The Magazine

The View from Across the Pacific

Washington gains a friend in Canberra.

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Canberra has joined Tokyo and other U.S. allies in Asia by electing a conservative government vowing less tax on business, robust defense, support for the United States, and guarded cooperation with China. A big victory in Australia’s national election on September 7 for Tony Abbott’s Liberal-Nationals ends six years of political tumult under Labor.

Mystify me concert photography

Tony Abbott

Mystify me concert photography

The last Liberal-National government, under John Howard (1996-2007), in which Abbott held domestic portfolios, was followed by revolving-door rule under Kevin Rudd (capable but erratic) and Julia Gillard (a creature of the unions). The pair fought like cats and governed one after the other by shuffling policies in line with poll numbers. “The circus has got to stop,” Abbott snapped in a campaign debate with Rudd. Labor, now with only 50-odd seats in Parliament to Abbott’s 90-odd, is on the ropes as seldom before in its distinguished history as Australia’s oldest party.

In the face of Labor’s death spiral, voters, although grown soft on government largesse, serenely chose a very conservative prime minister. Abbott once told me of Labor’s spendthrift years under Gough Whitlam (1972-75), “Fiscally, it was a lunatic’s existence.” He said launching his campaign: “Government’s job is rarely to tell people what to do. Mostly, it’s to make it easier for people to make their own choices.” Holding power in Canberra and enjoying Liberal-National rule in all the major states, Abbott will axe an unfortunate carbon emissions tax and a punitive tax on mining. “We will restore an appetite for risk and investment,” said incoming finance chief Andrew Robb.

Abbott recently told Mary Kissel of the Wall Street Journal, “All successful societies are inherently conservative, and Australia is undeniably a successful society.” He eschews Black Armband talk (the Aussie term for the self-flagellation of Australian intellectuals for past treatment of Aborigines and other shortcomings). He told Kissel: “The Rudd-Gillard government has been a highly statist government, the Brown government reverted to statism with a vengeance in Britain, and Barack Obama is the most left-of-center [U.S.] government in at least half a century.” Only Abbott’s generous ears give him a point in common with Obama.

Abbott has a quick tongue, and he rashly said Syria’s tragedy is “baddies versus baddies.” In 2008 he enraged a left enamored of Obama by saying, “He sounds terrific but I don’t know what’s really there” (the remark improves with age). When Mandarin-speaking Rudd struck a horrendous patch with Beijing, Abbott said Australia’s relationship with China “has not noticeably strengthened despite the change [from Howard] to a prime minister who can speak to the Chinese in their own language.”

Australia sees itself as a bridge to the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, much as Texas sees itself as a bridge to the Latin world. Canberra proved its muscle-power in the first area in 1999 over East Timor and in 2003 over the Solomon Islands; the central country in Southeast Asia is Indonesia, whose current relations with Australia are good (and important to U.S. interests). You would think this area should be Australia’s security sphere. But the internationalists in the Australian foreign ministry and most pundits would never be content with such a modest role. Defense planners talk of “Indo-Pacific” as the “system” of which Australia is part.  

As in Washington, the two sides exhibit differences in China policy. Labor includes panda lovers but also some who make human rights central in dealings with Beijing. Abbott’s broad tent has a majority for business-as-usual, but a minority as wary of Beijing as Labor idealists are. A neat package in China policy is elusive.

Abbott and his articulate foreign minister, Julie Bishop, plan to state Australia’s interests, listen to China’s, and do business on that basis, following Howard’s approach. Under Howard, trade with China grew an astonishing 626 percent in a decade, yet he told an audience at the Communist Party School in Beijing that hectored him about meeting the Dalai Lama: “If it was good enough for Australians to tolerate the continuation of the Communist party as a legal entity, it ought to be good enough for Chinese to tolerate the leader of a friendly country [Australia] allowing the Dalai Lama to visit and to see him.”

Howard once told Jiang Zemin, “I don’t believe in lecturing others any more than we [Australians] like receiving lectures ourselves.” Ric Smith, Australian ambassador in Beijing at the time, said of the Howard years: “The Chinese would have preferred the Australians not keep saying, ‘We have different values, different history,’ and just get to the bottom line, ‘We can do business,’ but they accepted it.” Labor and some Liberal business folk are more prone to talk about common values with the Chinese.

Last year Beijing suggested to Labor foreign minister Bob Carr that Australia might have to choose between China and the United States. Some Australians take this seriously, but Abbott doesn’t. Over 11 years, Howard found the U.S. alliance “no impediment” to Australia’s relations with Beijing. “Many Chinese saw it as an asset,” he recalls. “Others respected the fidelity displayed by Australia to our American friends. It was evidence that we were a dependable, reliable people with whom to have an association.” That is likely to be the Abbott-Bishop position also.

