomen”, let alone one “defined by deep-cut obliques”, whatever they might be.

There’s a relentlessly pragmatic cast to Bob’s approach to the world which comes through regularly in the diary – which I don’t completely share, never having abandoned my belief that you can marry necessary pragmatism with a quite strong commitment to liberal, and indeed idealistic, principles. One example is the enthusiasm with which he embraced as a “masterstroke” Kevin Rudd’s Papua New Guinea solution to the asylum seeker problem. We could all understand the need for a deterrent dimension to stop the deaths at sea of boat people, but I for one think that this needed to be accompanied by a huge diplomatic effort in the region to address the problem at source, which we never saw.

Another example is Bob’s willingness to be, I think, much too kind – again for reasons related to stopping the flow of asylum seekers – to the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka, which was responsible for some horrific violence against civilians in the course of its (otherwise entirely legitimate) military response to the terrorist Tamil Tigers, and has never made an atrocity-accountability commitment it hasn’t breached. I guess Bob would go along in this respect with my friend Jim Baker, who said to me once when he was US Secretary of State, in that inimitable Texan drawl of his, “Well, Gareth, I guess you sometimes just have to rise above principle.”

Moving to less fraught differences between us, an obvious one is that Bob is and remains – as he cheerfully acknowledges – a “media tart” of the first order, who absolutely revels in today’s twittering 24/7 news cycle madness, and is never happier than when contributing sound-bites to it. I, by contrast – while not exactly, in my prime, a media recluse – can’t help but regard today’s environment as closely approximating Dante’s ninth circle of hell

There is a more substantive dimension associated with this differing preoccupation of ours with the media. I saw set-piece foreign ministerial speeches, which I probably spent an inordinate amount of time developing, as really important tools of advocacy, record and instruction – crucial vehicles for articulating ideas about Australia’s place in the world, and getting other opinion leaders at home and abroad to understand and wrestle with its complexity

Bob, by contrast, as he frankly acknowledges throughout the book, saw his speeches in less highfalutin terms: primarily as vehicles for communicating his very engaging personality. Recognising, with his intimate knowledge of media attention-span, that no more than a few lines or sound-bites would ever be widely retailed, he took the view that there was not much point in taking substantive discussion much further than that. I think that was a missed opportunity, and that there is another one in this respect in this book, but it was an understandable call.

I think it’s probably fair to say, while on the subject of presentation, that we also seem have rather different senses of self-referring humour – albeit in neither case of a kind sufficient to keep us out of trouble. I have always leaned to self-deprecation in this respect (‘Whatever you do don’t call me Biggles”, the “Streakers Defence” and so on), being very slow to learn that this is very dangerous politically – not only in the world’s irony-free zones like the US, but also locally, because there is always the risk that you will be taken literally, and regarded as being as big a dill as you say you are.

Bob, by contrast, learned early on that self-deprecation is for dummies, and there is plenty of evidence of his education in this respect in this diary. His preference now is for laying on his mastery of the universe so thick that the comedy (“I sing, I dance, I fly …I am the master entertainer”, “the wonderful one-legged Romanian deadlift” and all the rest) will be seen, as one commentator described it last week, as that of “a true satirist, a self-made grotesque”. The trouble is of course, again, that even in the world’s irony-receptive zone – in which Australia usually counts itself – there will be a lot of people out there who don’t get the joke. But if he’s cheerfully prepared to take that risk, that’s his call.

All these differences duly noted, there is plenty on which Bob and I have agreed, and for which his efforts as Foreign Minister deserve attention and recognition, albeit not discussed in his book in the degree of detail I for one would have liked.

There was the new approach he pioneered to dealing with Myanmar, recognising that isolation and sanctions had largely run their course and there needed to be some greater international engagement with the military regime to edge it toward change.

There was the careful way in which he picked his way through the competing imperatives, in a rapidly evolving strategic environment, of keeping the US alliance alive and well but at the same time staying close friends with our major economic partner China.

There was the role he played in overseeing the crucial last phase of the UN Security Council campaign, projecting an image of Australia as engaged with Africa and the developing world generally, committee to generous international assistance, and committed to global public goods like managing climate change and achieving arms control.

And there was what I regard as perhaps his signature achievement, his leadership role in ensuring, in November 2012, that Australia did not vote “No” on the UN General Assembly resolution to give Palestine observer status there. As Bob records me saying at the time, a No vote “would have been the worst Australian foreign policy decision for a generation”, being not only wrong in principle, but leaving us totally isolated from every friend we had in the world apart from the US and Israel, and mortally wounding our credibility and effectiveness on the Security Council to which we had just been elected.

