The dependent ally spins the wheel of fortune

513px-wheel_of_fortune_-_season_26_-_round_4.svg

Foreign policy wonks will be writhing in pain this week as Chris Joye described the latest international gaffe in the Abbott Government’s pugilistic approach to strategic matters:

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop sees the United States, not China, as Australia’s most important economic partner, rejecting one of the main assumptions of the previous Labor government’s “Asian Century” foreign policy.

Her view is at odds with some prominent foreign affairs analysts, including professor Hugh White from the ­Australian National University, who has said that China is “Australia’s ­­­­most important and complex diplomatic relationship”.

“When you combine Australian and US two-way trade with investment, it stands at over $1 trillion,” Ms Bishop said in an interview with AFR Weekend after meeting US Vice-President Joe Biden in Washington. “So in respect of who is our ‘best friend’ in economic terms, it is undeniably the US. While China is of course our largest merchandise trading partner, I would just make that point, as I am here in Washington.”

The interpretation is also a sign the government wants to distance itself from the Asian Century white paper strategy that was the foundation of Labor’s economic and diplomatic policy towards China. Ms Bishop has already taken a tougher approach to China, loudly protesting – to China’s dismay – when it tried to assert authority over military and civilian flights in the East China Sea in November. The dispute affected Qantas Airways flights near Japan.

Ms Bishop’s declaration of love is fair enough in a major speech in Washington. What else does one say to one’s host? But her calculus of the US’ importance to the contemporary Australian economy is very obviously wrong. US investment may be big but all of the growth is coming from China. It is also a very deliberate inversion of the traditional way such things are calculated with trade suddenly ranking below investment. Coming on the heels of unnecessarily provocative statements by both the foreign and prime ministers aimed at China over months, US primacy has taken on the shape of doctrine.

The question of greatest importance is why miscast foreign policy in this binary light? Why actively promote one bilateral relationship at the expense of the other?

I can think of two reasons. The first is that the Libs have an ideological bias towards the US and its values. We can perhaps see this in action in Trade Minister Andrew Robb’s drive to adopt the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, which is clearly to Australia’s detriment.

If that’s the case then there’ll be a certain insecurity in the deployment of such ideology in the first years of a new regime. The bias to overkill will ease over time as realism and confidence set in. That’s certainly what happened with John Howard. With any luck, Tony Abbott’s team of evangelicals will mellow as well.

There’s a second, less understandable, explanation that will be unfortunate if it is proven right. It is that this Liberal Party can’t see beyond politics and having “goodies” and “badies” in our foreign policy suits its domestic agenda. Liberal political hack Mark Textor muses on the topic today in the AFR:

The recent and frankly ridiculous media debate about whether Tony Abbott’s “goodies and baddies” comment met the stringent codes of the foreign affairs snobs on Twitter reminded me of something John Howard said to me long ago that is still etched in my mind: “Tex, you can’t have the good bits without the bad bits.” This is certainly not one of the most eloquent observations he ever made to me but it has proven to be one with the most far-reaching analytical utility.

…While polls measure popularity and job approval, they are only measuring the beauty contest score of theoretical perfection. Successful campaign pollsters look beyond these silly metrics and into the health of the relationship and whether it is difficult, popular or not. Campaigns don’t manage “popularity” but relationships. And there is no relationship without a “relate to”. And central to that is often the “bad bit” – the flaw.

Howard was at times a nerd, old-fashioned, prickly and an ideologue. But these flaws were also the hook the relationship was based on: it allowed people an initial way to understand Howard, or at least often gave them permission to move on to his positives. “He’s a bit of a nerd, like my old man, but he was consistent, effective and honest.”

I’d agree with that though one might ask if Mr Textor sees the conviction coming before the popularity or the popularity requiring the conviction, which is not quite the same thing. There is evidence that it could be the latter in the “stop the boats” policies. The Coalition has very successfully recast the refugees landing on Australia’s northern shores as “economic migrants”, freeing it to declare war on the lot of them in the process, and creating an excellent  goodies versus baddies issue for domestic consumption. But in doing so it has also ensured that we have no chance of generating a regional solution to the problem given, in our own words, that the boats are chock full rich folks seeking back door immigration into Australia, as opposed to a regional movement of displaced peoples demanding a regional solution.

