Former Ambassador calls for ‘massive investment’ in diplomacy amid spiralling China relations

By Matthew Elmas

Wednesday November 11, 2020

Former Australian ambassador to China Geoff Raby before addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, Wednesday, November 11, 2020.

Former Ambassador to China Geoff Raby has warned diplomacy must be returned to the heart of Australia’s foreign relations if the country is to navigate an increasingly ‘dystopian foreign policy landscape’.

Raby—Australia’s Ambassador to China between 2007-11—told the National Press Club the federal government has ‘increasingly marginalised’ the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) since Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s term in the mid-90s.

“It’s not the main player in my view, but I think people just accept that now on China policy,” Raby said.

The former diplomat, who has business interests in China and is listed under the foreign interest transparency scheme, argued Australia must about-face and ‘invest massively’ in diplomacy to avoid being ‘glued at the hip’ to the United States, a ‘receding power’ across the Pacific.

“Diplomacy has to be put back at the very heart of Australia’s foreign relations,” he said.

In a speech about China relations on Wednesday, Raby argued Australia’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with its largest trading partner will come at ‘considerable cost to living our standards’ unless an alternative is found between viewing China as ‘enemy’ and rolling over to let it ‘tickle our tummies’.

“Gone is pax-Britannica, gone too now is pax-America—Australia is on its own,” he said.

Taking aim at Canberra’s handling of the China relationship during the pandemic, Raby said Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call for a global inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 was ‘ill judged’ and that Foreign Minister Marise Payne had not helped with talk of ‘UN weapons-like-inspector-flying-squads’.

Australia was among the first nations in the world in April to call for an investigation into coronavirus, which the United States and many of its allies claim originated in China. Payne said the process must be transparent, but that she trusted China in the ‘work that we need to do together’.

“No one disputed or does dispute the need for one [an inquiry] … Beijing took umbrage at the way we went about announcing [it] … and reacted with its increasingly wolf warrior diplomacy and the threat of economic coercion,” Raby said.

The retired diplomat expects China to continue ratcheting up pressure on Australia, warning the resurgent nation will use “all instruments of its state craft” to influence Australia in the pursuit of its regional interests.

DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson—Raby’s successor in Beijing until 2015—told Senate Estimates last month Australia would not tolerate interference in its affairs and would continue to speak publicly about alleged human rights abuses against Uyghur peoples in Northwest China.

Raby said human rights was an “eternal question” in dealing with China but that Australia had to pick which issues it spoke about publicly carefully, or risk ongoing retribution from the people’s republic.

So far that retribution has come in increasingly severe trade disruptions, including anti-dumping tariffs against the beef and barley industries and an investigation into wine exports—but Raby said Australia’s hands were also dirty in using these tactics.

‘The reality is we’re all sinners in the Church … we use anti-dumping—always have—as a form of protection,” the former World Trade Organisation (WTO) deputy ambassador said. “We’re using anti-dumping as trade harassment and that’s part of our trade policy kit.”

Raby said his former colleagues would be “shocked” to hear that, in apparent acknowledgement his views on the bilateral relationship differ to policy orthodoxy in Canberra.

He’s not the only one. The Victorian state government has heaped criticism on the Commonwealth’s handling of the relationship after it introduced legislation into Parliament that will give the federal government approval rights over state government deals with foreign governments.

The reforms target a belt and road initiative the Victorian Government signed with China in 2018.

Raby was unsure whether the federal government could instruct Victoria to abandon the deal without raising constitutional questions, arguing China hawks were poisoning the waters for state governments and the business community.

“State governments and the business community have allowed their interests to become delegitmised  in highly polarized China debate that we’re having,” he said.

“When it [business] speaks about its interest in the relationship now there’s a phalanx of government officials, ministers and and journalists, who say, oh, they’re just talking their own book, and they’re only looking at their own self interest.”

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