While we’re focused on Asia: Part II, Tibet
Australia’s foreign policy, according to Foreign Minister Bob Carr in a piece published the day after Australia’s UN Security Council win, is not only about protecting our national interest, it is “about doing the right thing”. If so, we should have expected more from the most significant work on Australian foreign policy for many years.
As an advocate for human rights and democratic freedoms in Tibet, I was encouraged when the Gillard government announced its plan for a white paper on Australia in the Asian Century. Our understanding of Asia, and China in particular, was in dire need of updating. When it came to Tibet, Chinese propagandists had spent years happily filling the vacuum left by the dearth of information escaping the Great Firewall and waning government interest in the region.
During the consultation phase, several Australian NGOs provided thoughtful input on how Australia’s deepening economic relationships with Asia might also support the wellbeing of disadvantaged or marginalised groups, particularly those paying for China’s “economic miracle”.
None suggested either confrontation or holding back from greater engagement and integration. A submission from Australia Tibet Council merely encouraged that we “adopt a long-term perspective that balances short-term economic interests with a longer-term aspiration to help improve the wellbeing and prospects of the many diverse peoples throughout the region.”
However, the terms of reference for the paper had already revealed an unmistakable shift from former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s “activist” ambition of helping craft the best possible future for the Asia-Pacific region, towards wanting to take maximum advantage of inevitable currents of change. “We are a decade into the Asian Century,” stated the preamble on the website. “Is Australia ready to take advantage of the great opportunities this transformative event will bring?”
By July, when Ken Henry’s team released a selective summary of the submissions it had received, it was clear that any loftier considerations were going to be largely beyond the scope of the paper.
The popular view today is that the former Prime Minister was clumsy, over-reaching and paternalistic towards China. This says more about our fear of Beijing’s temper tantrums and the effectiveness of Opposition spin than it does about what Mr Rudd actual did during his truncated term.
He is mythologised as having “lectured” the Chinese leadership on human rights and Tibet during his first visit to China as Prime Minister in April 2008. In reality, he dedicated two sentences of a wide ranging and otherwise highly complimentary speech to conveying concerns about the ensuing violence in Lhasa, an issue on which he had received an overwhelming number of emails and letters from Australian voters. Any less would have been neglecting his responsibility as a representative of the Australian people.
Four years on, with our freshly minted white paper urging Australia to “be a winner in this Asian century”, the situation inside Tibet has gone from bad to worse. Since 2009 around 60 Tibetans have “self-immolated” to protest policies that continue to trample their religion, culture and livelihoods. Seven in the last week alone.
In three years of doing my best to represent the whole situation in Tibet to parliamentarians and government officials, almost all expressed discomfort at the unfolding realities and concern over Australia’s reticence. But somewhere between 2008 and 2012 the majority of the Government and Opposition alike seemed to place any concerns over the more troubling aspects of China’s rise, be they Tibet, Xinjang, internet freedom, or the slow pace of political reforms, in the too hard basket. In its initial briefings to Mr Carr, recently released under a freedom of information request, DFAT also showed a new willingness to sweep China’s failings under the carpet.
Flick through the 312 pages of the white paper and you will find some considerations outside the frame of pure opportunism. The penultimate chapter, titled Building sustainable security in the region, looks in brief at Australia’s potential to help promote cooperation among Asian countries, ease tension in regional flashpoints, continue to encourage disarmament, improve regional architecture, and develop multilateral institutions. Importantly, the paper recommits Australia to helping to mobilise US$100 billion annually by 2020 to assist developing countries meet the challenge of climate change.
But as Sam Roggeveen, editor of the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog had flagged within hours of the paper’s release, in addition to being “determinedly optimistic” and “couched in the language of ‘grasping opportunity’”, “there is very little sense of the risks of the Asian Century”.
I would argue that there is also something of a suspension of the notion of Australia as responsible global citizen, proudly held aloft by Minister Carr just one week ago, and little regard for those groups, including Tibetans, for whom the breakneck developments of the Asian Century are not playing out so well.
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