The Abbott strategic trifecta (3): death by a thousand cuts
19 Dec 2013|
Chef's Knife

Tony Abbott is about to understand the pain inflicted by China when it applies the diplomatic version of the death of a thousand cuts. By invoking his strategic trifecta—alliance, interests and values—in standing with the US rather than China, Abbott has most definitely crossed China’s view of its own important interests.

Abbott is proving what is becoming an uncomfortable rule of Oz diplomacy. Any new Australian government will have problems with Beijing and receive the thousand cuts treatment. What happened to Howard and Rudd is to be revisited on Abbott.

When Abbott voiced his trifecta, the Oz interest he nominated was in free navigation of the air and sea. His government is now finding that in this diplomatic game it is difficult to focus on just one set of interests; linkage, linkage and linkage is the language of a thousand cuts.

As an example, Abbott’s trifecta means his effort to get a bilateral free trade agreement with China within 12 months has gone from deeply difficult to highly unlikely. The way Beijing applies the cuts requires the pain to be felt on all available fronts. This mentality would see an FTA with Australia as rewarding Abbott for bad behaviour.

The Howard and Rudd experiences show that the affront Australia has caused to the feelings of the Chinese people will draw responses that range through squeeze, no-shows, slow-downs, stoppages, cancelations and plenty of bombast. The nastiness spreads beyond the diplomatic realm. Howard came to understand his first-year-in-government problem with China because of the noise that started coming from Australian business. Almost every Australian sector trying to work in China started screaming at Canberra: ‘Make this pain stop!’

Some areas are just too important to feel much pain: the minerals trade, of course, but also now the people ‘trade’—last year 770,000 Australians visited China, an increase of nearly 7%. And China is now Australia’s second largest inbound market after New Zealand, with nearly 720,000 Chinese arriving in Oz in the 12 months to October, an increase of 17%. Such figures are the sort of stuff Beijing will refer to when it invites the Abbott government to understand the many dimensions of its interests with China.

The Howard and Rudd experiences offer a script for the thousand cuts experience. The primary observation is that the Chinese leadership orders the pain to start and eventually it’s a meeting with a Chinese leader that produces an agreement that the pain should stop.

Howard’s offence as a new PM in 2006 had been his enthusiastic and vocal embrace of the US alliance, especially the deployment of the US 7th fleet through the Taiwan Straits when China was firing missile ‘tests’ that splashed down around Taiwan. At the same time, almost inadvertently, Howard’s government was also punching other negative buttons on relations with Taiwan and policy on Tibet. There was nothing inadvertent about the pain that came back.

Howard’s talk with Jiang Zemin at the APEC summit at the end of 2006 was the start of a sustained policy of pragmatic engagement aimed at healing the diplomatic wounds. Howard said the meeting with Jiang ‘removed any peripheral doubts that may have emerged’ and had established a framework to ‘overcome, absorb, handle, massage, however you want to describe it, those differences as time goes by’. For the rest of the Howard era, that was the script. The Prime Minister embraced the US alliance but—as much as possible—China would be dealt with separately. Here was an area of fundamental agreement between the Coalition and Labor—unlike earlier eras, the relationship with China would not be refracted through the ANZUS framework.

Howard started to talk about China’s right to its ‘prerogatives’. An example of this was the decision in 2007 to seek a bilateral dialogue with China on human rights while withdrawing support for an annual United Nations human rights resolution criticising China. Here was Howard doing values in a way that served interests.

Beijing’s sour turn on Kevin Rudd bears a resemblance to the way the Labor Party fell out of love with Lu Kewen. Australia’s Mandarin-speaking PM was supposed to be more sensitive than most to the feelings and interests of Beijing’s leadership; he was seen as trashing Beijing’s feelings in much the same way he was seen to mistreat the Labor caucus. Rudd’s speech in Beijing, delivered in Chinese, talking tough on Tibet was probably more significant than the 2009 Defence White paper in bringing on the thousand cuts.

Where Howard framed his response to the cuts campaign as an acknowledgement of China’s prerogatives, in Rudd’s case it was more a matter of the room Australia might have to move. The weight had shifted to China and Canberra could feel the force.

As well as the laying on of hands by one of China’s leaders to get a ceasefire, the end to the punishing period for Rudd also required a written document setting out the terms of the armistice. This was a joint statement on the bilateral relationship signed in October, 2009. To help your understanding of this text, here’s my translation of how those truce terms should be read.

Abbot will need to parse the language of the declaration. And just to help him, he’ll get lots of advice like this from Labor’s Foreign Affairs shadow, Tanya Plibersek, about his government’s clumsy work in sending ‘a very clear message that was received in China as Australia taking sides at a time when we don’t need to take sides. We need to reduce tension in the area, not escalate it’.

As quickly as possible, Abbott wants to reach the end of the cuts campaign and return to the 2009 truce language of shared interests, with all that lovely stuff about cooperation, potential and prospects. In that effort, as my next column will argue, the PM will need to start getting a little vaguer about values.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user TESFox.