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Cautious Morrison’s looming problems with Xi and Trump

Last updated on 17 July 2019

by Colin Chapman

Imagine this.  Joe Hockey, Australia’s ambassador to the United States since 2016, files a classified report to foreign minister Marise Payne, copied to prime minister Scott Morrison, describing president Donald Trump as ‘inept’ and his administration ‘dysfunctional’. 

Of course, it’s not Hockey’s confidential reports that have been leaked but those of Britain’s erstwhile envoy to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch (pictured, below left), who felt compelled to resign after an enraged Trump used Twitter to cut off all official contact with the representative of America’s closest ally.  Trump also tweeted his disdain and contempt for UK prime minister Theresa May, who had the temerity to stick up for her ambassador. Boris Johnson, the bookies’ favourite to succeed Mrs May next week, contributed to Darroch’s downfall by refusing to give him his full support. 

What has this got to do with Joe Hockey and Australian foreign policy?  Quite a lot, as it happens. For a start, no less an authority than the New York Times reminds us – after a ring- around of the diplomatic corps at Foggy Bottom – that most ambassadors had admitted to filing similar reports, with Trump’s only vocal supporters being Israel and the United Arab Emirates. However, only France’s  envoy would go on the record. “We all feel the same”, he said.

Donald Trump(left) declared Sir Kim Darroch persona non grata (BBC TV)

Darroch’s leaked observations were hardly earth shattering, and, while embarrassing to the UK government, no threat to national security, as a senior policeman at Scotland Yard foolishly observed. Arguably the ambassador’s most interesting observation was that Trump had ‘sabotaged’ the Iranian nuclear deal as an act of diplomatic vandalism to spite the man who created it, his predecessor Barack Obama. 

Also many independent-minded Americans, like the billionaire and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, have had much harsher things to say about Trump. But they escaped the verbal lashing the US president, a consummate bully, is prone to use against those with whom he is about to negotiate. Bloomberg has described Trump as “totally incompetent – he is a failure in business and now a failure in government”. 

Trump currently has his hands full dealing with separate trade disputes with China and the European Union, and the need to rustle up a tempting trade deal with Britain in October if the UK finally leaves the EU on October 31. But he will soon be seeking favours from Australia, the most immediate and most likely being a significant contribution to further US action against Iran, including participation in naval operations. US trade lobbyists have also been telling Trump how Australian agricultural exporters have benefited from Beijing’s measures against the US farm sector, and Trump will seek bring that to an end.

This comes at a tricky time for the Morrison government which has been congratulating itself on keeping Australia’s international relations on an even keel. It has managed somehow to balance its dependence on the ANZUS Treaty and the US security umbrella with the need to keep on good terms with its major economic partner, China. Canberra rejected making a choice between Washington and Beijing; the Abbott and Turnbull governments even defied demands by Obama that Australia should not join the Beijing-based Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Unlike Britain, it did succumb to Washington’s ‘request’ to bar state-owned Huawei from the development of the 5G mobile network.

However, the re-elected Morrison government finds itself needing to evolve a new foreign policy strategy, although it has devoted scant time to debating it. The matter arises from a welter of events in recent days that may not have grabbed world headlines but which indicate that DFAT staffers and their political masters have plenty to discuss. Here is a list, with the most concerning involving Australia’s relations with China.

