The great foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, saw no need to spell out British foreign policy in some vast official paper. In words which still echo around the world’s chanceries, he declared that ‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.’
What more can be said, especially for this country whose most pressing diplomatic problem is to avoid becoming Beijing’s client state, with new allegations emerging about Senator Dastyari’s role? Our call over a year ago for a commission to advise the Senate on whether he is constitutionally disqualified from sitting because he is ‘under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power’ has taken on a new urgency.
But rather than addressing this, the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, the Left’s favourite to replace Malcolm Turnbull, ordered the ‘construction’ of a vast ‘philosophical framework’ for the purpose of ‘guiding Australia’s engagement’. To be ‘good for a decade’, the Minister indicated it would remain in place ‘regardless of international events’.
But according to Denis Healey, when Harold Macmillan was asked what exactly determined foreign policy, he replied drily: ‘Events, dear boy, events’.
Having a foreign policy regardless of events is rather like the model hospital in Yes Minister, the one which had no patients. It is perhaps not so surprising for a government which has an energy policy delivering ever decreasing, more expensive and less reliable energy, a superannuation policy which takes from the self-funded, an education policy costing more to deliver declining standards, a broadband policy costing billions and delivering lower speeds, a water policy transferring water rights from farmers to speculators, and a defence policy shoring up government seats and delivering obsolete submarines in the distant future. This is the government which foolishly surrendered Parliament’s constitutional role to determine MP’s qualifications and put the postal survey on same-sex marriage without observing what the Swiss taught us to be crucial, that the relevant legislation be on the table before the people vote, not afterwards .
But if this government must indulge in the superfluous luxury of white paper writing, it should at least have respected Parliament by tabling it there rather than launching it at a rally in a government theatre.
In any event it is doubtful whether foreign affairs lends itself to such an exercise given the very nature of diplomacy, whose language ranges from fawning, subtlety, straight talking and of course, threats. This can hardly be frozen into the public aspic of a white paper.
Any paper today must, at least by fashion, contain or refer to computer projections, even if they are as famously wrong as those on global warming. They are included, but so are the present and projected GDPs of selected powers, especially those of China and the US.
For example, just what conclusion can be safely drawn from the projection that the Chinese economy will be significantly larger than the American in 2030? It is salutary to recall that in 1700, France had an economy twice as large as Britain’s and a population three times the size, while India had an economy eight times that of Britain and a population 20 times larger.
And yet within a few decades Britain was the dominant world power and mistress of India.
As for trade, people don’t indulge in this because they love us; they buy from us for at least one of two considerations, price and quality.
But while communist China encourages trade she does not hesitate to punish disobedience by cutting it off. This is in addition to her highly protectionist policies, and an attitude to intellectual property hardly consistent with the rule of law. Then there is her cavalier approach to a range of territorial disputes and the creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea to advance her claims. The fact is, communist China is in the process of bringing a range of countries into her sphere of influence.
Once there, a country’s independence is forfeited.
Knowing that no other comparable country is as economically dependent as Australia is on Beijing, instead of reducing that dependence, the Turnbull government has quite appallingly bent over backwards to increase it. This has been especially so with the ready approval of the transfer of vast tracts of rich prime agricultural land to entities owned by or under the control of the communists, to say nothing of mines and residential land and even the extraordinary lease of the Port of Darwin .
For years now, our politicians have tended to treat Beijing with special deference reserved to no other power, as far as possible ignoring its human rights excesses. If this were a standard approach to all foreign countries, it could be criticised but would be at least understandable. But while China is effectively left in peace to breach human rights, the megaphone has come out over the years to denounce the slightest infraction by Fiji. When Papua New Guinea was considering abandoning plans for scheduled mid-year elections, the then Foreign Minister and noted sinologist Bob Carr openly threatened sanctions.
We are now seeing the emergence of a powerful lobby among our political and other elites, supporting an increasing role for Beijing in Australian affairs.
They clearly approve of the Turnbull government’s policies which are making us economically dependent. The lobby wants us to go one step further, send off our allies, the Americans, and go some way towards accepting the suzerainty of Beijing.
This is despite the fact that any naïve belief that as China becomes richer she will become a liberal democracy has been well and truly swept aside under Xi Jinping’s dictatorship. Now is not the time to come closer to China, but to be wary indeed.
Once entering that particular web, it will be difficult and increasingly unpleasant to withdraw.