The Abbott strategic trifecta (4): the value of values
20 Dec 2013|


The diplomatic calendar is going to help Tony Abbott work through the current period of diplomatic pain with China. Australia is chairing the G20 and China is the APEC chair as the group celebrates its 25th birthday. Beijing shouldn’t spend too much time beating up Canberra if it is putting energy into the theme it chose for its APEC year: ‘Shaping the Future through Asia-Pacific Partnership.’

Both the G20 and the APEC chairing jobs will focus on shared economic interests, cooperation and the search for consensus. That will aid an Abbott effort to shift the spotlight from his bilateral bother with Beijing, and perhaps help the Prime Minister to do some reframing of his strategic trifecta—the alliance, interests and values that Australia shares with Japan and the US.

In setting out that trifecta on the East China Sea, joining values and interests in the one phrase, Abbott broke the John Howard rule that talking about interests would bring Australia and China together, while values could drive them apart. Plus, he deviated from Howard’s proclamation that Australia’s approach to China would, necessarily, be different from that of the US. As an example of the mantra, here’s Howard in June 1997, in full recovery mode from the diplomatic death of a thousand cuts that Beijing had inflicted on his new government the year before:

I don’t disguise the fact that China is a very illiberal, undemocratic country. Of course it is but my responsibility is to look to the national interest and it’s in Australia’s national interest to build a sound relationship with China. We are a different country from the United States. We are much smaller. Symbolic gestures mean different things for different countries according to their size. I think what we have done over the last few months is build a relationship with China which is to our advantage. It is to the advantage of Australia that we have a close economic relationship. It is to the advantage of Australia that we have an honest political relationship. I haven’t gone overboard about some special relationship with China…

Versions of that mantra marked almost every Howard comment on China (minus the illiberal bit) for the rest of his period in office. If taking his lead from Howard, Abbott would avoid running the ‘values and interests’ line for the same reason he vowed to go quiet on the Anglosphere:

Whenever that term [Anglosphere] is used it tends to prompt a Pavlovian reaction and it’s best not to prompt Pavlovian reactions if you can avoid it.

Abbott’s ‘values and interests’ argument betrays a certain hankering for the starkness of the Cold War, that era of odium theologicum and the sharp hatreds of Communism confronting Capitalism.

The questions always multiply when that simple word ‘values’ skips onto the political and diplomatic stage. What values to value? And who belongs to the ‘our’ in our values? This is the moment when Bertrand Russell strides on from stage left to observe that there’s no nonsense so absurd that it can’t be turned by government propaganda into a majority creed: ‘I am persuaded that there is absolutely no limit to the absurdities that can, by government action, come to be generally believed’. The 20th Century provides ample evidence of the validity of Russell’s rumination on Intellectual Rubbish.

This is no admonition for our leaders to eradicate discussion of values. The caution offered is about being too emphatic about making them ‘our’ values in a way that excludes a lot of other people. The exclusion point brings us to the ‘Asian values’ debate of the 1980s and 1990s.

The ‘Asian values’ arguments mounted by Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew got plenty of backing from Suharto and formed a point of unusual unity between China and Vietnam. At its strongest, ‘Asian values’ formed a club that excluded Australia; Mahathir hammered away at the idea that Australia didn’t belong (in Dr M’s Asian Caucus, there’d be no Caucasians). Among the many things consumed by the firestorm of the Asian Financial Crisis was a lot of Asian values furniture, but Australia does well to remember when values were used to veto its regional ambitions.

The same who’s-in-and-who’s-left-out question informs the thoughts offered by Andrew Davies on the problems inherent in the Quadrilateral (US, Japan, India and Oz) as ‘a values-based concept, organised around shared liberal democratic principles’.

The values advice I’d offer is drawn from my own experience working as a journalist in Southeast Asia, when ‘Asian values’ was still a weapon that could be used against Australia. As a member of the sometimes reviled species Oz journalisticus, I had my share of ‘values’ discussions, particularly when dealing with bureaucrats in Malaysia and Indonesia.

On the few occasions when this turned into an argument that mattered (access in KL, visas for Jakarta) and in a few more formal debates, I found the best tactic was to ditch any effort to define or defend Oz or Western values. Far better to embrace the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and then inquire where Asian values departed from the Declaration. It worked a treat. I commend the Universal Declaration to the Prime Minister as a great place to both start and finish the next time he feels the urge to speak of our values.

 Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of US Air Force, via Wikimedia Commons.