Marise Payne to take up China reset. Julie Bishop's legacy. Myanmar ‘genocide’. McCain snub. By Hamish McDonald.

China reset now in Payne’s hands

Australia’s former foreign minister Julie Bishop (left) and her replacement Marise Payne.
Australia’s former foreign minister Julie Bishop (left) and her replacement Marise Payne.
Credit: William West – Pool / Getty Images

Having decapitated itself of its two most domestically popular figures, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, the Coalition has also removed its two most polished interlocutors with the outside world.

Scott Morrison had his first turn outside Australia as prime minister this week in Jakarta, where a foreign policy “achievement” awaited – a free trade agreement with Indonesia long in negotiation but still only one page of generalities.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo will be happy to sign it, knowing it means nothing much in effect. As former Office of National Assessments specialist Ken Ward has written, in Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review, the president and his chief rival Prabowo Subianto are likely to compete in next year’s elections on platforms of economic nationalism, having placated the Islamists.

New foreign minister Marise Payne will be a quieter operator than Bishop, who honed her advocacy skills as a barrister. But as defence minister for the past three years, Payne went to all the big strategic forums and joined Bishop in two-plus-two meetings with key foreign partners. There will be a seamless transition. Payne takes Morrison’s place at the Pacific Islands Forum summit next week in Nauru, where the client government is trying to keep the asylum seekers out of sight.

Payne’s biggest challenge will be pursuing the “reset” of relations with China recently launched by Turnbull. Amid the leadership turmoil, the government slipped out the announcement that because of security risks, enterprises “likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government that conflicts with Australian law” would be barred from new 5G mobile networks. China’s Huawei and ZTE have been told this means them.

Bishop’s legacy

What will be Julie Bishop’s legacy in the foreign affairs post?

She followed Coalition predecessors in nurturing the United States alliance, but there were no great conceptual inputs to the big issue of the time – the rise of China. The thread of trying to balance Australia’s reliance on the US nuclear shield with the global disarmament aims of the non-proliferation treaty, pushed by Bill Hayden in the 1980s, ended last year with Australia’s opposition to a new United Nations treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. There was no big peace initiative, such as Gareth Evans managed on Cambodia.

She must have helped shoot down two of Tony Abbott’s craziest ideas in her first two years in the job – sending a brigade to retake Mosul from Daesh, and a battalion to secure the MH17 crash site in Ukraine – but couldn’t stop him making things worse with Jakarta after the Edward Snowden leaks about our spies tapping the then president’s wife’s phone. Nor could she have stopped the disbandment of her portfolio’s separate foreign aid organisation, the highly regarded AusAID and the stripping of $7 billion from the foreign aid budget over three years, in the first Abbott–Hockey budget.

On the positive side, she did concentrate the remaining aid budget on the South Pacific. Under Turnbull, she fought back against the “diplomatic deficit” pointed out by the Lowy Institute, adding some new consulates and missions to what had become one of the leanest networks of foreign embassies among the large and medium powers of the OECD. Her signature innovation will be the New Colombo Plan, which has sent some 10,000 graduates and students from Australia for semesters and internships in Asia.

But it may be too early to write a line under her political and foreign affairs career – Bishop seems to be in no hurry to exit parliament. She may be in the fight to pick up the pieces of the Liberal Party if Morrison can’t save the government.

Myanmar ‘genocide’

It’s not as if there are no crises, no searing examples of mass human suffering, for an ambitious foreign minister from a medium power to tackle in concert with counterparts, as Evans did with the late Ali Alatas of Indonesia to end the old Cambodian stalemate.

A vast shanty city near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh holds the 700,000 of Myanmar’s Rohingya community expelled in the sweep launched by Myanmar’s army, known as the Tatmadaw, a year ago. This week, a fact-finding mission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council gave its damning report on the Tatmadaw operations against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.

The panel, chaired by former Indonesian attorney-general Marzuki Darusman, includes the Australian human rights lawyer Chris Sidoti. It found the Tatmadaw’s actions amounted to “the gravest crimes under international law” and recommended that its commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and five other officers be investigated and prosecuted for genocide and other war crimes.

“Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages,” the report said. “The Tatmadaw’s tactics are consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats, especially in Rakhine State, but also in northern Myanmar.”

In Rakhine State, the former home of the expelled Rohingya, the mission found evidence of extermination and deportation. “The crimes in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts.”

The UN mission said that Aung San Suu Kyi, the effective head of Myanmar’s government, though with little constitutional control over the military and police, had not used her position “nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine State”.

A separate UNHRC report issued this week found the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen had committed war crimes by killing thousands of civilians, torturing detainees, raping civilians and using child soldiers as young as eight.

Saudi and Emirati air strikes – supported by US intelligence, airborne control and aerial refuelling – had caused the most civilian casualties, indiscriminately hitting residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, jails, boats and hospitals. A naval blockade impeded food supplies.

The UN report also said the Houthi rebels, an Iran-backed Shiite group controlling northern Yemen and fighting the Saudi–Emirati forces, had been accused of shelling civilians, torturing detainees, recruiting children to fight and blocking access to humanitarian agencies, and thus may also have committed war crimes.

“None have clean hands,” said former British Army legal officer Charles Garraway, who helped prepare the report. “Despite the severity of the situation, we continue to witness a total disregard of the suffering of the people of Yemen.”

McCain snub

US President Trump showed more churlishness this week towards Senator John McCain, who recently died of brain cancer, by giving desultory condolences. In one of his last testaments, McCain asked that Trump not attend his funeral.

Trump’s feud with Canada continued. He announced agreement on a revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto, serving out his term after his recent election defeat, which could boost US auto industry employment. Canada could sign up too, Trump indicated, or be left to negotiate a separate deal.

The president also railed against former confidants who “flipped” to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigations into Russian collusion with his election campaign and associated matters. The latest could be The Trump Organization’s long-time chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, who’s been given legal immunity if he tells what he knows about hush-money payments to Trump’s women. The president suggested he wanted to fire Attorney-General Jeff Sessions for not stopping Mueller.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 1, 2018 as "China reset now in Payne’s hands".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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