Coveting thy neighbour's oxygen

Alan Renouf, former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, once wrote that the success of Australian foreign policy rested on two great objectives: the preservation of national security (and through that, national sovereignty) and the advancement of the wellbeing of the Australian people. The achievement of these two objects, Renouf wrote, is the goal of Australian foreign policy. Essentially any effective foreign policy will secure Australia’s interests while not alienating neighbours and partners. The successful execution of such a commonsense proposition relies on the ability and priorities of those making foreign policy. Recent comments made by the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, raise important questions as to his ability to achieve the goals of Australian foreign policy.

Abbott’s recent forays into foreign affairs raises concerns about the importance he places on the relationships with Australia’s most important regional partners; China and Indonesia. Comments that have been made regarding important bilateral and multilateral issues involving Australia’s interests require clarification; Coalition policy seems certain to propel Australia into a prolonged dispute with Indonesia, while comments made regarding China appear to abandon the long held positions of successive Australian governments of both major political parties.

In his 2009 manifesto Battlelines Abbott barely mentioned the rise of China and the attendant changes for Australia’s foreign policy. When he did turn his attention to matters of foreign affairs Abbott’s contribution was shocking for its dismissive brevity: “Although China is likely to become even stronger in the years ahead, this may not mean much change for Australia’s relationships and foreign policy priorities.” The statement is extraordinary; the rise of China has completely altered the regional balance. This has been an observed phenomenon for some time. To not acknowledge this is either careless or deliberate; either way it is a worrying portent.

While on a recent visit to Beijing Abbott made some statements about China. Apart from comments on Chinese investment in Australia (which revealed more about splits in Coalition policy than anything else), Abbott weighed into the current territorial dispute in the South China Sea. The dispute is a tense and complex one with China asserting claims over those of the competing ASEAN states of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. Australia has long held a policy of asserting a position of neutrality in territorial disputes. This, along with a complimentary policy of supporting all efforts to resolve such disputes through international law, has enjoyed bipartisan support as it is deemed the only sensible and constructive course of action in such a situation. Indeed, given that 60percent of Australia’s merchandise trade passes through that body of water, it is not within Australia’s interests to further exacerbate the tensions by picking a side. But while in Beijing Abbott explicitly expressed support for the claims of the ASEAN member states when he declared that “No big country is entitled to get its way with smaller countries, just because it can.” Although he followed that up with a commitment to the use of international law to resolve the dispute, the content of his comment was unmistakeable. The big country is China, the little countries ASEAN members. Whether Abbott’s comments reflect a shift in Coalition policy, or are simply his own musings is not clear. This is unfortunate. When it comes to relations with a nation such as China clarity of position is an important precondition for stability.

On Australia’s relationship with Indonesia Abbott’s rhetoric has had an unmistakably negative effect. Coalition policy on Indonesia seems to be centred on a single issue: asylum seekers. Looking to maximise the issue with his domestic constituency Abbott has promised to have asylum seeker boats towed back to Indonesia, a move emphatically opposed by the Indonesian government. In an attempt to allay their concerns Abbott has promised that within one week of his election as Prime Minister he will travel to Jakarta to explain his policy directly. Despite such a gesture the Indonesian position is unmovable. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is reported to have conveyed a message that such a policy would be unacceptable to the Indonesian government. How Coalition policy would address this significant difference in not clear. While Abbott has promised he will work to deepen relations with Indonesia, his embrace of domestic partisanship and his promise to turn back the boats is putting at risk Australia’s most important bilateral relationship. Abbott claims he seeks to strengthen relations with Indonesia; such aspirations are incompatible with the promises he has made to the Australian people.

Making foreign policy is not an exact process and requires great ingenuity and flexibility. But as Renouf wrote, the execution of foreign policy must be motivated by Australia’s interests and not domestic politics. By hinting at supporting particular claimants in the South China Sea dispute Abbott has jeopardised Australia’s relations with China, an act which may contribute to the heightening of tensions in that area. An Abbott led Coalition government, committed to turning back asylum seeker boats, is bound to have a difficult relationship with the Indonesian government. In this instance Abbott has allowed domestic politics to mitigate Australia’s national interest. Ultimately the Coalition’s approach to foreign affairs is messy, inconsistent and hypocritical. Greater scrutiny must be applied to their policies in future, to test if they are truly fit to be given responsibility for our national interests.