One hopes that the national interest will play more of a role in the management of our major diplomatic relationships but at one level politics has clearly already overtaken foreign policy: bipartisanship is dead. So spare a thought for our friends in Washington and Beijing who’s heads must spin with the ballot box chocolate wheel of the dependent allie.

Houses and Holes

David Llewellyn-Smith is Chief Strategist at the MB Fund and MB Super. David is the founding publisher and editor of MacroBusiness and was the founding publisher and global economy editor of The Diplomat, the Asia Pacific’s leading geo-politics and economics portal.

He is also a former gold trader and economic commentator at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the ABC and Business Spectator. He is the co-author of The Great Crash of 2008 with Ross Garnaut and was the editor of the second Garnaut Climate Change Review.

Latest posts by Houses and Holes (see all)

Comments

  1. With any luck, Tony Abbott’s team of evangelicals will mellow as well.

    Evangelicals are well known for their tendency to mellow.

      • General Disarray

        True, and I hope Abbott and his government do mellow…

        The question is how many poor decisions will be made before that happens. TPP etc.

      • interested partyMEMBER

        General Disarray, and concerned others…

        On the TPP I can share the following……

        This arrived in the mail after I contacted my local member with concerns on the TPP.

        “Thankyou for your email regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership ( TPP) Agreement and your concerns over the negotiation process.
        The TPP offers an opportunity to strengthen job-creating trade and investment, and to further integrate Australia into the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region by pursuing common and liberalising policy outcomes.
        As is standard practice with the negotiations of international treaties, draft negotiation texts of the TPP, which involves 12 countries, are not public documents. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is however making every effort to ensure that stakeholders are adequately consulted and able to express their views. There will be an opportunity for full public and Parliamentary discussion prior to any agreement being ratified.

        In accordance with Government’s treaty-making process, once the TPP text is agreed it will be tabled in Parliament for 20 joint sitting days to facilitate public consultations and scrutiny by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties ( JSCOT) before any binding treaty action is taken. Once tabled, the treaty text and an accompanying National Interest Analysis will be published on the JSCOT website and in the online Australian Treaties Library.”

        It was good the get some feedback. Let’s see if they can salvage some credibility on this thing.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        @IP

        In accordance with Government’s treaty-making process, once the TPP text is agreed it will be tabled in Parliament for 20 joint sitting days to facilitate public consultations and scrutiny by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties ( JSCOT) before any binding treaty action is taken. Once tabled, the treaty text and an accompanying National Interest Analysis will be published on the JSCOT website and in the online Australian Treaties Library

        Lets flame this f**ker when its put up!

  2. As to the content, this indicates, yet again, that the gvt lives in a version of the 1980s, or wishes it did, which should be entertaining as they apply 30 year old solutions to the world.

  3. migtronixMEMBER

    Why does Australia need/want a BFF??

    When do you EVER hear US/China/Russia/EU talking about Best Friends!?!

    We have a thoroughly pathetic national conversation on things like foreign policy, economics, political accountability.

    Cricket and football on the other hand…

  4. “The first is that the Libs have an ideological bias towards the US and its values. We can perhaps see this in action in Trade Minister Andrew Robb’s drive to adopt the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, which is clearly to Australia’s detriment.”

    There is a lot to that.

    What they seem not to understand is that the US has been using the rhetoric of freedom, self reliance and constitutional limits on power as cover for a long time as they make anything you do sound like a mission from god.

    And most importantly those values only ever apply (to the extent they do) to US citizens.

    If you take the idea of self interested individualism seriously at all you should be very careful not to believe the feel good ‘best friends’ hokum when negotiating with the US. We are foreigners.

    The current govt just sound like saps.

