Tonight's foreign policy debate between Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr and Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, hosted by the Lowy Institute, demonstrates that the major political parties have agreed on a conspiracy of silence on the China question. To put it kindly, both are optimistic about the implications of China's rise; less kind would be to say they are profoundly complacent.

That's my big take-away from the first big policy debate of the election campaign. More thoughts:

  • Bishop talked early on about the 'strategic shift' in the region being accompanied by tension, but from there on, the emphasis was resolutely in the positive. In fact, Bishop went so far as to say that the chance of US-China conflict was subsiding. Carr said he veered towards Bishop's optimism. 
  • I don't want to sound like a fatalist about the rise of China, because both Carr and Bishop are right that economic incentives make it unlikely that China would resort to conflict to get its way. But both addressed the rise of China as if it would have almost no implications for the larger strategic order, even if China is about to become the world's largest economy. Yet how could that simple fact not recalibrate or even transform the regional strategic order? How could it not challenge US primacy, and thereby the standing and security of its allies?
  • I thought Bishop was the more convincing of the two on Indonesia. She understood better the intent behind Rory Medcalf's question, which noted that the relationship was defined by short-term 'transactional' issues and was not a true partnership. As slogans go, the idea of a 'no surprises' approach to Indonesia is a good one, and very much consistent with Iain Henry's point last week that Australia first needs to be a good neighbour to Indonesia before it becomes a friend.

  • Again though, the optimism was striking. Bishop said the best days of the Indonesia-Australia relationship lay ahead. This despite the conventional wisdom that none of the likely successors to President SBY will be as friendly as he is towards Canberra.
  • Bishop was also convincing on the need for greater people-to-people understanding. She talked about the Liberal Party's 'New Colombo Plan', which would send young Australians out to the region for education and experience. If she can deliver her rhetoric of tonight to make such visits for young Aussies a 'rite of passage' and a 'norm', it will be an important change. But that sounds awfully expensive.
  • On asylum seekers, it was striking to hear how firmly Labor is nailing its colours to the mast of the PNG Solution. On boat arrivals, Carr said emphatically that 'the numbers will dry up...it will stop'. That line might get the Government through the election, but it's the sort of promise that could also bring a Labor government an awful lot more pain if Carr is eventually proved wrong.
  • Why did Bishop twice refer to Russia as a rising Pacific power? Seems like a stretch.
  • Consular issues: good to hear realism from both camps, with Carr previewing an upcoming statement that will refine DFAT's consular role and ask Australians to take more individual responsibility when overseas. Bishop too said government needed to manage expectations of what it could do for Australians in trouble overseas, and rather pointedly said it was unhelpful to manage consular cases at ministerial level through the media. It was a nice dig at Carr, but let's see if Bishop herself can resist the lights and cameras if her party wins office.
  • A lot of emphasis on the Pacific in Bishop's remarks, not all of it hitting the mark. She talked about re-establishing ties with the Fiji people and said she would want to be remembered as the foreign minister who made Australia the partner of choice for Pacific countries.
  • And finally, the least important question: who won? I reckon Carr, narrowly, simply because he occasionally took Bishop on about specific issues and scored some points. And he's just a better off-the-cuff speaker than Bishop. But that's a superficial judgment about the way the two presented themselves. In substantive policy terms, I'd call it a draw.