It’s important to appreciate that while questions of eroding Labor support in Sydney’s Western suburbs was a relevant factor in the debate for some NSW members, the argument in Bob’s eyes, as in mine, was wholly about doing the right thing for Australia – and at the same time not acting against Israel’s real interests but in fact very much in support of them. We had both come to share Bob Hawke’s strong view – and no Labor leader had ever been a firmer friend of Israel – that the Netanyahu government, along with its rusted-on supporters in Australia who were lobbying fiercely for a No vote, was shooting itself in the foot with its intransigence.

On the question of those rusted-on supporters, in particular in the Victorian Jewish community, I don’t think we should get as excited as the press has been in the last few days. This is a lobby group like any other, which wins some and – notwithstanding all the donations and duchessing – loses some. It influenced me to campaign vigorously against the Zionism as Racism resolution when I was Foreign Minister, which I was proud to do because the cause was just. But it also lost me – and my fellow Victorian Bob Hawke – when it lost its way, as it has continued to do to this day, on the larger Palestinian issue. It certainly very strongly influenced Julia Gillard, but I am sure she made the judgements she did – cloth-eared they may have been – on what she believed to be a principled basis,

Bob Carr took the view, as Bob Hawke and I had before him, and with the overwhelming majority of the Cabinet and Caucus agreeing, that pressure had to be mounted to achieve once and for all, and sooner rather than later, a two-state solution – without which Israel will be condemned either to lose its Jewish identity, or to maintain it at the price of ceasing to be an equal-rights-respecting democracy. And the UN vote was simply a legitimate way of increasing that pressure: it left full membership of the UN to be determined and final status issues to be negotiated, and contained no language remotely offensive to Israel. Forcing the issue in the Cabinet and the Party room, and ensuring that the majority view prevailed, even if PM Gillard was deeply embarrassed in the process, was not about crude local electoral politics: it was about ensuring that Australia was not seen internationally as being on the wrong side of history.

The treatment of the Palestinian issue is about as detailed as the analysis and argument gets in this diary about the great substantive issues of foreign policy with which Bob and the Government – and indeed the region and the world – were wrestling during this period. And, whether or not he felt constrained by the rules governing Cabinet secrecy so close to the event, you won’t find in the book anything very secret, and previously unsuspected, being disclosed.

But what you will find is, again, a wonderfully engaging account of what it’s like to be there¸ where and when it’s all happening, written with great flair and obviously huge enjoyment of life. This is a book which should fly out of the stores and on to the shelves of anyone with even a passing interest in politics and public affairs. And so it should. It’s a great read.

Greg Sheridan – “Carr’s Modern Classic” (The Australian, April 11, 2014)

April 11, 2014

Bob Carr has written a minor classic of Australian foreign affairs. But perhaps the word “minor” is unfair.

His diaries are full of substance and revelation, a high-octane internal dialogue on several key issues. Like all good political diaries, they are spiced with telling reflections on many colleagues. But there is also the characteristic Carr wit and, at times, self-deprecation.

No official should write a book like Carr’s, which is full of revelations of private conversations. But I can’t get too fussed about a minister doing so.

Recently retired American cabinet secretaries write this sort of stuff all the time: witness the many startling revelations in the superb recent memoirs of Bob Gates, defence secretary under US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Carr agonises throughout his diaries over the balance in Australian policy between the US and China; he and his government disagree sharply with Washington and London over Sri Lanka; he pioneers the closest engagement with Myanmar, including ending sanctions against that benighted country; tries to put the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the centre of Australian regional diplomacy; pursues the closest relationship he can with his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa; leads a frantic and ultimately successful campaign to win a seat for Australia on the UN Security Council; and leads a successful revolt against then prime minister Julia Gillard on elevating Palestinian representation at the UN.

Now, I don’t agree with Carr on every aspect of each of these issues, but it is a huge agenda of substance. Carr was impatient with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paperwork; he hated the tedium of the speeches and often the briefing notes they prepared for him. But the diaries reveal a minister grappling with enormous policy issues.

They are laced with humour, irony, caricature and self-parody. These are dangerous commodities to trade in, here in Australia.

But inevitably some of his reflections and reports about his colleagues will command attention. Two of the strangest concern Kevin Rudd. One has Carr arguing about the Middle East with Gillard. She tells him Rudd “had kept going to Israel, driving (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu mad proposing a batty peace plan and promising to commit Australian troops to patrolling borders”.

Carr’s comment: “I quickly agreed this was nuts.’’

This all demands serious elucidation.

It reminds me of the account in Stephen Mills’s book The Hawke Years, never really contradicted, of Bob Hawke coming up with an equally batty peace plan for Saddam Hussein and Iraq and persecuting the first president Bush with many telephone calls about it. These things never make their way into prime ministerial memoirs.

Carr recounts the No 2 official at the commonwealth secretariat complaining of Rudd’s rudeness, with Rudd telling him: “If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.’’

He also details a number of Australian officials describing extremely aggressive body language from Rudd in encounters with Japanese and Singaporean foreign ministers. These are all quite devastating revelations for Rudd.