    (Not that the previous mob were much better at concealing their squeals of delight when Mickey Mouse offered them a pat)

    • Dog-whistling right? I mean there’s only one segment of the population that responds with any reliable kind of positive sentiment to such jingoism – the same that respond to fishing boats with all the hysteria of a Spanish Armada – and it is they to whom Abbott will be pandering for the next 5 years!!

      Battlers! Stick with us! You’ll be safe, the US is our besty!

  5. Insofar as boat arrivals were a ‘problem’ (and I think the multitude of sodden corpses bobbing in the surf to our north warranted such a label, regardless of your political allegiance), they weren’t really a regional one at all. Australia manufactured the revival of the trade unilaterally under Rudd. Australia now appears to have shut it down, more or less unilaterally. The local PR face of the people-smuggling trade worked hard to paint the issue as one of external push-factors, but that argument has long since been mugged by reality, and recent developments have shunted it from erroneous into farcical.

    The trade returned under Rudd and he bears the responsibility. If he had a genuine desire to assist refugees and alleviate their suffering, he had an effective tool in the Humanitarian Program. Upping the number of places offered for permanent resettlement in Australia would have achieved the goal of helping refugees without engineering the revival of the profit-seeking people-smuggling industry. But that wasn’t his primary objective. Rudd was always acutely conscious of his image, and wanted to achieve a sort of hero-status among progressives. Sometimes this led to manifestly positive decisions, such as the apology to the original inhabitants of this land, but other times it led to jejune and harmful policy blunders. Dismantling stringent border protection fell into this category. It failed in terms of its original aim, since he eventually had to reverse and institute arguably more draconian policies; it was costly financially, it was far more costly in terms of lives lost, and, unnecessarily, it bred a mistrust of refugees and migrants in the community.

    • I’m sorry MJV but “it was far more costly in terms of lives lost[…]” is a joke when you consider both parties sent troops to Afghanistan/Iraq to engage in wholesale slaughter!! And they’re still at it!

    • It was probably a little left-of-center: withdrawn.

      Although I make no apologies for admonishing the militaristic jingoism you completely ignore as function of the latent hypocrisy in the “stop-the-boats” “conversation”

    • Dismantling stringent border protection fell into this category.

      Border protection ? Have the refugees started arriving in amphibious assault vehicles carrying AK47s ?

      It failed in terms of its original aim, since he eventually had to reverse and institute arguably more draconian policies; it was costly financially, it was far more costly in terms of lives lost, and, unnecessarily, it bred a mistrust of refugees and migrants in the community.

      Both parties have been _engineering_ a “mistrust” (to put it mildly) of refugees for a decade or more.

      It helps to deflect anger away from the real immigration problems in this country.

  6. Aussie-China vs Aussie-US relationship hmmm definitely requires a more nuanced understanding then “goodies/baddies” lots of issues at geo-political level that dont exist at the business / personal level (but could).

    Australia and Australians have a special place in the hearts and minds of both Chinese and US citizens. From what I’ve seen most Aussies have no idea how positive an image both working class and investment class Chinese have of Australia. This image is far superior to their views on most Europeans and Americans, sometimes it helps you. One time I was out drinking with a US friend in a second tier Chinese city, our drinks got spiked (special-K) and we both ended up off our faces. The next morning the hotel staff told me how the police bought me back to the hotel and made sure I was properly cared for. The US guy went to the lock-up and had to do some high level wrangling to avoid a drunken/disorderly charge. so much for being the pretty people. (美国人)

    China-Taiwan / China-Japan relations will be the real hot button geo-political issue that’s likely to spill over into personal / business relationships most Chinese citizens have very strong opinions on these two points and there is zero negotiating room when it comes to them or us. The US will clearly support both Taiwan and Japan, Australia’s leaders need to distance themselves from the US on these key issues or otherwise we’ll get dragged into a real no win situation.

    • definitely requires a more nuanced understanding

      I can safely say that nuance can not be used to describe the current mob of pollies ( from both sides). Heck I would not use it in a sentence referring to said pollies unless it was in the negative.

    • +1 Single Malt Scotch neat.

      You forget to mention that US/China/Japan citizens just don’t listen to this “best friend” rubbish the Aussie media is obsessed with — they just think great beaches, golf courses, entertaining people and super cheap housing(!!!). Thank god too! Can you imagine how bad diplomacy would be if Australians were viewed as a reflection of our politicians?

  7. And if Julie Bishop heads to China next month what then ? Seems a non story to me. A bit of a stretch to suggest it signals the end of our interests in Asia.

    • “And if Julie Bishop heads to China next month what then ?”

      By then we will have a ‘Best Friend of the Month’ foreign policy and she will be handing out boxes of Lamingtons filled with red bean paste and announcing a campaign of ‘many harmonies’ between Canberra and Beijing.

    • Oh she’ll spout some nonsense about Sino territorial claims to sec islands, and she’ll be reminded that her own government excised much of its own coastline and so has no standing to talk to adults about national security and national interests.

  8. Which country is Australia’s best economic partner? If you just go by current export numbers, China wins. But is your biggest customer always your best partner? Of course not.

    Partnerships between countries are based on many factors including transparency, trust, similar cultures and political environments as well as geopolitical / military power. In this case, I agree with the Abbott government’s approach. First of all it is important to choose friends wisely and the USA is a true friend to Australia. Just ask yourself which country is more likely fight alongside and support Australia if for example, Indonesia attacked. And who would you rather have fighting along side you? Maybe that’s why there is a US military presence in Darwin and not a Chinese one. China relationships are about power and the United States relationship projects power onto Australia.

    That some Australians believe they are more loved than Americans by the Chinese is laughable and a sign of colonial thinking. First of all, Americans don’t care. Second, if China and America are married economically, Australia’s relationship with China is that of the 3rd concubine.

    Surely, the United States, Japan, and Europe provide a much better environment and potential for technology partnerships, investment, and for selling Australian products, technologies, and services in the long run. Isn’t that where Australia’s future is going to be?

    Mostly it depends on what Australians want this country to be in terms of the future economy – that is the most important question. With only mining and a land bubble at present, it’s not clear what Australia’s future comparative advantages will be. Agriculture? Education? Tourism?

    BTW, expect the “Global Century” to occur before the Asian Century. Isn’t that why the NBN is so cool?

    • migtronixMEMBER

      No you’re right its much better to pander to the 2nd biggest customer and watch your biggest customer go to the competition.

      Indonesia invading Australia? We’re still putting up that idiotic scenario? US has bases in Australia even the Queen, let alone Australian PMs, can’t get into!!!

      How many wars has China asked Australians to deploy troops into?

    • Colonial thinking” Me ??? dont think so!

      it’s not clear what Australia’s future comparative advantages will be. Agriculture? Education? Tourism?

      Agreed hopefully we can be more than a just mine with over priced houses BUT I’m not sure what that has to do with China/US mostly its about us, Aussies getting off our collective asses and making something that the world actually wants to buy.

      Education: Is a great product but its very sensitive to the total package costs of which housing costs are a major factor especially since all our major Unis are all in Syd/Melb, big problem compared with US unis which are often located in much cheaper college towns.

      Agriculture: Too hot a local political issue to EVER get resolved by any free trade agreement e.g. I was talking to an Avocado farmer in northern NSW that was dreaming about the day he could sell into the US market at US prices, sounds great BUT first explain to me why Mexican farmers wont sell their products before Aussies, after all NAFTA allows this already. Google-it-up for a free education in political reality.

      Interested in more reality: understand why Aussie Lamb must pay a sort of duty to be sold in Texas….

      Want to sell Wine to many US states: you need to first solutions to Interstate / International alcohol transportation laws that have not been repealed since US prohibition times.

      Tourism : is that the best we can be? really?

      >i>selling Australian products, technologies, and services…
      Care to be more specific, I’m all over it, I’d love to be a part of any world class Aussie product.