Last updated on October 16, 2019
by Colin Chapman
Those of us who were frustrated that Scott Morrison appears to take no interest in foreign affairs, even leaving attendance at international leaders meetings to others, have been taken by surprise. In September the prime minister flew around the world to attend a series of high-level meetings, while also delivering a clutch of speeches.
Some were strategic, some not. Some were better than others. And then last week we had the first meaningful Coalition government exposition of foreign policy since the Rudd and Gillard years?
There were great expectations when the Prime Minister elected deliver the annual Lowy lecture in Sydney on October 3. His speech was what the English literati like to call ”a curate’s egg”- good in parts. It was reasonably comprehensive but lacked important detail, offering little useful information for international affairs academics and policy wonks, though providing insights into the way ministers, if not DFAT diplomats, think. The respected president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Allan Gyngell, said Morrison, struck an “anxious and inward-looking tone”.
That was clear from Morrison’s comments on his appointment that as a politician his instincts and passions had always been domestic. He said he’d never sought out attendance at international summits. Well, we knew that; but the title of his talk went further. “In Our Interest” suggests that in foreign policy matters he has adopted the Trumpian theme ‘Put America first’
Putting aside for the moment Morrison’s relationship with the American president, it is worth reviewing the strategic elements of Morrison’s Lowy lecture, insofar as they exist amid the empty rhetoric.
Let’s start with good strategy, much of which came towards the end of the talk. Morrison talked of righting his predecessors’ neglect of the South Pacific, which allowed China to move in and take a highly influential and self-interested role in strategic island countries in the South Pacific Forum. But he did not go far enough. Our smaller neighbour, New Zealand does better.
As we have long advocated, Morrison’s Canberra is now playing a more active role in ASEAN, particularly with Indonesia, our closest neighbour and the region’s largest country. Legislation to ratify the landmark Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership signed in March is about to go through parliament. The treaty removes all Australian tariffs on Indonesian goods, while gradually removing 94 per cent of Indonesia’s tariffs on our goods and services.
Relations with Indonesia have greatly improved since the Abbott years when then foreign minister Julie Bishop tried in vain to persuade the newly re-elected president Joko Widodo to call off the execution of two Australian drug dealers. Now Australia and Indonesia are committed to increase trade and investment between them in areas ranging from cattle to education, cars to wheat. The deal will enable Australian farmers to ship more agricultural goods to South-East Asia’s biggest economy, as well as allowing Indonesian textiles and footwear to out-compete China in the Australian market.As Morrison said:” I very much look forward to attending the inauguration of re-elected President Widodo later this month”.
The PM also reminded us that Canberra already has a strategic partnership with Vietnam, and wants to expand cooperation even further, but did not go into details. For a country with whom we were at war not so long ago, Australia-Vietnam relations are extraordinarily cordial, and our ties with Hanoi remain strong.
The other good strategic move is Morrison’s confirmation of his acceptance of an open invitation by India’s prime Minister to visit Delhi next January, where he will deliver the inaugural address at the Raisina Dialogue, India’s annual flagship conference on geopolitics and geo-economics. Morrison will be accompanied by a business delegation led by Ashok Jacob, chair of the Australia-India Council board. The hope is that this visit wiill lead to a new economic relationship the world’s largest democracy or, as Morrison put it, “another step in cementing India in the top tier of Australia’s partnerships”.
Morrison was at his most enigmatic when talking about Australia’s relationships with international organisations. This was also his only new announcement. “I have asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to come back to me with a comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes where we have the greatest stake”, he told his Sydney audience. “We will be looking to tap Australian expertise as part of our efforts”.
Morrison is clearly piqued that Australia has not played as active a role as it should in setting rules. “When it comes to setting global standards, we’ve not been as involved as we could be”, he said. “We can’t afford to leave it to others to set the standards that will shape our global economy”.
Well, whose fault is that? Not since Gareth Evans was Foreign Minister in the Whitlam and Hawke governments has Australia had an effective voice at the United Nations, and we did not make the most of our recent one year term on the Security Council. James Wolfensohn was head of the World Bank for a decade until 2005 and was a significant force in international finance but since then Australia has lost the plot. Kevin Rudd strutted the international stage mostly in self-promotion. In business and the economy Australians have been among the weakest attendees at important annual meetings such as the agenda-setting World Economic Forum in Davos and the Bloomberg Business Forum in New York. When Bob Gottliebsen and I, year after year, showed up as media leaders in Davos we were always appalled at how poor Australian representation was, with both ministers and corporate leaders missing their chance to network with their global peers.