On Gillard, Carr is less damning at the level of personal style but makes it clear that he believed that in foreign policy, as generally, she just could not embody or project sufficient authority for the job of prime minister.

Partly because it records so many conversations at the top of international affairs, Carr’s diary is full of substance. But the workings of his own mind on Australian foreign policy are also profoundly absorbing and insightful.

Carr has a dialogue with himself, all the way through the book, about the proper balance of Australian policy between the US and China. He accepts the nearly universal Australian support for the US alliance. He accepts its contribution to Australian security. He believes in the future of the alliance, as well as its past.

But he is partly susceptible to the idea that Canberra has got a bit too close to Washington, and has perhaps needlessly distanced itself from Beijing. This is a theme handled, in my view, with great honesty and intelligence by Carr throughout the book. He has a Socratic dialogue with himself on this. Indeed, I am reminded irresistibly about a line on George Orwell in a recent biography, that he left behind not so much a body of work as a mind caught in words.

I think at times Carr is a little too sensitive about Beijing’s allegedly hurt feelings. And he takes up the foreign minister’s role having absorbed a certain amount of the pro-China, anti-American zeitgeist promoted in different ways by Paul Keating, Malcolm Fraser and academic Hugh White.

But reality keeps intruding and Carr is far too smart to ignore reality. He sends an email to Kim Beazley, our ambassador in Washington, retailing an argument that Australia has got too close to the US. One of the best things in the book is Beazley’s cable in reply, printed in full.

Beazley points out not only that the US is getting more deeply engaged in Asia, partly as a response to the persuasive arguments put to it by Labor governments, but also that Australian governments have shrewdly used the alliance to leverage Australia’s distinctive interests and policy objectives across the board.

Carr also reports a deep DFAT analysis that says China does not place Australia very high in its estimation of nations, and the one thing that makes us more important to the Chinese is our closeness to the Americans.

It is worth quoting Carr at length on this. He writes: “Keating launches Hugh White’s book on the US and China. He’s half right — but to talk about us giving China strategic space? What does that mean, strategic space?

“Does he endorse White’s view, for example, that Japan should move out of its alliance with the US? And South Korea as well? That Vietnam should accept Chinese dominance? Well, that’s strategic space.

“Beijing would relish this discussion in Australia. After all, the Chinese want to see us disoriented over our bilateral relationship.

“I form the view that we should not react. The basics are good, we trade, we talk: the metrics are healthy, as our Ambassador put it to me. The pro-China lobby are over-egging the pudding.

“They want to make us fidgety and defensive about our China policy. Make us anxious. That’s not the way to respond. In this phase of the relationship, with them making us uncomfortable, a bit of benign neglect is needed, not letting the Chinese think we care too much. Until things settle. I resolve on this.’’

This is eminent common sense from Carr.

Elsewhere, recounting the effort, which was ultimately successful, to get the Chinese to commit to a strategic dialogue at leaders’ level, Carr determines to be relaxed about the timing, and to say that he’s relaxed about the timing. To be unruffled. To be constructive with the Chinese, and certainly not looking for arguments, but not to shy away from defending Australia’s interests, and not to give the Chinese the impression that we are desperate for their approval.

All this is the sound workings of a good mind on Australian policy. I sincerely hope Carr follows Beazley’s advice not to change these sober, sensible but inherently unsexy views when he is out of office and freed from the responsibilities of power.

Carr champions engagement with Myanmar and definitively lifting, not suspending, sanctions on the nation, and helping it with the EU and the UN. Again, this is good policy judgment.

He tries to put ASEAN high in our diplomatic priorities.

He pursues Australian interests with Sri Lanka and shares with Alexander Downer the simple insight that it is good that the Tamil Tigers terrorist outfit was defeated in the Sri Lankan civil war and that positive engagement and encouragement for Sri Lanka is good policy in itself, as well as allowing Australia to pursue its own interests with Colombo.

I disagree with Carr’s decision to abstain rather than oppose the move at the UN to upgrade the Palestinian representation to nearer that of a state. I don’t think it helps the peace process.

But Carr’s book also contains many positive things about Israel. He tells a Palestinian delegation he will not criticise the separation wall the Israelis have built, that if bombs had been raining down on Sydney while he was NSW premier he too would have built a separation wall.

I think Carr overestimates the power of the Melbourne-based pro-Israel lobby and writes about it in a way that is needlessly hurtful, but I also believe he holds his positions in good faith and with goodwill.

He makes the right strategic call about switching to a much more robust position to deter illegal immigrants coming by boat.

There are things I disagree with in the book, but overall Carr made a very strong contribution to a very weak government.

He had a genius for presentation and a zest for argument and explanation that is a kind of zest for life.

This is evident in marvellous passages giving thanks for the good fortune of having this splendid job of foreign minister, and in one beautiful passage about his wife, Helena.

Overall, this is an important and highly entertaining contribution to a rare popular foreign policy literature in Australia.

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