‘America is one of us in a way that China isn’t’, says Australia’s former PM Tony Abbott, adding Beijing should ‘watch its step’ on Taiwan
But former foreign affairs minister Bob Carr blasts US hypocrisy on trade as the pair debate ‘how to handle China’
should better support the
in its growing confrontation with
, a former prime minister said, while an ex-foreign minister and political rival accused Washington of hypocrisy for pressuring Canberra to get tougher on Beijing.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott and former foreign affairs minister Bob Carr sparred on China policy on Wednesday at a discussion event in Sydney held against the backdrop of fraying
. The event, titled “Abbott vs Carr: how to handle China?”, was hosted by the Centre for Independent Studies, a centre-right think tank.
Abbot, who led Australia between 2013 and 2015, said Canberra could not let Washington do “all the heavy lifting” to uphold international norms and should hew closer to the administration of
as it ramped up its
“We are now in a period of full-blown great power competition and rather than playing on both their houses, we have to be fair dinkum and say, ‘Look, America is one of us, so to speak, in a way that China isn’t,’” said Abbott, using a colloquialism for “genuine” or “truthful”.
Abbot, who led the centre-right Liberal Party, said China had changed since his time in office, during which he endorsed Australia’s membership of the Beijing-headquartered
. Abbott, who was also part of the John Howard government that signed a since-scrapped extradition deal with China in 2007, pointed to the “oppression in
, the open belligerence in
, the aggression toward neighbours
, the vicious repression of the
”, and an attitude that relationships with other countries could only be accepted to the extent that China was “calling the shots”.
Abbott said Australia should carry out naval patrols within 12 nautical miles of features claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, a long-standing wish in Washington. Canberra declined to commit to the patrols at the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultation last month in Washington, despite joining its treaty ally in declaring Beijing’s claims in the
to be illegal and pledging greater cooperation toward the “stability, prosperity, and resilience of the Indo-Pacific”. Beijing claims up to 90 per cent of the strategically important waterway, despite a tribunal at The Hague in 2016 ruling its stance had no basis in international law.
“Of course we make our own decisions and of course we decide our own attitudes to countries like China,” Abbott said. “But it shouldn’t surprise anyone if 99 times out of 100, our position turns out to be almost identical with the American one, because we have almost identical values and we have very similar interests.”
But Carr, Australia’s top diplomat from 2012-2013, accused the Trump administration of hypocrisy for pushing Canberra to confront China. He highlighted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s warning last year that Australia should not sell its “soul for a pile of soybeans” – a reference to the country’s dependence on Chinese exports – just months before the Trump administration signed a major
with Beijing that heralded a windfall for American exporters.
“It’s easy for America to get us hot and bothered about China and then quietly slip into the markets that we lose,” said Carr, adding it was a “bit rich for our American friends and partners to keep telling us there’s a contradiction in what we do”.
Carr, who served under Abbott’s rival and predecessor Kevin Rudd as a member of the centre-left Labor Party, said Canberra was correct to pursue “a pragmatic, national-interest based policy on China”.
“We take that alliance very seriously, it’s one of the three foundations of Australian foreign policy,” he said. “We are still capable of difference with the Americans when we assert an Australian national interest.”
Carr said he did not disagree with Canberra’s stance on points of contention with Beijing such as
and the need for an international inquiry into the
pandemic, but the current government had been ham-fisted in its approach to diplomacy.
“The way Australia attempted to get that inquiry was, in my view and in the view of others, diplomatically inept,” he said. “What about building coalitions with the Europeans, with friends like
and India, and what about involving China in the process from the very start?”
Relations between Canberra and Beijing have sunk to their lowest in decades amid disputes over issues including Hong Kong, the South China Sea, alleged
incidents against people of Asian appearance in Australia, even as trade between the sides has boomed.
Australian exports to China hit a record A$14.6 billion (US$10.4 billion) in June, fuelled by imports of iron ore and coal as Beijing sought to kick-start economic growth following the lifting of coronavirus lockdowns across the country. The share of exports to China reached an all-time of 48.8 per cent, despite Beijing this year slapping restrictions on Australian
. The trade measures were widely seen in Australia as retaliation for Canberra’s push for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado that the region was an “epicentre of strategic competition”, and building an alliance of like-minded countries would be a “critical priority”.
Both Abbott and Carr warned of the increasing risk of military conflict between Washington and Beijing in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait.
“There’s an immediate task on Australia and other nations and that is to exercise what influence we can with both sides about bringing them back from the brink,” said Carr.
Abbot said a military confrontation over Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, would be a “catastrophe for the world”.
“There’s really only one aggressor here, and that is the very large and powerful country which is threatening to take back by force a liberal democracy of 25 million people,” Abbott said. “And rather than discouraging the friend of that liberal democracy from running to its aid if needs be, I think we should be saying very clearly that Taiwan does have friends and China is the one that should be watching its step here.”