Howard’s lesson

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
30 April, 2021

Shortly after he lost his Australian premiership, I attended a small, private dinner with John Howard in London. We talked about his nearly 12 years in office and the lessons he had learnt.

Howard shared a story about a visit of the Dalai Lama to Australia in 2007. The Chinese leadership had made fierce threats about the visit, demanding that no Australian official meet him.

The result was the opposite. Precisely because of China’s strong public demands, Howard said he had to meet the Dalai Lama – even though he would not have otherwise.

I keep thinking of this incident. Not just because it contains a gem of foreign policy wisdom. It also applies to some foreign policy conundrums today.

Take Turkey, for example. The Armenian genocide of 1915–1917 is well-documented. About a million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey has always denied this chapter of its pre-history. Under its nationalist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, this denial has strengthened and resulted in threats against anyone prepared to recognise the genocide.

The result brought more attention to the genocide. Just as in Howard’s case, the louder Erdoğan’s warnings, the more nations had to show their colours. The latest country to join those 32 states now acknowledging the genocide was the US last week.

It made sense for US President Joe Biden to do so, not only because the Armenian genocide is a historical fact. Biden also had to respond to Erdoğan’s pressure to retain his credibility. The US cannot be seen to give in to intimidators – especially those who cry loudest.

With China, it ought to be the same. Howard retained the Chinese Government’s respect by refusing to back down. The Chinese leadership, meanwhile, might have learnt that it was futile to pressure Howard. They would not have tried again for future visits of the Dalai Lama under Howard’s leadership.

Howard’s present successor, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has learnt that lesson. His government has taken a clear-cut line on China, which is Australia’s best chance to prevent future intimidation.

Other governments, including our own, are more equivocating. Yet a vigorous defence of one’s own interests and values seems to be the language best understood by countries outspoken about their own positions.

For example, Australia and New Zealand could invite Taiwan to join their travel bubble. A Taiwanese presence would subject our border arrangements to external scrutiny by one of the countries that has best handled the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, Beijing would object to that move – but that does not mean that such a bubble extension would not be in Australia and New Zealand’s interest.

China’s President Xi Jinping once said that Soviet Communism collapsed because its ideals and beliefs had been shaken. Would he not expect the same of countries unwilling to stand up for their own ideals and beliefs?

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