Dismal Diplomacy is a valuable addition to Monash University Publishing’s National Interest series. This series seeks to connect public discussion with the best ideas in academia, government and public diplomacy by publishing short, thought-provoking and accessible books on key challenges faced by Australia.
The subject of Carrillo Gantner’s book is Australia’s relations with its major security partner, the United States, and its most important economic partner, China. The book’s central argument is that Australia’s leaders have been too easily led by American politicians, particularly former President Donald Trump, into a hostile relationship with the rising power of the People’s Republic of China and away from the friendly and constructive association that was built by Labor and coalition governments over the years from 1972 to the first decade of the twenty-first century.
In making this argument the author provides a valuable counter-narrative to such critical works on China’s relationship with Australia as Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, 2018 and Rory Medcalf’s Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future, 2020.
The author, Carrillo Gantner AC trained as an actor, was a founding director of Playbox Theatre (now Malthouse Theatre) and was its artistic director between 1976 and 1984 and 1988 and 1993. He also served as chairman of the Sydney Myer Fund, president of the Myer Foundation, chairman of Asialink at Melbourne University and president of the Arts Centre Melbourne.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Gantner was a member of the Committee for a New China Policy. This group successfully lobbied the Australian government to recognise the People’s Republic of China as the government of China ‘rather than maintain the absurd fiction that the Kuomintang government isolated in Taiwan was the real administrator of the massive landmass and population of mainland China’.
Having led the first Australian theatre group to China in 1978, Gantner was encouraged in 1984 to apply for the position of cultural counsellor in the newly established Australian Embassy in Beijing. His responsibilities in this position included the programs of the Australia-China Council, academic exchanges, science technology and medicine, law and accounting, Australian students in China (although not the Chinese students beginning to come to Australia) and even agriculture. In short, he assumed a responsibility for anything that came to the embassy that was not ‘politics, trade, aid or defence’.
The author was thus an active participant, as theatre director and official, in the forging of a new Australian policy to the People’s Republic of China, aimed at increasing trade, cultural and people-to-people links and fostering mutual understanding during the time of the Whitlam, Fraser, and Hawke governments.
Gantner’s book provides a brief account of the early flourishing of the Australia-China relationship in the 1970s and 1980s as well as a persuasive explanation of how and why Australia’s relationship with China has deteriorated over the last decade or so.
He criticises the Gillard government for allowing President Barack Obama to announce in 2011 his US Pacific Pivot in the Australian parliament, a decision which involved the Australian Labor government’s approval for the rotation of US marines on a base just outside Darwin. He portrays this as the first of a series of missteps in which successive Australian prime ministers picked sides in a great-power strategic rivalry in the Pacific without giving the Australian people of ‘an assessment of what it might mean for Australia’.
This choosing of sides, however, was not immediately apparent. In 2013 Gillard announced that Australia and China had agreed to upgrade their bilateral diplomatic architecture to the level of a ‘strategic partnership’. Then the coalition government led by Tony Abbott invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to address the Australian parliament in 2014, signed a Free Trade Agreement with China in 2015 and did not demur from the Northern Territory government’s giving a Chinese company a long lease to the Port of Darwin.
The real damage to the relationship, Gantner argues, occurred during the presidency of Donald Trump (2017-2021) and the first year of the Biden administration.
In this five-year period, the Turnbull and Morrison governments excluded the Chinese company, Huawei, from bidding for the roll-out of its 5-G wireless network, passed a package of laws aimed at preventing foreign (Chinese) influence in Australia, and in 2021 signed the AUKUS agreement with the United States and the United Kingdom.