Morrison does seem to be putting more effort into multilateral fora than Turnbull or Abbott, but he was a noticeable absentee from the UN Climate Action forum while in New York last month. Moreover he has a dismal record in action against greenhouse gas emissions and our damaged biosphere, which is very worrying. He seems to think he is acting in the national interest, but he is not.Though Tony Abbott’s treasurer Joe Hockey Australia was one of the prime movers in gaining International support for the OECD’s efforts to put an end to the way digital groups like Facebook, Amazon and Google shift their profits around the world to reduce or even avoid national taxation. Last week the Paris-based OECD proposed a revolution in corporation taxation, which, if introduced, will overturn long-standing rules that have allowed many (mostly American) corporations to minimise their tax.
“In a digital age, the allocation of taxing rights can no longer be exclusively circumscribed by reference to physical presence,” the OECD said in a consultation document published on Wednesday. “What that means for Australia, for example, is that the ATO would be able to levy taxes on profits made by Google on advertisements sold by Google and Facebook to Australian advertisers. It is possible Trump will rail against the OECD plans. It will be a real test of Morrison as to whether he backs Hockey’s ideas encompassed in the OECD proposals, or backs his ‘close friend’ in the White House.The most worrying aspect of Morrison’s foreign policy strategy is indeed his grim determination to cement his friendship with Donald Trump.
It’s good strategy to have foreign minister Marise Payne restore Australia’s participation in the so-called Quad talks in New York last week, along with counterparts from the United States, India and Japan. Under prime minister Kevin Rudd Australia pulled out of this practical forum for co-operation on regional terrorism, maritime and cyber issues.
In his lecture Morrison declared,”under my leadership, Australia’s international engagement will be squarely driven by Australia’s national interest”. Fine words, but they do not square with the PM’s affinity with Trump which, when on show in Washington a few weeks back, was a national embarrassment. It’s not just a conflict of the two men’s moral values, Trump having broken all but two of the Ten Commandments. The US president also has no respect for the rules-based world order, enduring vales and adherence to human rights that Morrison proclaimed as so important in international relations.
Trump will probably escape impeachment, but his role in Russia’s interference in his 2016 election, and his now proven attempt to persuade Ukraine’s president, under duress, to help prove wrongdoing by Joe Biden, provides sufficient evidence for Morrison to take a cool and professional (as distinct from effusive) approach to the American leader, who now seems unlikely to get a second term.
As if this is not enough, as a strong advocate of free trade, Morrison should surely be railing against Trump’s blatant protectionism, as manifested in the trade war he started against China, and his continuing threats to the world’s biggest trade bloc, the European Union.
Even worse, is Trump’s record of four decades of bigotry, his treatment of refugees, and the deterioration of American foreign policy during his administration.
Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell correctly described Trump’s foreign policy as “a shambles” last week, urging Republican congressman to “get a grip” on him. This followed the president’s sudden announcement that he was going to withdraw US troops from the militarized zone along Turkey’s southern border with Syria, where thousands of captured Islamic state fighters, including Australians, are being held. As predicted, this has now enabled Turkish troops to move in on the area that is controlled by Kurds, who bore the brunt of the fighting against ISIS and played a major part with the help of US coalition forces in destroying the IS caliphate.
“History will never forget if the US allows our Kurdish allies to be massacred” was a typical Republican criticism of the president. Not only that, but if Turkey attacks the Kurds it will free the IS fighters, rekindling the fortunes of Islamic state.
Morrison should be summoning the US ambassador to Canberra, expressing Australia’s displeasure at the odious Trump’s reckless move, which betrays an ally and increases the potential danger to Australia. He won’t do this, of course, even though the US president is under a concerted attack.
Under attack from erstwhile Republican supporters, by Wednesday the president had put his name to a White House statement labelling the Turkish military action a “bad idea”, even though it was his action that triggered it.
Senator Lindsay Graham, until this week a staunch Trump supporter, tweeted bleakly: “Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump administration. This move ensures the emergence of ISIS”. Morrison and Co should be saying their prayers too.
Colin Chapman is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs