Inserting iron in the idiom on the East China Sea
2 Dec 2013|

Australian Prime Minister AbbottWhen you change the government, you change the country, a previous Prime Minister once said. And one of the many things that changes is the way a new government thinks about international relations and the foreign policy language it uses or is prepared to adopt.

A new aspect of this rule is that when Australia changes the governing party—first under Howard, then Rudd and now Abbott—the new government immediately has a serious argument with China.

The previous column noted one Abbott change in language that involves a significant shift in talking to China. The first version of this hardening of Australian-endorsed wordage was in the October communiqué from the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue between Australian, Japan and the US:

Ministers opposed any coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo in the East China Sea. They underlined the importance of efforts to reduce tensions and to avoid miscalculations or accidents in the East China Sea, including by improving marine communications.

With that as the language benchmark, the November 20AUSMIN communiqué went to the same place, with a whole section devoted to ‘Global and regional maritime security’, in which the US and Australia ‘reaffirmed their commitment to oppose any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea’.

If you were a defence analyst in a Japanese think tank, you might be wondering (as one of ASPI’s correspondents did):

What has prompted the Australian government to express such new language as ‘oppose any coercive and unilateral actions to change the status quo’, which was never heard before the 2013 Trilateral Strategic Dialogue. Is the change of government in any way a factor here? Or, more simply, has the changing strategic situation encouraged Australia to take a firmer stance?

My short answer is that the change of government has had a lot to do with Australia’s willingness to sign up to ‘coercive and unilateral’. Indeed, I’d argue that if Labor had won the federal election in September, Australia wouldn’t have gone along with Tokyo and Washington in injecting such iron into the idiom issuing from the Trilateral and AUSMIN.

If you accept that judgement, then it points to an important realignment of the Australian position on the change of government. To support this analysis, consider the much milder language the Gillard government preferred in recent joint statements with the US and Japan.

Go back to June to the Trilateral between the Defence Ministers of the US, Japan and Australia on the sidelines of the ShangriLa dialogue in Singapore. At that meeting, Labor’s Defence Minister Stephen Smith, signed up to a set of ‘strategic goals for trilateral cooperation’ that lent heavily on such laudable communiqué standbys as peace, confidence and cooperation:

  • build a community of interest in the region that promotes peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, and that establishes defence cooperation as a regional norm
  • strengthen each nation’s capacity to respond to regional challenges, including regional disasters and the provision of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, through increased practical cooperation
  • promote freedom of navigation and maritime security in the region’s sea lanes
  • improve regional defence capacities to support long term regional peace and stability
  • build confidence and encourage transparency within the region.

Look also at the communiqué from the 4th Australia–Japan Foreign and Defence Ministerial Consultations in September last year. Then, Labor’s Foreign and Defence Ministers and their Japanese counterparts pledged to work on:

Continuing to build positive, comprehensive relationships with China, in support of China’s responsible and constructive participation in the international rules-based order and role in promoting regional prosperity and stability while encouraging improved openness and transparency with respect to China’s military modernization and activities.

There was nothing about the East China Sea among the 51 numbered paragraphs, but there was this sentiment on things maritime:

Promoting regional adherence to norms of maritime security and safety, including freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, and the rules-based peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea and beyond in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Australia has shifted beyond promoting freedom of navigation and secure sea lanes to a specific warning, directed at China, about altering the status quo. We’ve gone some distance from what Australia was prepared to endorse at the Defence Trilateral in June to what’s now sayable at the Foreign Affairs Trilateral in November; a new government means different language. What might have been only implied or assumed or even avoided under Labor is stated with some force by the Coalition.

Circumstances change, of course, and governments have to rethink their positions. And the Labor mindset I’ve been referring to is that of the Gillard government. This was a government that prided itself on stabilising and improving relations with China after the stormy period of the first Rudd administration. For Gillard, the crowning achievement in April this year was the ‘strategic partnership’ with China and the prize of the agreement for an annual bilateral leadership summit.

If Labor had won in September, the government would’ve been headed by Rudd, the self-described ‘brutal realist’ on things Chinese. But he’d have been cautious about injecting too much iron into the idiom over the East China Sea and thus risking the annual China summit Gillard had just secured.

To pursue this argument is to turn our gaze from China to Japan, to look at what Kevin Rudd (and Labor) would be prepared to do with Shinzo Abe. And in turning to Japan, in the next column, we can make some judgements about what Tony Abbott will be prepared to do with Abe, by looking at what Abbott’s political ‘father’, John Howard, did do with Abe.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan.