News National ‘Australia should not be involved in Syria conflict’: Bob Carr
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‘Australia should not be involved in Syria conflict’: Bob Carr

Q&A's foreign policy special.
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Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr says Australia should not be involved in the Syria conflict, except for offering medical and humanitarian aid.

His comments come as Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek called for a debate on the policy in Iraq and Syria on Monday.

“This is the catastrophe on the planet,” Mr Carr said of the Syrian conflict.

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“Viewed from outer space, it’s a government at war with its own people, levelling its country of housing, inflicting horrors and atrocities.” 

In a foreign policy ABC Q&A special, Lowy Institute for International Policy executive director Michael Fullilove agreed, saying there were too many forces at play for a military force to resolve it.

“I think there will be some kind of diplomatic compromise, so I think although [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad has too much blood on his hands to be a credible long-term leader,” Mr Fullilove said.

“The problem with taking options off the table is that we don’t have any options in Syria.”

Human Rights Law Centre director of advocacy Emily Howie warned: “It’s a reputational and legitimacy risk for Australia to be partnering with someone of Assad’s calibre.”

Australia’s relationship with the superpowers

Discussion turned to a statement in the past week accusing Australia of fuelling the flames of tension in the South China Sea. 

“Like most foreign policy, China, in the end, go with their interests,” Mr Fullilove said.

“I will agree with Bob. I think it’s right for us to provide diplomatic support to these freedom of navigation exercises and also to come to the second part of the previous question which I don’t think we got onto, what might be the recriminations for Australia. 

“We often hear about what the repercussion also be if we disagree with China, but I’m reminded that when Australia opposed the declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea – certainly Julie Bishop got a bollocking from the Chinese Foreign Minister – but that didn’t stop China from concluding a free-trade agreement with Australia. 

University of Melbourne centre for contemporary Chinese studies, deputy director Sow Keat Tok
University of Melbourne centre for contemporary Chinese studies, deputy director Sow Keat Tok.

“What I think that tells us is a dirty secret about Chinese foreign policy and that is like most foreign policy, they, in the end, they go with their interests, and that’s why I think China has an interest to this most recent question in not allowing it to escalate too far, and why I think Australia has an interest in maintaining a relationship with China that is based on respect. 

“We certainly want to be respectful towards China, we want to be a friend towards China, but when our interests differ, our words will have to diverge as well, and that’s the best basis for a respectful relationship.”

University of Melbourne centre for contemporary Chinese studies, deputy director Sow Keat Tok, said his position was that Australia had already made a choice by the alliance with the US.

China has interests in establishing a kind of a stable relationship with Australia. Now, we are talking about interests here. Does America doesn’t have interests in this alliance with Australia? Of course it has. Does America have interests in challenging China’s claims in South China Sea? Of course it has. 

“We are talking about big powers, you know, staring at each other. That is something that is expected, and currently Australia has put itself firmly in the camp of the Americans, supporting what the Americans want to do.”

Mr Carr said: “America is capable of the most monstrous errors of judgment, like the Iraq war.”

Mr Fullilove said Australia should be an independent-minded country – especially when it came to China.

That means that if the US is in the wrong, then we shouldn’t participate with them, and I think Bob Carr is absolutely right, the Iraq war was a misbegotten thing, it left our ally weaker and poorer and less respected and less feared,” he said.

Mr Carr agreed: “We have have our own policy and we better do it because other nations are doing precisely that.”

Ms Howie said: “I’d be wary about a closer relationship with China due to the very serious human rights abuses there.”

Australia’s perception on the world stage

A question was put forward to the panel about how Australia was perceived in regards to its ‘revolving door prime ministership’. 

Human Rights Law Centre director of advocacy Emily Howie.
Human Rights Law Centre director of advocacy Emily Howie.

Mr Fullilove said: “Malcolm Turnbull sees a broader range of colours in the world. Tony Abbott was very black and white.

“It is not just five PMs in five years, four foreign ministers in eight years of which he was one, six defence ministers in eight years and that interrupts the momentum of ministers and PMs.

“It means they can’t solve problems in the way we want them to which is why we elect them, and it also clouds international perceptions of our reliability of a country.

“We have to get our mojo back.”

Ms Howie said there was much work to be done for Australia to show it’s a good global leader – but didn’t blame it on the revolving door.

“It seems to me, though, from the perspective of human rights that the real damage that has been done in the last five years is not from this kind of revolving door, but it’s actually in the denigration of Australia’s relationship with the United Nations Human Rights system,” Ms Howie said.

“So I think we were really damaged by our last PM saying that Australia was sick of being lectured by the UN.

“There is actually some real work to be done to amend that relationship, and to really show that Australia is capable of being a good global leader when it comes to human rights.”

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