Former PM intervenes after Australia’s top bureaucrat’s China remarks

By on 02/07/2015 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Michael Thawley

Former prime minister of Australia John Howard has stepped in after dismissive remarks about China by the country’s top bureaucrat have sparked controversy.

Michael Thawley, who heads up Australia’s civil service, told a conference of 150 senior leaders from business, politics, the public service, civil society and the research sector that China was “not willing or able to play a serious global leadership role,” according to reports by the Age news website.

Speaking at the Crawford Australian Leadership Forum at the Australian National University last week, Thawley said: “China won’t help you produce a solution. It will get in the way or get out of the way.”

He warned against “hysterical” debates about China’s rising power and American decline and said that Australia’s role was to encourage American leadership and “get our economy back in gear” while also maximising our military power.

“Given that we think in my view that US leadership is going to be crucial in the period ahead, we ought to maximise our capacity to influence US strategy and to make sure it maintains its alliance commitments.”

Speaking in Sydney today, Howard contradicted Thawley’s comments, the Sydney Morning Herald reports: He said that it was “one of the most ridiculous propositions” that Australia had to choose between having a strong relationship with the US or China,” and added: “It should be the constant aim of Australian foreign policy to ensure that relations between the United States and China never reach such a point where Australia feels under any pressure to make any kind of choice.

“And I hope the time that I spent in office, advised a lot of the time on foreign policy matters by Michael Thawley, represented something of a metaphor for believing that we could develop very close relations between Australia and both of those two critically important nations.”

His intervention followed comments by foreign minister Julie Bishop, who told Sky News yesterday that China was a very significant player.

“With the extraordinary rise of China as an economic power, with power shifting from the west to the east, China is a significant player,” Bishop said.

“It is the number one trading partner for about 120 countries around the world. While its economic power does not eclipse that of the United States it’s nevertheless a very significant economic regional and global player.”

Bishop said it was her view Australia played an important role in encouraging China to rise peacefully and embrace its global responsibilities.

“Australia is able to facilitate engagement with China at many levels and I believe that that’s the role we should continue to play in the hope that China does become a responsible global player,” she said.

Asked about Thawley’s comments at a media conference yesterday prime minister Tony Abbott said Thawley’s comments had not been provocative. The senior mandarin, former diplomat and former foreign policy adviser to Howard had contributed to a “broad–ranging discussion about issues in our world and in our region”.

“Obviously what we want to do is encourage China to assume a role commensurate with its strength,” he said. “That’s why, under the right conditions, which we were able to obtain, we were so keen to be involved in the Asia infrastructure investment bank.

“The Asia infrastructure investment bank is a good illustration of the role that China can have within a rules-based international order.”

Thawley was appointed in December 2014, replacing Dr Ian Watt, who spoke to Global Government Forum ahead of Australia hosting the G20 late last year.

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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