Yet this is, it seems, exactly what Australia is doing.
This Canberra Times column asks if Tony Abbott is acting in Australia's interests or being cleverly manipulated by Shinzo Abe . . .
DANGEROUS FISSURES OPEN IN FOREIGN POLICY
You’ve probably noticed that whenever Tony Abbott is being interviewed, he speaks slowly and carefully. It’s a deliberate strategy. He adopted this pattern because he found that opening his mouth without thinking things through gets him into trouble, and the one-time Rhodes scholar doesn’t like looking like a fool.
That’s why he speaks slowly and precisely when he’s being interviewed – he desperately wants to avoid inadvertent gaffes. There’s a lot of pressure when every utterance is being deconstructed. Kevin Rudd reached for faux mateyness (“fair suck of the sauce bottle”). Julia Gillard wreathed her words in the rubric of stock phrases of baby-like simplicity, learnt by heart ("the Marriage Act is appropriate in its current form, that is, recognizing that marriage is between a man and a woman”). But Abbott’s problem is different. His speech reveals, only too accurately, exactly what he thinks. He knows that letting his mouth run in front of his brain invites disaster – so he slows things down. Watch his eyes carefully next time he’s being interviewed. You see them darting quickly from side to side. He’s weighing up every word carefully before it’s utterance; probing for the unexploded bomb; watching for the accidental discharge. Yet every now and then he drops his guard, and the harpies begin shrieking again . . .
This column’s not about his obvious slip-ups: the moments when jet-lag strikes (“Canadia”) or when the accidental transposition of a few letters causes sudden hilarity (“I’m not the suppository of all wisdom”). Abbott’s acutely embarrassed by these mistakes (and particularly because they seem to be happening more, rather than less frequently). But these don’t represent his real problem. Although he kicks himself when he makes these gaffes what he’s really terrified of is the inadvertent revelation of his innermost thoughts and attitude to the world. That’s because Abbott knows, deep down, that his views aren’t shared by most voters. But revealing this can be extremely dangerous.
Take the mischievous wink he proffered Melbourne radio’s Jon Faine when an ageing sex-worker phoned in. Then the ridiculous, convoluted pretence that the PM was “telling Faine it was OK to precede with the call”. Give me a break! Yet although the (Australian) press fulminates over these slips, they aren’t the ones that matter. Abbott’s unexpurgated views can lead him, and us, down some very dangerous paths as they did last year.
In October the PM was in Brunei for the East Asia Summit. While Abbott was there he held a separate, breakout meeting with Japan’s leader Shinzo Abe. Perhaps it was the excitement of the moment, maybe he simply got carried away with enthusiasm, but (and for whatever reason) Abbott unilaterally blurted out that Japan is now our “bestie”. "As far as I'm concerned”, the PM announced, “Japan is Australia's best friend in Asia and we want to keep it a very strong friendship".
It was a disastrous mistake.
China, our largest trading partner, is also in Asia. Indonesia, our most important neighbor, is in Asia too. In fact, we’ve got lot’s of friends in Asia – and singling out the single country who’s forces have killed more Australians than any other and that’s currently led by a bellicose militarist didn’t seem a very sensible thing to have done. Behind the diplomatic screen there was a sudden storm of very real protest. Abbott learnt his lesson. That’s why there was no repeat of this particular verbal blunder during Shinzo Abe’s recent visit.
But Abbott’s still playing with fire and the security treaty between Japan and Australia is the tinderbox. Who benefits from enacting the treaty? We have no perilous territorial disputes – yet Japan is scrambling jets and deploying ships as it disputes rocks and waters with China. The danger of someone inadvertently opening fire is significant. It’s in Japan’s military interest to bring this conflict on sooner, rather than later. Tokyo believes it still possesses technical superiority (although this is eroding by the day). That’s why Abe’s keen to get us signed up on the dotted line.
This isn’t in Canberra’s interest. Analyst Carlyle Thayer follows the details of China’s very similar dispute with Vietnam in the South China Sea. Broken bows and wrecked boats on both sides provide evidence of a very real conflict that’s occurring around the HD-981 oil-rig, which China towed into the middle of contested waters. But Thayer points out the typhoon season’s beginning. If Beijing doesn’t want to loose its rig permanently, it will have to withdraw. This will allow the opening of negotiations.
Beijing doesn’t accept the status quo and this is unfortunate. Nevertheless the way forward is to encourage it to participate in talks rather than building up new military alliances as part of some futile attempt to ‘contain’ China. This strategy won’t work. China will fight and alliances to overawe the rising dragon are futile.
Very suddenly a real choice has emerged in the way we engage with the future. We need to ensure our politicians are articulating the right words as they frame which course we’re choosing. It’s time for Abbott to outline which alternative we’re taking. Because not everyone may choose to join him on the boat.