Aussie personalist diplomacy

by Gregory Clark

Australia is never short of surprises. One is the way it has produced a prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who can talk directly with the Chinese leadership in their language. Reports say his Mandarin Chinese is excellent.

Yet only a generation ago anyone in Canberra who could speak Chinese was seen as a potential subversive (I was there). An Australian foreign minister, Paul Hasluck, could talk about China as a “dog” that had to be restrained from biting the hand of anyone offering friendship.

Australia’s “mateship” ethic is the key. It creates a highly personalist approach to foreign affairs. Canberra either likes you or dislikes you, with roller-coaster results.

For most of the 1950s and ’60s Canberra was irrationally fearful of China. It saw the Vietnam War as Beijing-inspired, the “first step in China’s thrust southward between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.” But precisely because it saw China in such demonic terms it began an intensive program to train some of its diplomats in Chinese, to counter the communist enemy. And when Australians learn a country’s language they can turn very sympathetic, yet another byproduct of the mateship ethic.

I was the first to go through that program, back in the ’50s. My successor ended up as ambassador to China in the ’70s. One of his successors is the current Australian ambassador to Japan. Kevin Rudd followed us through the same program.

Australian universities have been equally diligent. They too have seen China as difficult and deserving close study.

The Chinese have responded to this display of attention. The relationship today between the two countries is firm, and not just because of the strong resource links.

Ironically this has not happened with Japan. Precisely because Tokyo was long seen as friendly and Westernized, far less effort was made by officialdom and the universities to train Japan specialists. Non-Japanese speakers proliferate in the relationship, often with less than beneficial results.

Canberra has long had trouble finding a Japanese speaking ambassador to represent it in Tokyo. As for the possibility of a Japanese-speaking prime minister, forget it. Despite close resource links, the relationship remains brittle, as we see in the current whaling dispute.

In the 1970s I was part of an effort to have the Australia Japan Foundation act as a vehicle to get young Japanese language learners placed in Japan where they could begin to specialize. A similar effort by U.S. universities had long been very successful in producing the many good Japan specialists who sustain the close U.S.-Japan relationship. But Canberra quickly lost interest.

The contrast with the Europeans is even more painful.

Precisely because the Europeans have long seen Japan as difficult, distant and inscrutable, they have gone out of their way to train Japan specialists. In the corridors of Japanese intellectual, political and business activity today, one is far more likely to find a European than an Australian.

Policy to Indonesia has seen the full gamut of Canberra’s personalist contradictions in play. Australia played an honorable postwar role in helping the nation gain independence from the Dutch and encouraging a generation of progressive teachers and intellectuals, thanks largely to a scheme that sent university graduate volunteers to work and live among the people.

As in much of the rest of Asia it had been the leftwing and the progressives who had done most to help resist the Japanese enemy. But in the ’50s Canberra flipped. Communist China had become the enemy. Canberra supported and even encouraged the rise of President Suharto’s military dictatorship as well as the 1966 massacre of a claimed half million leftwing Indonesians, including many of those teachers and intellectuals, seen as agents of Beijing. Likewise, Canberra had seen Lee Kwan Yew as a Beijing agent and had worked strongly to prevent his 1959 election as Singapore prime minister.

During Gough Whitlam’s 1972-75 prime-ministership Canberra went on to endorse Indonesia’s brutal occupation of East Timor, which saw 200,000 or about one-fifth of the population wiped out. Once again, claims of Chinese influence were the excuse. And when Suharto died recently the eulogies were fulsome. A former Australian prime minister, Paul Keating, went out of his way to attend the funeral and to criticize those who had been upset by the East Timor atrocity.

A key factor in Australia’s Indonesia policies has been the strong personal links with Indonesian military and government officialdom. Former President Suharto made a special effort to charm both Whitlam and Keating, the latter, especially, whom he called his younger brother. This led Canberra to ignore the repressions not just in East Timor, but in Aceh province, Papua and elsewhere — repressions that horrified most of the rest of the world, including many in distant Europe and Latin America.

Canberra did not want to offend its “mates” in Jakarta.

Canberra was to claim it had no choice but to accept the Indonesian takeover in East Timor. But did it then have to go on and do all it could in the United Nations and elsewhere to play down criticism of the Indonesian actions, simply to keep the Jakarta mates happy?

This distorted version of mateship has worked elsewhere in Asia. In every conflict where I have seen Australian officials in action, they have invariably sided with the government people they know personally, against the other side, namely the people they do not know, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the conflict.

It is a strange way to run a foreign policy, even if it has turned out for the good with China. But with Japan, for the moment, it has gone the other way. Even whales, it seems, can become “mates” needing the protection by the Australian Navy from Japanese whalers in the south Pacific.

Someone should remind Canberra of how in Tokugawa days the mateship ethic worked in reverse, when some drunken Australian sailors and their mates whaling off the Hokkaido coast invaded the town of Akeshi demanding food and drink and had to be repelled by the Shogun’s troops.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and policy consultant to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra. He is vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.