Article – Hugh White
Travelling abroad, Tony Abbott has been saying things very different from what we have heard from him in Australia. There are two ways to interpret this. One is to praise him for suddenly becoming a statesman, putting the national interest over …
Abbott walking tricky tightrope on diplomacy
Our Prime Minister needs to think before opening his mouth, both here and abroad
Travelling abroad, Tony Abbott has been saying things very different from what we have heard from him in Australia. There are two ways to interpret this. One is to praise him for suddenly becoming a statesman, putting the national interest over petty domestic politics. The other is to see him as weak, unprincipled and insincere. The first interpretation has prevailed among Australia’s kind-hearted commentators. But our regional neighbours are not so generous and they will incline to the second interpretation. So Abbott’s diplomacy is off to a shaky start.
Abbott has made two mistakes common among domestically oriented politicians when high office thrusts them into foreign affairs. One is to think that diplomacy means avoiding disagreements by saying what you think your interlocutor wants to hear. This gets you into trouble when different people want to hear different things. This was Julia Gillard’s problem.
The other mistake is to think that what you say at home is not heard abroad and what you say abroad is not heard at home. John Howard made this mistake when he assumed no one in Asia heard or cared what he said about Pauline Hanson. He could not have been more wrong. His response to Hanson’s views is remembered in Asia long after Hanson has been forgotten here.
Abbott’s problems began in Jakarta. He set out to charm and soothe by conspicuously softening the hard line on ”stopping the boats” so central to his domestic agenda. He even apologised for the way the issue had been handled. He also talked up Indonesia’s rise and its importance to Australia, acknowledging ”it probably won’t be very long before Indonesia’s total GDP dwarfs ours”.
But most significantly, Abbott went further than his predecessors to promise ”total respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty, total respect for Indonesia’s territorial integrity”. He undertook to do everything possible to discourage and prevent Australia being used ”as a platform for grandstanding” on the issue of West Papua. He even said he admired and respected Indonesia’s policies in West Papua, which none of his predecessors have done.
These words are ultimately much more important than anything said about people smuggling because they touch on the issue that more than any other threatens Australia’s relationship with our strongest neighbour. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has told our Parliament why Indonesians suspect Australia of fomenting separatism in West Papua and how much they resent it. If his Indonesian hosts believe Abbott, his bold words will do a great deal to lay the foundation for a good relationship as Indonesia becomes more and more important to us. But do they and should they? No one in Jakarta forgets how Canberra turned on Indonesia in 1999 and, as they see it, set out to humiliate them over East Timor.
They well remember how Abbott’s mentor Howard so readily caved in to domestic pressure to put ”Australia’s values” above the bilateral relationship. And they will wonder whether Abbott would do the same if a few seconds of horrific video from West Papua again inflames Australian opinion about what is happening there. So it is far too early to say that Abbott has won anyone’s trust in Indonesia. On the contrary, his easy apologies and extravagant promises have raised real doubts about his sincerity. To dispel those doubts he needs to repeat here at home what he said in Jakarta. He needs to explain to Australians at length and in detail why he believes West Papuans ”can have the best possible life” as part of Indonesia, and take on the many critics who will disagree. Only when Abbott does this will Indonesians start to believe what he said to them in Jakarta and will he start to build any credibility there.
After Jakarta Abbott went on to Bali and Brunei for his first regional summits, where his meetings with the leaders of China and Japan brought him face to face with Asia’s most dangerous rivalries. Most significant here was his warmth towards Japan, which taps into Abbott’s conservative instincts. He praised Japan as a democracy, invited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to address our Parliament and undertook to visit Tokyo before Beijing. Everything Abbott said about Japan is true, but that does not mean he is wise to say it. Like Gillard, Abbott seems determined to ignore the intense strategic confrontation today between Japan and China. This is a huge mistake, because their rivalry is increasingly zero-sum. The stakes are high, because their dispute is not about a few uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea. It is about the future of their whole relationship as China’s power grows.
If Abbott swings Japan’s way, as he clearly wants to, China will punish him. Beijing has already fired a warning shot, objecting to the statement from a US-Japan-Australia foreign ministers’ meeting last week. If Abbott goes further with Tokyo, China will step up the pressure.
The free trade agreement to which Abbott has committed himself might be a casualty. A freeze on ministerial visits could follow. If Abbott is not willing to resist such pressure, he’d better start choosing his words about Japan much more carefully. Otherwise he’s heading for a humiliating backdown. In Washington, Beijing and Tokyo they’ll be watching to see what kind of a statesman he proves to be. Welcome to the Asian Century, Mr Abbott, where foreign policy is getting much harder. Two bits of advice about how to survive it. Don’t say anything abroad you are not willing to say, and defend, at home. And don’t say anything to one great power you are not willing to say to any of the others.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU.