The Prime Minister’s candid appraisal of Australia’s primordial motivations, given with a grin in private conversation with Germany’s Angela Merkel last November, is a long way from the prolix platitudes of official documents.
And it sits in awkward contrast with Mr Abbott’s personal assertions of friendship, such as the one that he made to his Chinese counterpart the following day.
“It is a joy to have friends come from afar,” said Mr Abbott, in the first line of his welcoming speech to President Xi Jinping to Parliament House on November 17, 2014.
The fear-and-greed comment was made in a private conversation with Ms Merkel at Kirribilli House on Sunday, November 16.
Mr Abbott was answering a surprise opening question from Ms Merkel about what drives Australia’s China policy, according to sources on both sides of the conversation.
The rare leak of a sensitive leader-to-leader conversation holds parallels with the “brutal realist” formula, which Kevin Rudd offered to secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2009, prompting recriminations from China and a personal apology from Ms Clinton when it was broadcast by WikiLeaks.
Initially, Mr Abbott’s comments left experts speechless when contacted by Fairfax Media.
“Oh my goodness,” said Linda Jakobson, founder of China Matters, a platform dedicated to improving the quality of public debate about China. “Fear and greed. I mean, hmm. The Prime Minister captured the bipolar nature of Australia’s attitude to China.”
The public airing will cause discomfort but it also encapsulates the emotional poles of Australia’s most vexed international conversation.
On the one hand Mr Abbott has to cater to the demands of China-reliant tycoons, led by Andrew Forrest, James Packer and Kerry Stokes, as well as the economic imperatives expressed by his Treasurer and Trade Minister. The mere slowing of Chinese economic growth is now shredding Treasurer Joe Hockey’s budget.
On the other hand, Mr Abbott has to respond to security challenges laid before him by his Foreign Minister, intelligence directors, military chiefs and Asia-Pacific partners and allies.
These include unauthorised visits to Australia by “fox hunting” Chinese police, and bold assertions of power around crucial trading sea lanes in the South China Sea, where it is building a string of fake islands to advance its territorial claims.
The fact that Ms Merkel, like Ms Clinton, sought the views of an Australian prime minister illustrates how many Western world leaders see Australia as having a front-row seat for what to them is a pressing but more distant dilemma.
Mr Abbott’s unvarnished comments helped generate a personal rapport between two of the least-similar leaders in the Western world as they moved through a series of probing questions about the science of climate change, and the ethics of asylum seeker policies. The conversation ended with uproarious laughter on both sides, observers say.
The conservative Australian leader and his comparatively progressive German counterpart resolved to establish a high-level advisory board to promote new ideas on scientific, cultural and commercial co-operation.
The board members were announced last week including German-speaking Finance Minister Mathias Cormann; former Sydney lord mayor Lucy Turnbull; businessman Michael Chaney; theatre director Barrie Kosky; Nobel prize-winning scientist Brian Schmidt; and the government’s chief advisory on the Defence White Paper, Peter Jennings.
Mr Rudd, in his leaked conversation with Ms Clinton, said his policy was to integrate China into multilateral institutions “while also preparing to deploy force if everything goes wrong”.
Those ideas were enshrined in a confidential December 2010 policy document and are summarised internally as “engage-and-hedge”. That policy survived unchanged under Julia Gillard and now, Mr Abbott.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald – ‘Fear and greed’ drive Australia’s China policy, Tony Abbott tells Angela Merkel
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