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Sinking DFAT cedes influence to ASPI

Bruce Haigh
Bruce Haigh - "DFAT has overseen the biggest Australian foreign policy disaster in 70 years" 

| Pearls & Irritations | Edited extracts

MELBOURNE - Despite the line spun by Frances Adamson AC, recently retired head of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the department appears to be in the process of being scuttled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

Speaking as a guest on ABC Insiders, Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne gave an unenlightening tour of the foreign policy issues facing Australia, from ‘all the way with the USA’ to ‘it is all China’s fault’.

The audience learnt nothing. Well, perhaps not quite.

Ms Payne from time to time appeared to refresh her memory from dot points.

Both the questions and her responses appeared to be based on policy developed and articulated by ASPI.

Perhaps this indicated the extent to which DFAT is taking on water after being rammed by ASPI, the organisation that bills itself as an “independent, non-partisan think tank that produces expert and timely advice for Australia's strategic and defence leaders”.

If what Frances Adamson had to say at the National Press Club on 23 June is an indicator of departmental thinking, then it has run up the white flag.

Her speech was a defence of the indefensible, it was an apologia for an Australian government that has failed on every undertaking it has embarked upon.

From climate change, Covid, China, the Pacific, Timor-Leste, Africa, South-East Asia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, renewable energy, manufacturing, universities, Indigenous Australians, welfare, refugees and the arts.

You name the issue and the Liberal National Party has failed.

I know it is hard to represent and develop policy for a dysfunctional government, but giving such a government what it wants without a fight is surely just as hard, and it is perhaps even harder to administer and comply with its failures.

Certainly, that was the case for many public servants and defence personnel with respect to the Tampa and children overboard affairs.

Difficulties were building in the relationship with China for the past five or six years, but instead of seeking to ameliorate areas of difference and points of friction, the government has magnified them for political reasons.

It was a ‘conversation’ with daffy Donald Trump that pushed skittish Scott Morrison into calling for an ‘independent’ inquiry into the coronavirus last year.

Go back and listen to the tone in Morrison’s voice, the cockiness and the arrogance. It rankled many here in Australia, it certainly rankled the Chinese, who at the state level are very alive to nuance.

It was crude, and that crudity has been repeated and reinforced by Marise Payne, Simon Birmingham and more recently Dan Tehan.

There are newspapers, academics and think tanks that seek, and so far have succeeded, in taking a hard line against China. None of it in my opinion constructive.

There is talk of war. All this talk emboldened and indeed encouraged by the United States, which tells us it has our backs but then actively seeks and succeeds in picking up 40% of the trade we have lost to Chinese sanctions.

For a long time we had a difficult relationship with Indonesia, a lot of the problems centred on its takeover of East Timor.

There was a strong anti-Indonesia lobby group in Australia, comprising academics, journalists, church and other groups.

The US always sought a strong relationship with Indonesia and because of that Australia did likewise.

I remember that managing the relationship was not always easy. It was a difficult path to tread for the foreign affairs department and for the government.

Indonesia at that time gave Australia many hard issues to deal with. But the lines of communication were kept open and alive by both sides, despite at times some very acrimonious exchanges.

And why were the lines kept open by Australia? Because the government wanted them to be.

And they could be with China. China is looking for an apology for Morrison’s oafish and thoughtless statement, all the more so because he was so obviously the lickspittle of Trump.

And Morrison continues to rub salt in the wound, sending Australian warships to sail with US and UK ships in the China Sea.

And why? China is not going to threaten the shipping lanes it needs.

Yes, China needs pushback on its cyber incursions, ‘education camps’ in Xinjian and heavy handedness in Hong Kong.

And just to be even handed, the US needs pushback on cyber security, police brutality toward black Americans, gun laws, Iran, Israel and China.

At the National Press Club, Frances Adamson said:

“Few really grasp that this great power (China) is still dogged by insecurity as much as driven by ambition. That it has a deeply defensive mindset – perceiving external threats even as it pushes its interests over those of others.

“It (China) is too ready to suspect containment instead of judging issues on their individual merits. This siege mentality – this unwillingness to countenance scrutiny and genuine discussion of differences – serves nobody’s interests.”

China is contained, that is the point of US defence strategy. Surely Adamson is aware of that?

And the containment is extensive and comprehensive, including seven bases or facilities in Australia.

Without making too fine a point of it, I would say Australia has a siege mentality and has since the 1890s. A siege mentality founded on the Yellow Peril which is alive and well today.

At the National Press Club last year, the Chinese Embassy raised a list of 14 points of difference, problems and irritants in its relationship with Australia.

That was not wise or diplomatic if the aim of public discourse was to improve the relationship.

This was a Chinese diplomatic blunder, done as part of a 'wolf warrior' diplomacy which has now been reined in.

It was best left by Australia, unless the intention was to kick China in the shin.

Finally, it is not up to China to improve the relationship, it is up to China and Australia. To put it all on China sounds very much like Liberal National Party talking points for Sky News.

Adamson has left a sinking ship. It may be salvaged but it will be a different vessel.

Policy will not form part of its refurbished functions. That will be claimed by ASPI.

DFAT will become a clearing house for downgraded information, meet and greet, hale fellow well met, a flier of the flag overseas.

DFAT has overseen the biggest Australian foreign policy disaster in 70 years with the collapse of the relationship with China. This is not a matter of concern for ASPI.

Bruce Haigh is an Australian political commentator and former diplomat


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