Talk US, think China
29 Apr 2014|

Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his US counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, address the media following their bilateral meeting in Washington D.C. on 24 April 2012.

For decades, when Australia talked about China it was really thinking about the United States. The ‘say-Beijing-think-Washington’ syndrome explains much about the refusal to recognise China until 1972, and was a continuing component of Canberra cogitation for decades after.

Now, the reverse applies. When talking about the US, often Australia is thinking about China. 

See this in action in Bob Carr’s diary. This is a wonderful work, as the former Foreign Minister approaches Whitlam in his capacity for acid asides and mordant bombast. The great policy feast offered is that of a lifelong tragic for US politics coming to grips with China as ‘the phenomenon of the age’. In the end, Carr has no definitive answer— indeed he adopts the current Canberra position of refusing to recognise it as a question that needs an answer.

As the Abbott government sets out to construct its 2015 Defence White Paper, Carr offers an inside account of the US–China debates. His diary is a rolling policy seminar conducted as a monologue.

At the start, Carr reflects on the fears expressed in 2011 by three former Prime Ministers—Fraser, Hawke and Keating—that Australia had tilted away from China. As a private citizen, Carr’s blogs had put him in the Keating camp. 

In his first weeks in the job, Carr tells his diary he’s ‘still worried about American judgement, about their capacity to be driven by anxiety and paranoia into producing a Cold War with China…their record of walking breezily into two wars since September 11—that’s a worry too’.

A few days after penning those thoughts, Carr jets into Washington for his first meeting with Hillary Clinton: ‘Our cornerstone relationship. Our most important bilateral one. The bottom-line guarantor of our security. And yet…’ 

That hanging, ‘And yet…’ is the thought that haunts the new Foreign Minister.

A punchy memo from Kim Beazley—former Labor leader and now ambassador to Washington—attempts to push back against Carr’s worry that Australia might be too close to its great-power ally. This is Kim at his best, a vivid reminder that when he finishes as ambassador, Beazley must be chained to a desk until he writes the book he has long promised—the definitive history of the alliance with the US.

Carr starts off worried that Oz is a little craven and too desperate in its embrace of the US. Later he has similar worries about the Oz approach to China, judging that Beijing wants Canberra to be disoriented, defensive and fidgety. 

The Foreign Minister frets that in days gone by, Australia did sometimes disagree with the US. But he has an obvious answer to the question: Do we want to live in a world dominated by Chinese or American values?

Midway through the diary, Carr reports a ‘cold blast of realism’ in a departmental paper that concludes China’s rulers see Australia as less important than Canada and only slightly more important than New Zealand: ‘While they will not ever enjoy us being close to the US, it is the one thing that would make them respect us.’ 

Carr’s view that Oz sits a few rungs higher than the Kiwis is bolstered by one of Julia Gillard’s diplomatic wins—the agreement for an annual summit with China. Australia accepts China’s wording on a ‘strategic partnership’, Carr writes, ‘in order to get them to give us guaranteed annual leaders’ meetings’. The huge cavalcade Tony Abbott has just taken to China shows what can be built on that guarantee.

At the end of his journey as Foreign Minister and his rolling US–China seminar, Carr concludes: ‘We don’t have to choose: I had tilted things a little, helped a connection or two, settled on a formulation and it seemed to be holding and to reflect a national interest’. Carr then notes that he never got to talk to Kevin Rudd about the mysteries of the 2009 Defence White Paper or his ‘Cold Warrior’ instincts on China, or about ‘hedging versus over-hedging versus containment.’

‘We don’t have to choose’ rests on the hope Australia won’t be forced to offer an answer to Asia’s defining conundrum—the possibility that two tigers won’t be able to share the same mountain. Confronting the same conundrum, everybody else, too, is madly hedging so they, too, won’t have to choose.

Not since the final days of the Vietnam War has the Australian polity so agonised over the US alliance and Asia’s future course. The pain of the problem is suggested by Canberra’s wish to say there’s no question to answer, no choice necessary.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.