Amiable defence debate meets China
17 Jun 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tom Woodward

The defence discussion in the Australia election is calm and agreeable in tone—except for China.

The Turnbull government doesn’t want to push too hard on the South China Sea, while the Labor opposition is more gung-ho.

And how much is China threatening ‘serious economic consequences’ if Australia follows the US show-and-go lead in the South China Sea?

Apart from that, agreement and good humour prevailed when the Government and Opposition sat down to ‘argue’ defence policy.

The National Press Club debate was more a friendly discussion between the Defence Minister, Senator Marise Payne, and the Opposition’s shadow Defence Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy. As Senator Conroy said in his concluding remarks, the debate demonstrated ‘an overwhelming degree of bipartisanship.’

Even the apprehensions and anxieties about China are a matter of tacit consensus between the Coalition and Labor.

The public difference on China is a matter of degree: how hard should Australia go to demonstrate its overflight and sailing rights in the South China Sea?

Senator Conroy said standing instructions don’t allow the Australian Defence Force to do a Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea—it’s a government decision. And so far, no decision has been made and no such instruction issued.

The shadow Defence Minister repeated that a Labor government would authorise such operations to challenge the ‘absurd building of artificial islands on top of submerged reefs.’

He said Australia should act against ‘destabilising behaviour’ because ‘the international rules system is under threat.’ Cop that, China.

On Freedom of Navigation ops in the South China Sea, Senator Payne said Australia ‘won’t flag or comment publicly on future ADF activities.’

Then she got a second chance at the South China Sea in a later question from the Xinhua correspondent; a sign of the times that the only non-Oz media question came from China’s news agency.

Senator Payne told Xinhua:

‘Australia will continue to maintain its position of supporting freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight according to international law in all of our activities. And that includes the South China Sea. It’s quite clear that amongst the competing claims there is an impact on relationships, an impact on stability within the region…We’re not in the business of commenting publicly in advance on specific details of future ADF activities.’

The beauty of the not-comment-in-advance stance is the wriggle room it gives Canberra in Beijing. The wriggle can even be taken as a wink that Australia won’t follow the US lead.

Such wriggle space is necessary, according to Senator Conroy, because China could be leaning on Australia economically, using the recently signed Australia–China free trade agreement:

‘I was very disturbed to see a report recently that the Chinese government, when Mr Turnbull visited Beijing, said that if Australia was to engage in a Freedom of Navigation operation [in the South China Sea] that there will be serious economic consequences for them. I can’t confirm that’s true. I just observe that I read that report. I find that a very disturbing way to do business. If that was the case, that sort of bullying needs to be stood up to. A free trade agreement is meant to work as a free trade agreement, not be political leverage to force other outcomes and acquiescence and obsequiousness.’

Senator Payne was asked about Kim Beazley’s view that a Trump Presidency would force Australia to immediately re-do the 2016 Defence White Paper.

The first jovial response from the Minister: ‘Kim just loves White Papers, that’s all. There’s never enough White Papers for Kim.’

She then went on to sing the hymn about the primacy of the alliance. Australia will work with whoever is President of the US. Amen.

The Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, may think The Donald is ‘barking mad’, but his shadow Defence Minister can still belt out the hymn:

‘We only have one alliance. It’s incredibly vital to our national interests. And we are 100 per cent behind that.’

Tradition upheld. Then a few quick kicks at The Donald.

Senator Conroy said Trump’s negative comments about Japan and South Korea undermined the alliance system in Asia that the US has built over decades.

The Senator then cited a US friend on the fringes of the Trump campaign who’d complained that five months out from the election Trump had no transition plan for taking office.

For a professional polly like Stephen Conroy this goes beyond appalling to unbelievable. Badmouthing allies is one thing. But not thinking about what to do with power if you win! No wonder apparatchiks everywhere are aghast at being Trumped.

Elections, of course, are as much about the pollies as the policies.

And the first question of the debate was about the Fin Review yarn that if the Liberals win, party conservatives want the deposed PM, Tony Abbott, back in the ministry as Defence Minister.

Asked her response at reading that story over breakfast, Marise Payne, gave a one-sentence response, elegant in what it didn’t say: ‘I was very comfortable knowing that the matter will be a decision for the Prime Minister.’

The Abbott-as-Defence Minister balloon drew a predictably neutral, even cool response, from the Prime Minister.

You don’t give any life to a red-hot thought bubble like that in the middle of an election: make the denial as mild as possible so as not to offend. Give the thing not a breath of encouragement and hope it drops away quickly.

The spectre of the Abbott resurrection fluttered in Marise Payne’s final line, ending proceedings.

The Defence Minister may merely have followed proper form in not tempting the political gods. Or her closing words may have been mightily indicative.

After the election, she looks forward to doing much more in Defence ‘if I continue in this role.’

If. The voters decide. Then the PM gives or takes away—with much depending on the size of the win and the temper of the party.