Why Malcolm should head for Mar-a-Lago

Image courtesy of Flickr user sergio_leenen.

Two specialists on strategic and economic issues have urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to plan an early visit to Mar-a-Lago, the same venue where US President Donald Trump is scheduled to hold crucial talks with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

ASPI executive director Peter Jennings told the National Press Club on Wednesday the Trump-Xi summit was crucial to regional security and Australia’s economic interests and he was surprised that the Prime Minister hadn’t already made the journey. Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said the meeting was likely to be the most important for Australia of Mr Trump’s four year term and there were compelling reasons for Mr Turnbull to have a face to face meeting with him quickly. Willox argued that

‘We need to be very alert to the outcomes there because if they walk away without some agreements about trade and about a future economic relationship in which they can live with each other, I think we’re going to be in for a very rough ride over the next four years..

There’s a good story for Australia to tell. Getting close to the President and his immediate advisers is something we need to do. We don’t want to be left behind and left out of conversations at that presidential level.’

In Willox’s view, Australia has to try as much as possible to steer a middle course. Industry and business are very concerned that Australia could become collateral damage in a rapidly escalating security situation or trade war. In either case there could well be a phone call from the White House to the Lodge asking bluntly: ‘Which side are you on?’

‘That’s the nightmare scenario for Australian policy makers with the impact cascading through the economy. If Friday’s meeting goes badly I’d bet London to a brick that one of the first three phone calls the President makes is to Australia and we need to take advantage of that relationship, not just in the defence relationship but in the broader relationship.’

ASPI’s Jennings said China was increasingly willing to use economic levers to try to deliver political outcomes. It’s doing that now in an attempt to stop South Korea deploying an anti-missile system, and Australia shouldn’t naïvely imagine it couldn’t happen here. The government has to be aware that there are strategic risks in Australia becoming too dependent on its deep economic relationship with China. ‘For us to get caught or entangled in a security dispute or a trade dispute between the US and China is perhaps the worst of all worlds.’

Jennings said that Australia was heading into a period of increased risk and deep uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific, and that the Trump Presidency was contributing to that uncertainty. While every incoming administration struggled to find its feet, and to appoint the thousands of officials needed in key jobs and to set an agenda for government, he’d never seen an administration so deeply beset with problems in its first 100 days as the Trump White House.

‘This might self-correct,’ he said. ‘We have stabilising influences like General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. They’re working hard to convince friends and allies that the US isn’t abandoning its essential stabilising role in the Asia-Pacific.’

This lack of policy clarity opens up opportunities for Australia to help shape the President’s thinking, particularly in areas in which Australia is considered a trusted partner, such as defence, regional security and intelligence

Jennings said that North Korea’s developing ballistic missiles mean that it’s in Australia’s interests to develop missile defences for its deployed forces, and the partner is the US. Behind closed doors, the Americans would press China hard to use whatever leverage it has to stop the DPRK’s nuclear and missile testing. There’s a strong American view that North Korea can’t be allowed to weaponise a nuclear warhead fitted to an intercontinental ballistic missile.

According to Jennings, the US could consider a range of pre-emption strategies to prevent missile launches and to disable what was known of the nuclear weapons infrastructure, by cyber or kinetic means. The Americans have been practising pin-point strikes against terrorist targets for decades. ‘But the risks are enormously high. What can they do to stop the regime from launching an all-out retaliatory assault on South Korea? How do they persuade the Chinese that a strike isn’t designed to bring the whole regime down?’

The starting point should be to clearly understand that the US will not tolerate a North Korea able to hit the American mainland with a nuclear weapon. Washington has concluded that Obama’s strategy of strategic patience didn’t work, that the DPRK was unlikely to be reliably deterred and that, with or without China, some action would be taken to blunt the North’s program.

‘If that sounds scary, it’s meant to. We are entering a really difficult and dangerous strategic age.’