Malcolm Turnbull on Asia’s times and Trump’s Hunger Games
3 Jun 2017|

‘In this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests.’
Malcolm Turnbull, Singapore, June 2, 2017.

Australia’s Prime Minister has given a big Asia speech that attacked China directly while aiming indirect attacks at Donald Trump’s world view.

Malcolm Turnbull didn’t say one critical word about Trump. Instead, Turnbull dumped implicit acid on US policies, while only twice mentioning Trump (relatively positively) by name.

The problem for Turnbull’s Singapore oration was that all big foreign policy speeches are hostage to the times and the troubles. And Turnbull’s Asia moment was ambushed by Trump’s context.

Turnbull opened a Shangri-La security conference that finds itself in an unusual place—more worried about US intentions and leadership than about China. Strange days, indeed, when the reigning hegemon is more unpredictable than the rising power.

The times-and-troubles frame for the PM is a US President who sees international relations as a version of The Hunger Games. Trump has promised a foreign policy of ‘Principled Realism rooted in common values, shared interests, and common sense’. But the Hobbesian interpretation of that realism in the op-ed by Trump’s national security adviser and chief economic aide is ‘a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage’. So no community, just a crude view of power. And The Donald doesn’t believe in shackling US power to ‘global community’ constructs like the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

The tactic of thumping Trump without mentioning Trump was most on show in the PM’s one paragraph registering disappointment at the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris pact:

‘Some have been concerned the withdrawal from the TPP and now from the Paris Climate Change Agreement herald a US withdrawal from global leadership. While these decisions are disappointing, we should take care not to rush to interpret an intent to engage on different terms as one not to engage at all.’

Turnbull had his Angela Merkel moment with the thought that Australia and Asia can’t depend on China and the US to fix our problems. Following the Merkel example, Turnbull didn’t actually name the troublesome giants:

‘In this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests. We have to take responsibility for our own security and prosperity while recognising we are stronger when sharing the burden of collective leadership with trusted partners and friends. The gathering clouds of uncertainty and instability are signals for all of us to play more active roles in protecting and shaping the future of this region.’

Contemplate the moment when an Oz Liberal PM couldn’t quite rely on our great and powerful friend. Malcolm Turnbull’s alliance love comes with caveats:

‘Our Alliance with the United States reflects a deep alignment of interests and values but it has never been a straightjacket for Australian policy-making. It has never prevented us from vigorously advancing our own interests. And it certainly does not abrogate our responsibility for our own destiny.’

The public Oz position on Trump still reads: ‘No problem here. Nothing to see. Move along.’

The Defence Minister, Marise Payne, presented a fine example of that genre in Singapore on Friday morning after the ministerial meeting of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA = Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Britain). At the presser, the first question was whether FPDA is being enhanced as an alternative to the US security role in Asia.

Senator Payne replied by saying that in Australian Rules footy, the question would be described as a ‘drop punt’. I later tackled the Defence Minister with the charge that this was a nonsensical footy analogy that worked only because Asia hacks know nothing about Oz football. To which, Marise Payne replied with a laugh: ‘That’s exactly why I used it’.

My translation: when asked about Trump and Asia, resort to opaque football metaphors (the Oz version of ancient Chinese proverbs) and hold to a public script that doesn’t kick Trump. The tough talking is to be done in private.

Before his Shangri-La speech, Turnbull had a bilateral with the US Defense Secretary, James Mattis. There’ll be another chance on Monday, when Mattis and Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, are in Sydney for the annual AUSMIN talks.

Turnbull’s cautious/hopeful handling of Trump contrasts with his robust language about the ‘dark view’ of a ‘coercive China’ seeking domination. He challenged China to strengthen the regional order as it reaches for greater strategic influence:

‘Some fear that China will seek to impose a latter day Monroe Doctrine on this hemisphere in order to dominate the region, marginalising the role and contribution of other nations, in particular the United States. Such a dark view of our future would see China isolating those who stand in opposition to, or are not aligned with, its interests while using its economic largesse to reward those toeing the line… A coercive China would find its neighbours resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space, and look to counterweight Beijing’s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships, between themselves and especially with the United States.’

In last year’s Defence White Paper, Australia was obsessed by the need for rules and order: the word ‘rules’ was used 64 times—48 of those in the formulation ‘rules-based global order’. Then, Australia used the ‘rules’ injunction as code for fears about China. Now the call for rules and order is directed as much at the US as China.