It would be entirely appropriate for the Australian Government to call in China's ambassador to explain why Beijing was harming Australia's interests in a very obvious way. If China offered major military aid to PNG and explained that it expected Port Morseby's support in changing the balance of influence in the South Pacific, for example. Or if China questioned Australia's sovereignty over the Christmas and Cocos Islands.
But Beijing's envoy to Canberra was called in on Tuesday to explain China's provocative air identification zone in the East China Sea. That means the Abbott Government is buying in even further into the rising prospects of an armed conflict between China and Japan.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's overly zealous press release dug that hole even deeper. 'Australia', her statement reads, 'has made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea'. As I mentioned in a previous post, that seemingly innocuous set of words is the precise formula Japan uses to pin all the blame for the East China Sea problems on China. It was language Bishop endorsed for the first time at this year's Trilateral Strategic Dialogue with Japan and the US. As Hugh White has noted in a suitably concerned column, this formula was repeated at the recent AUSMIN alliance meeting in Washington.
They were also the same words US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel then used to criticise China's establishment of the zone in an unequivocal statement which confirmed that Article 5 of the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkakus. In other words, should Japan's armed forces be attacked by China in these disputed territories, the US would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes. Sound familiar? It should do. It's very similar to the security commitment in the ANZUS Treaty.
Hagel's response upped the stakes for Australia, which, according to Mr Abbott, sees Japan as its best friend in Asia. But there is a limit to how much good mates should allow themselves to be sucked into deeper waters, and that is exactly what Australia's position on China's zone has achieved. Overnight came Beijing's response: 'China urges the Australian side to immediately correct its mistakes', advised Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang, 'so as to avoid hurting the cooperative relationship between China and Australia.' Australia's charge d'affaires was summoned for a tit-for-tat conversation.
This didn't need to become a bilateral difficulty between China and Australia. It is now.
China's new zone, which Rory Medcalf dissected yesterday, is a reckless and unnecessary piece of provocation. It is bad for regional peace and order. But Australia is giving the impression that it is part of a trilateral alliance which covers Japan in the East China Sea. Its response to China's zone, including the interview without coffee with Beijing's representative, is the worst example yet of that flawed approach.
Photo by Flickr user Al Jazeera English.