“China will do what China will do.” That is the assessment of Labor’s Foreign Affairs Shadow Minister Penny Wong. Wong, at the weekend, was responding to the mounting crisis in Hong Kong and the prospect of a heavy-handed intervention by Beijing.
She was also giving context to the failure of Australia to impress the 17 states and micro states of the Pacific who attended last week’s Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu. Also prominently in attendance and “understanding” the Island nations’ sense of impending doom over climate change was China.
Wong, like her former colleague and prime minister Kevin Rudd – now a foreign affairs specialist at the prestigious Asia Society Policy Institute in New York – says China will make every effort to exert its influence in our region and the world: “that’s what major powers do”.
The Morrison Government is well aware of this reality and is desperately trying to consolidate Australia’s position as “partner of choice”. It repurposed $500 million of already committed aid to climate change mitigation – sand bags and the like – at the forum. Forum host Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga and his counterparts were unconvinced, even if grateful for the generosity. But he said “no matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse to not do the right thing”. The right thing, as far as the inundated island states are concerned, is a stronger commitment from Canberra to reduce our emissions, to be more serious about phasing out coal and not to use accounting tricks to achieve our reduction targets.
Morrison’s arguments that China pollutes more than Australia and that we account for just 1.3% of the world’s emissions failed to convince. It did so for the simple reason that if the other 100 nations emitting about the same level, like the United Kingdom for example, used the same argument, no one would do anything.
Pacific leaders were pushing for a strong statement on climate action so that the region could take it to the United Nations climate summit in September. They are anxious to apply pressure for international action to avoid what they and the world’s scientists see as the planet rushing headlong to catastrophe.
For 12 hours Australia refused to sign up. It would not accept the description of “climate crisis”. Nauru’s President was reduced to tears of frustration. Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama tweeted: “we came together in a nation that risks disappearing to the seas, but unfortunately, we settled for the status quo in our communiqué.”
On any level this is a failure of Australia’s diplomacy, our PM’s arguments weakened by no plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Morrison says he will come up with one next year, but if the past 10 years are any guide, there’s not much room for optimism.
There’s also not much chance we can play a useful role in Hong Kong. Australia’s diplomacy has lost credibility with Beijing. Nuance is not something we do well.