Former Ambassador: Less China Blame Game, More Asia Diplomacy Required

Australia’s Former Ambassador to China, Stephen FitzGerald, is today launching two discussion papers from The Australia Institute’s International and Security Affairs Program, on China and Japan in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The papers argue that much of the corona virus ‘blame game’, including the Australian Government’s call for an international independent inquiry into China’s actions, is misguided and self-interested, while Japan’s mishandling of the crisis reflects the country’s slide towards cronyism.

“I’m pleased to launch these papers and share their concerns around the tone of China coverage and policy during the COVID-19 pandemic and Australia’s blind spot on governance problems in Japan,” said Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China.

“Public discussion of China in Australia has slid from strong scrutiny and justified criticism on a range of issues, into a simple ‘anti-China’ default position, even on the part of seasoned writers.

“Allan Behm’s paper is a welcome critique of the ‘blame game’ that has emerged in place of collaboration and forward-looking policy in the midst of the global pandemic, while Gavan McCormack raises important concerns about Japan.

“Behm’s paper reminds us that the day will come when we will actually have to confront the reality of a strong China, and to think about not how we shout but how we engage, because for us there is no alternative to engagement. Quiet diplomacy offers the means.

“Australia’s diplomatic presence in Asia has long been insufficient. This is now on show with our leaders seemingly making policy via the media rather than with the assistance of our many capable, professional diplomats.

“Australia’s diplomacy in Asia has for some time been less than effective – inattentive to important relationships, and with the option of diplomacy often taking second place to more public and media-referencing positioning.

“We can achieve what we want for Australia, even in the face of the enormous challenge of the political fallout from COVID-19, if we resort first to diplomacy at all levels and the advice and skills of our many highly capable professional diplomats.

“President Trump, Prime Minister Morrison and other leaders appear determined to blame China for the crisis, shifting blame away from their own policy failures,” said Allan Behm, head of The Australia Institute’s International and Security Affairs program and former diplomat.

“Blaming Xi Jinping is far more appealing than any reference to decades of underinvestment in public health.

“The China blame game has been pushed by American commentators for months, but Australian writers, and now the Australian Government, are just as quick to link the crisis to their own grudges against the Chinese Government.

“China is an easy target: it’s big, clumsy in its diplomacy, overbearing towards its neighbours, and just as susceptible to the blame game as its competitors.

“Unfortunately, the ease of blaming China has made Australia’s Asia-watchers reluctant to do the work of monitoring our interests in places that are harder to blame.”

“Japan’s Prime Minister Abe has extraordinary control over the Japanese government and public service,” said Gavan McCormack, Emeritus Professor at the ANU’s College of the Asia-Pacific.

“The Abe Government’s handling of the pandemic crisis has been ham-fisted, with the Diamond Princess cruise ship and reluctant postponement of the Olympics the best known international examples.

“But these are just the latest scandals in a long slide towards autocracy and cronyism in Japan.

“Australia has shown an amazing lack of concern for democracy and good governance in a country long seen as one of Australia’s most important partners.

“Land deals with favoured friends, promotion of fascist content in schools, endorsement of racially discriminatory educational institutions, boondoggle projects, casino licence bribery payments and breaches of political funding laws are just some of the scandals linked to Prime Minister Abe.

“Australian Governments, companies and citizens with an interest in Japan should be very alarmed at the decline in democracy and accountability under Abe.”

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