When Julie Bishop shifted Australia’s position on Israeli settlement activities in Palestine, there was no press release, no media conference and no interviews. It was not altogether surprising from a government determined to manage the media cycle more tightly, or simply to avoid controversy.
So it was significant when, two weeks ago, the foreign minister summoned the Chinese ambassador Ma Zhaoxu to upbraid him on China’s decision to unilaterally draw up an air defence zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
When dealing with such delicate geopolitical matters, the language used and the actions taken are always carefully calibrated. But in summoning Ma, Ms Bishop turned the dial up to eleven. It was as forceful a reaction as possible – short of sending him on the next flight back to Beijing. The aggressive stance was curious, considering that when Ms Bishop was in opposition, she was often quick to point out to the then Labor government that criticism of the Chinese is best done discreetly.
On her trip to Beijing last weekend the extent of Australia’s diplomatic faux pas was made abundantly clear. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi took the unusual step of remonstrating with Ms Bishop while the media were there to record it. As long as the cameras were trained on them, Wang was implacably po-faced. The Chinese, it seemed, were determined that the optics of this meeting would not be good.
Australia’s statements and actions on the establishment of the air defence zone had “damaged the mutual trust and affected the healthy development of the relations between the two countries,” said Minister Wang Yi.
“All sectors of the Chinese society and the Chinese people are deeply dissatisfied with it, which we believe the two countries don't want to see.”
A look at the reaction on Chinese social media reveals he is largely right. With a few notable exceptions, the overwhelming response has been that Ms Bishop got what was coming. What does the defence zone even have to do with Australia? And who does this uppity foreign policy novice think she is anyway?
This weibo post by economist Mei Xinyu was typical:
“I heard Wang Yi gave visiting Australian Foreign Minister Bishop a serve? What does the establishment of our ADIZ even have to do with Australia? I get it that Bishop wants to protect Uncle Sam, but this was too much right? If you don't cut them down to size in the first instance they'll try to push their luck later and then you can forget any trade between the two countries.”
“America orders Australia “Jump!”, Australia says “How high?” posted China’s former ambassador to Iran Hua Liming on the Twitter-like site.
Ms Bishop’s reputation is taking a beating in traditional media too. This appraisal by one talking head on Phoenix TV got a good run:
“This person has no foreign affairs experience, no work experience. She’s been a spokesperson for the opposition party for so long, she was so taken aback [by Wang Yi’s comments] that she didn’t even know how to respond. The Australian ambassador sitting next to her had to remind her ‘You’ve got to speak up’ – only then did she respond.”
The game is fixed of course. It’s unclear whether that commentator was even in the room. China Spectator understands from a Chinese media source that their foreign ministry has requested that an extensive interview conducted with Ms Bishop be held back from broadcast. But before leaving for China, she did try to walk back her comments with the Chinese media in Canberra.
Australia wasn’t taking sides in the territorial dispute, she argued, we were merely taking China to task for making the decision unilaterally. It’s a subtle but important distinction – but one that has failed to cut through for her.
Other countries in the region – even those closer to the zone itself have managed to walk the line more adroitly. From the Chinese perspective, the USA ended up playing the role of mediator, Australia, on the other hand, looked like they were taking sides.
For the Chinese and Japanese, this isn’t a fight over a bunch of rocks in the East China Sea. As Kevin Rudd told a roundtable at The Atlantic magazine in Washington this week, it’s an historical issue that both sides have deeply invested their “public face” in.
"Anyone who thinks they've got a solution for solving the territorial dispute is deluding themselves. This has more than a century of toxicity attached to it, and a lot most recently,” he said.
Taking a principled stance against an increasingly powerful China has become more costly – just ask David Cameron. After he decided to meet with the Dalai Lama, UK-China relations were put in the deep-freeze for around eighteen months. On his recent trade mission to the country he went to great lengths to rebuild his image by publishing an op-ed in Caixin – China’s Economist – and he followed Rudd’s lead by opening a weibo account.
Julie Bishop needs to understand the full array of diplomatic tools available to her. Getting on Chinese social media should be a priority for her now.