  1. China is pushing hard to extend its influence into the South Pacific and Antarctica. Significantly, it has said it intends to extend its flagship Belt and Road initiative to what we broadly call Oceania. Belt and Road was originally ‘sold’ as a major infrastructure investment to forge transport links from China’s west along the old Silk Road through the Caucasus to provide an efficient commercial link between west Asia and Europe. 
  2. In Vanuatu earlier this month, China gave us a taste of what may be to come in Hong Kong when a group of Beijing enforcement officers alighted from a chartered Chinese aircraft and headed for Port Vila, where they directed local police to five men and one woman, believed to be dual citizens, who they alleged were involved in an internet scam. The group were arrested and bundled onto the next flight to China. So much for sovereignty.  As The Times opined: “That the republic’s government was complicit in these arrests makes makes the situation more and not less worrying”, especially as the individuals had for several days been locked up inside the premises of a Chinese company, without charge or access to lawyers. Vanuatu, of course, is the recipient of a considerable amount of Chinese aid which is seen by many as a prelude to establishing a Chinese military base on the island.  The Vanuatu incident is not a first – the Chinese has also abducted its own citizens from neighbouring Fiji.
  3. So far as we know, nothing of this kind has happened in Australia but some complicity with China would not be surprising. There is a diminishing appetite for press freedom in Australia. The outrageous raid by the AFP on the ABC last month was roundly condemned at last week’s international press freedom conference in London, but not by foreign minister Marise Payne. After all, it was the Coalition that, extraordinarily, allowed the strategic northern port of Darwin to pass into Chinese hands. Last week we had another wake-up call when three Chinese warships sailed unannounced through Sydney Heads and under the Harbour Bridge before leaving. More concerning was the sighting off the coast of Queensland of a Chinese ship observing joint US-Australian exercises.
  4. Much more significant than this, to our mind, is the publication tomorrow of Xi Jinping: The Backlash, a Lowy Institute paper by the eminent scholar of China Richard McGregor. Richard is the acclaimed author of The Party, an insight into the ruling body of China, and a former colleague at The Financial Times.  In his new book, McGregor blows away the notion, peddled by many China watchers, that Xi is a friend of Western-style market capitalism. In reality, he is a devoted statist, a strong supporter of state-owned enterprises, and, of course, the all-powerful Communist party of which he is the Chairman. Richard discussed the which book in a session at the Lowy Institute which has created a podcast you can hear.

Both our foreign and defence ministers were in London last week, perhaps enjoying the most exciting Wimbledon for years, but doubtless also trying to work out where on earth Britain is headed. The next round of talks on an Australia–EU trade deal faces considerable obstacles, particularly on beef and sugar exports. Britain still hankers after membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Of greatest interest was a lengthy speech by Senator Linda Reynolds, Minister of Defence, to the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. She made a plea to the UK to increase its military presence in the South Pacific, working closely with the Royal Australian Navy, to Australia’s ‘partnership with the UK in the new strategic environment’.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds in London

Without naming China she said pointedly, “As all of us working in national security are only too aware, the character of warfare is changing fast. There are more options for pursuing strategic ends just below the threshold of traditional armed conflict – what some experts like to call grey-zone tactics or hybrid warfare.What is also very clear is that countries prepared to flout the rules-based order have little hesitation in resorting to these options – and they have more authority to direct resources towards them.The longer we leave it unchecked, the bolder they become.Australia has been prepared to call out violations of international law and international security and hold those responsible to account.”

That is debatable.  There is not much evidence of Australian ministers calling China out, and the time may have come for Canberra to be more assertive. The hawkish Peter Jennings, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Defence, and now executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute clearly thinks so. Writing in ASPI’s The Strategist, he is heavily critical of China Matters, an academically inspired think-tank aimed at the under-35s that sees Australia as a force to help China integrate into our community. 

Jennings notes that Prime Minister Morrison will soon be heading for a White House meeting with Trump where, as he puts it, “Morrison understands that our worsening strategic situation will force Australia into an even closer military alliance with the US”. 

There will be serious strategic traps and opportunities here that could test Morrison’s skill as a negotiator, As I hinted earlier, Australia needs to avoid being embroiled in Trump’s mistimed sabotage of President Obama’s nuclear deal. It would be a sensible move to join Britain, France and Germany in their attempt to persuade Iran not to walk away from it under Trump’s provocation. At the same time, Morrison must shun any effort by the American president to persuade him to take sides in the US-China trade dispute, while simultaneously seeking American support for a pushback against Beijing’s Belt and Road extension to the South Pacific. The price of this is likely to be a substantial increase in Australia’s defence budget. 

Morrison should also persuade Trump to use his considerable influence with the new British prime minister, surely to be Boris Johnson, to take up Ms Reynolds sensible suggestion of a stronger British military presence in the Pacific, an invitation that should also be extended to France.

The months ahead will be a real test for Morrison, and it is essential that these matters are now fully debated in Canberra, bringing new energy to a lacklustre Parliament. 

Colin Chapman FAIIA is founder of Australian Strategies,

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