By Geoff Raby
The civility, but not warmth, on display at last week's joint press conference by Australian and Chinese foreign ministers Julie Bishop and Wang Yi was in stark contrast to the acrimony when Bishop made her bilateral visit to Beijing in 2015. Then, our Foreign Minister had to defend herself from an unusual, most undiplomatic, public rebuke from Wang over her excessively strident comments on the South China Sea dispute.
Since then, China has continued to ramp up its presence in the disputed areas, including the installation of missile batteries on an artificially constructed islet and brazenly snubbed the ruling by The Hague tribunal on the Law of the Sea. In July last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Foreign Minister got well ahead of other regional countries, and even, in public, the United States, by lecturing China on its obligations to implement The Hague decision.
At the time, the position of the Australian government was strikingly contradictory. While demanding that China adopt The Hague findings - proceedings in which China had refused to participate – Turnbull and Bishop also declared Australia was "neutral" in the dispute over territories and therefore, incredulously, did not take sides.
China of course has taken no notice of this. It has continued to ignore The Hague ruling while admonishing Australia for being partisan in the dispute. It has hardly been a red-letter day for Australia's regional diplomacy in the area that matters most to Australia's national interests.
Last week's statements by Bishop, therefore, mark a welcome and substantial shift in policy. Bishop did not mention either the South China Sea or The Hague ruling directly, although at the very end of her statement spoke of the importance of respecting international law which the Chinese very well understood to be a reference to both.
Instead, Bishop welcomed dialogue between claimant states - a position that China has been advocating. Australia had largely been silent on this, as it supported the US position that others beyond the claimant states also have interests in the issues of the South China Sea and so should be party to the dialogue.
The US has long resisted discussion only among claimant states, believing (perhaps correctly) that China's massively greater size and weight in any negotiation would lead to outcomes more favourable to China than to others.
So in her endorsement of dialogue between claimants, Bishop has shifted Australia's position closer to China's, not of course in terms of its territorial claims, but rather how the dispute should be managed.
It is noteworthy that the shift in Australia's policy has come without any change in China's behaviour. It is as if the Australian government is trying to slip it under the door without being noticed.
The change in Australia's stance can mainly be attributable to the surprise election of two unconventional, wilful, colourful presidents: Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Donald Trump in the US. Their election turned many of the verities of Australian foreign policy, and especially our stance on the South China Sea dispute, on its head.
On his assumption of office on June 30 last year, just weeks before The Hague judgment was brought down, Duterte broke with the gathering trend over six years under former President Benig no Aquino of drawing ever closer to the US in response to China's encroachments into the South China Sea.
Blindsiding both Washington and Canberra, Duterte said he wished to negotiate bilaterally with China - a position China has long sought Soon after, while in Beijing, he declared China to be a close friend of the Philippines. In return, Beijing permitted Philippine fishing boats to return to the waters of the contested Scarborough Shoal, giving Duterte a major diplomatic "victory" which had eluded his predecessor and was highly popular at home.
Duterte's visit was soon followed by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, also saying he wanted to find a negotiated settlement with Beijing. Australia was left like the proverbial shag on an atoll.
With the whirlwind accession of Trump to office, Australia's policy since 9/11 of the closest adherence to US foreign policy positions has now come under great strain.
Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's bellicose rhetoric directed at China over the South China Sea has gravely unsettled our immediate region. Although seemingly to step back from this during the past week or so, for an Australian government to maintain the previous extent of alignment with US foreign policy has now become politically untenable within Australia.
Despite domestic opposition to US policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, Australian governments have been able to build a support for Australian involvement with US foreign policy and military ventures.
Now with Trump in the White House, in the absence of egregious provocation by China, or some other state, it is highly unlikely that an Australian government could garner the domestic support necessary to follow the US, even if it wished to do so. This would be even more difficult were China involved, given the deep dependence on China for our economic well-being.
Bishop's joint press conference last week can be seen, whether it was intended or not as the beginning of Australia distancing itself from US foreign policy under a Trump presidency. It also marks a significant break with past policy towards the South China Sea which has seen Australia ineffectively shouting from the side lines – without influence and little to contribute to the regional diplomacy which has been gathering momentum for the past six months.
The quest for an Australian foreign policy that is more independent from the US will be seen to have begun last week. It is to be welcomed.
Geoff Raby is Chairman and CEO of Geoff Raby & Associates and a former Australian Ambassador to China.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review:
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