Scholars in Melbourne and Sydney fuss that two ill-fitting “structures” mark the Asia Pacific region (unlike the smooth Brussels machine allegedly masterminding Europe): U.S. alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and others, and the grip of the Chinese economy. But the apparent anarchy of this jostling pair may not be so problematic. Australia illustrates why. Asia is not a cultural region, so we may leave culture to one side and consider money and power. Australia’s “problem” is that it’s close to China economically but close to the United States strategically. But the same dualism is so widespread in Asia Pacific that one asks whether it is really a problem.

With the Soviet Union, such a two-sided policy was not possible for many reasons, including the limitations of Moscow’s economy. But today China and the United States are deeply involved economically with each other, just as U.S. allies are with China. Beijing has had to contemplate Australia and the United States as allies since the birth of ANZUS in 1951. This hasn’t stopped it from buying Australian wheat in the 1950s and 1960s, or coal and iron ore today. Australian leftists fret about upsetting China, but they should consult a map. South Korea hosts many times more U.S. troops than Australia, yet enjoys a flourishing economic tie with nearby China; similarly neighboring Japan. How could fewer than 1,000 Marines (so far) in Darwin prejudice Australia’s trade with China thousands of miles away?

The biggest difference between Abbott and Labor is not on China but on the United States. Outgoing foreign minister Carr said Labor, had it been in power in 2003, would never have supported George W. Bush in Iraq as the Liberal-Nationals did. One Labor leader prior to Rudd, Mark Latham, called President Bush “incompetent and dangerous” and declared, “The alliance with the United States is just another form of neocolonialism.” Gillard in a long speech on national security strategy in January never mentioned ANZUS. To all this Abbott retorts: “America’s habitual critics should more often consider to which other country or body they would rather entrust a solution to the world’s troubles.” 

Labor, like Obama, is given to multilateralism as an end in itself and enamored of world disarmament and the United Nations. Abbott promises “more Jakarta, less Geneva,” privileging bilateral ties over international bureaucracies. The Liberal-Nationals are generally in tune with Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who wants U.S. allies in the region to do more together. Abbott believes in an “international community of values” as part of national security, and Abe does too. A resurgent Japan with backbone could well be the next Big Trend in Asia, so a lot rides on Abe’s new economic and foreign policies. The opportunity at Abbott’s feet is to strengthen the joint role of two key spokes on the U.S. security wheel in Asia Pacific.

Hillary Clinton took some good steps on the “pivot” in Southeast Asia, but Obama’s chanting what the pivot is not is feeble (like harping that his Syrian move will be “limited” and “tailored”). The pivot is and should be about China. Beijing’s foreign policy centers on the United States, after all. The job of the democracies in East Asia is to strengthen each other, the better to deal effectively and peacefully with China.

The Chinese leaders know that Western-derived values of free markets and free expression have been an element in China’s post-Mao rise. Abbott and Abe should ask Beijing how these assets relate to China’s idea of a “harmonious international society.” The two prime ministers should also encourage Obama to be direct with Beijing about the pivot.

An observer may feel Australia’s chief enemy is its own passivity, toward the United States, China, Indonesia, and others. Australians think they only must react. But theirs is a large, safe, comfortable country, the twelfth-largest economy in the world, very desirable to Chinese students (120,000 at present), refugees fleeing by boat, and over 5 million foreign tourists a year. Australians lacerate themselves about their ignorance of Asia, yet technology and immigration have eroded the old isolation. Why should Australian-born kids slave away learning Chinese when Chinese-Australian immigrants grab and better perform language-skill jobs for business, teaching, and government?

Australia needs to promote its interests more and also to strengthen its appeal to foreign partners. Julie Bishop grasps the first point: “Our focus will be on economic diplomacy. Our diplomats will be required to understand our commercial interests. .  .  . I will make trade a centerpiece of my work.” On the second point, Abbott knows Canberra must work to make Australia valuable to Washington in the face of China’s naval challenge in Asia Pacific. When former U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. pivot seeks “a defense posture across Asia Pacific more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable,” he had Australia in mind. Abbott will certainly speed up facilitation of the role of U.S. Marines and Air Force in Darwin and probably enhance naval cooperation with Washington at the west coast Stirling naval base. Danger and opportunity sometimes stalk together.

Ross Terrill is a research associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

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