Now is not the time for Scott Morrison to put Australia’s friends offside

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Now is not the time for Scott Morrison to put Australia’s friends offside

Soon after Scott Morrison became Prime Minister, he was presented with a policy wish list by Liberal senator Eric Abetz and other conservatives who had helped dynamite Malcolm Turnbull.

It included abandoning the Paris climate change commitments and moving Australia’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Morrison declined to abandon the Paris commitments, which were set by Tony Abbott in 2015 and involved reducing emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.

However, he did abandon any policy mechanism that might be needed to reach the targets. Instead, Morrison adopted a policy of passive adherence with the contestable claim that under business as usual, we’ll get there “in a canter”.

Scott Morrison heralded his first major trip abroad as Prime Minister by announcing his Pacific pivot.
Scott Morrison heralded his first major trip abroad as Prime Minister by announcing his Pacific pivot.

When pressed by conservatives inside and outside the party to go the whole hog and dump the commitments on ideological grounds, Morrison cited the strategic importance of at least paying lip service to the targets. Not from a climate change perspective but due to the growing threat of Chinese influence in the south-west Pacific.

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“I have to consider not just the issues here,” he said two months ago to broadcaster Alan Jones who continues to believe Australia’s Pacific neighbours are “rent seekers”.

“In the Pacific, this is an issue which is incredibly important,” Morrison said of climate change.

“In the Pacific, this issue dominates their thinking and agenda. Now, the Pacific is one of the most strategic areas of influence in our world today.”

Overall strategic interest

Morrison told President Joko Widodo on Wednesday he would make a decision regarding the embassy by Christmas.
Morrison told President Joko Widodo on Wednesday he would make a decision regarding the embassy by Christmas.

Mick Tsikas

It was sound reasoning by Morrison which could have left him open to accusations of allowing foreign policy to be dictated by others. So what. Big foreign-policy decisions always have implications and the overall strategic interest should always be taken into account.

That Morrison gave no such similar consideration to the embassy announcement he made on the fly when trying to woo Jewish voters in the dying days of the Wentworth byelection campaign is now proving a major headache, domestically and diplomatically.

Put aside for a moment the Indonesian threat to abandon the ready-to-sign free trade agreement if the embassy move goes ahead, and consider the broader message that has been sent.

Morrison heralded his first major trip abroad as Prime Minister to this week’s strategically important ASEAN/East Asia Summit and APEC summit by announcing his Pacific pivot.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told Morrison his ascension was an opportunity to repair relations after they frayed under ...
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told Morrison his ascension was an opportunity to repair relations after they frayed under Turnbull over such issues as foreign interference legislation.

Mick Tsikas

In essence, there was no more important foreign policy priority for Australia than its own “Pacific family” which, he acknowledged, Australia had taken for granted and which, he didn’t acknowledge, was being encroached upon by China at rapid pace.

The key element was the $2 billion infrastructure fund which would be largely paid for by a “reprioritisation” of aid from elsewhere, including United Nations-linked bodies and the Palestinian territories in the Middle East. “Useless international club joining exercises,” he told The Daily Telegraph.

Yet at the same time he annoyed Indonesia, which is of critical economic and strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific region, by flagging a policy shift in the non-priority area of the Middle East.

Symbolism and ideology

While leaders met in Singapore this week, US Vice-President Mike Pence was sabre rattling.
While leaders met in Singapore this week, US Vice-President Mike Pence was sabre rattling.

Bernat Armangue

Israel is miles away from Australia’s sphere of influence. Apart from symbolism and ideology, an embassy shift would achieve nothing, including the mythical pursuit of a two-state solution.

Morrison told President Joko Widodo on Wednesday he would make a decision regarding the embassy by Christmas.

To walk away from the process now would look like Indonesia has dictated foreign policy, something Morrison said he would not allow.

One presumes the process will be a face-saving exercise between now and Christmas involving going through the motions of examining the embassy move before arriving at the same conclusion this same government did when it examined the move under Turnbull – not worth it.

Australia's relationship with China has moved from testy to passive aggressive.
Australia’s relationship with China has moved from testy to passive aggressive.

David Rowe

If Morrison does agree to move the embassy, the FTA will be thrown on the bonfire. If he decides against it, he will have cranky conservatives to deal with.

The latter is vastly preferable because as this week abroad has already underscored, the situation in the region is growing more serious and now is not the time to put friends offside.

The South China Sea issue has been lost

Over the years, the overriding issue at ASEAN/EAS and APEC has always been China’s incursions into the South China Sea, the negative poster child of China’s rise.

This year at ASEAN, held in conjunction with the EAS, the South China Sea again provided ample background noise but efforts to rein in China via a code of conduct were finally, surely, rendered utterly meaningless.

The “milestone” claimed by ASEAN nations and China was to agree to a draft text that would form the basis of negotiations for a code of conduct.

Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, further diluted this nothingness by saying agreement on a draft text did not mean negotiations were over, or that all the competing claims over territory in the South China Sea were resolved because the code of conduct “was never meant to resolve territorial disputes”.

The South China Sea issue has been lost. The most discernible shift this week is that the frontier has moved to Australia’s front yard – the Pacific.

Australia’s relationship with China has moved from testy to passive aggressive. Both sides are smiling and saying nice things while working like blazes behind the scenes to contain each other with measures such as the pivot and the Australia-US-Japan trilateral infrastructure initiative to rival China’s Belt and Road.

In their first meeting as leaders, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told Morrison his ascension was an opportunity to repair relations after they frayed under Turnbull over such issues as foreign interference legislation.

“This is also a meeting that is a turning point after our ups and downs in relations,” Li said, a day after China’s Vice-Foreign Minister, Zheng Zeguang, said the Pacific region was “not any country’s sphere of influence” and accused Australia and her allies of a Cold War mentality.

With the US and China, it’s just aggressive.

While leaders met in Singapore this week, US Vice-President Mike Pence was sabre rattling and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which advises the US Congress on national security implications of the US-China trade and economic relationship, said China’s global rise has “undoubtedly put at risk the national security and economic interests of the United States, its allies and its partners”.

In his short time in office, Morrison has sought to strike a more diplomatic tone, saying he is determined not to have to choose between the US and China, but to nurture and balance both relationships.

That was John Howard’s mantra but it’s looking a lot harder now than back then.

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