Morrison’s UNGA games: Trump, China and the future of global cooperation

Although most eyes in Australia have been on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to Washington to meet with US President Donald Trump, it’s not the only game around. This week, thousands of dignitaries and diplomats will descend on midtown Manhattan for one of the biggest events on the diplomatic calendar—the United Nations General Assembly’s leaders’ week. The week in Turtle Bay is like diplomacy on steroids as the ‘UNGA games’ have delegations scrambling to set up last-minute ‘bilats’ and ‘pull-asides’ for visiting ministers while trying to keep on top of an ever-evolving agenda of side events throughout the day and night.

Later this week, Morrison will make his leaders’ week debut, delivering Australia’s national statement. You can expect his speech to echo familiar themes, along the lines of the one Foreign Minister Marise Payne delivered last year, which, like the statements of most countries, emphasised the importance of multilateralism, particularly in creating a system where ‘global differences are managed, and global challenges met, by agreed rules rather than by the exercise of power alone’. Morrison has flagged that he’ll raise two key issues to advance Australia’s interests for the visit: protection of the oceans and preventing terrorist use of the internet.

The focus on protecting the oceans will raise tricky questions for the prime minister. While not all work on ocean protection intersects directly with climate change, there’s an increasingly strong nexus between the two areas. Australia’s approach to climate change is likely to diminish its oceanic advocacy.

Climate change will be a focus of the week, with some 50 meetings expected on the issue, preceded by strikes around the world last Friday and a youth summit ahead of the UN secretary-general’s key event for the start of the week, a Climate Action Summit. However, Morrison and Trump won’t be attending the summit. Although the Australian government will be represented by Payne, the prime minister’s non-attendance, despite the fact that he’s already in the US, will be seen as reflecting the lack of priority attached to the issue by the government. This is likely to be of concern to our Pacific neighbours, many of whom were aggrieved by the outcome of the recent Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu.

Nonetheless, it’s likely Morrison will seek to use his attendance as an opportunity to consolidate growing efforts to follow through on the ‘Pacific step-up’. Such engagement remains pertinent given the growing influence of external actors in the Pacific, most notably China. But China’s influence within the UN system is also likely to be an ongoing theme throughout the 74th session of the UN General Assembly.

China has taken an increasingly assertive approach to its engagement at the UN, seeking to incorporate language reflective of its views of the world. Things came to a head last week in the Security Council, when the US pushed back against China’s ongoing efforts to insert language on its Belt and Road Initiative into the mandate renewal for the UN Mission in Afghanistan (despite it previously making its way into the text). With Russia’s support, China put forward a second draft but ultimately acquiesced to the omission of a BRI reference, rather than vetoing the resolution. Despite this setback, China has had significant success in rallying the UN to support the initiative and ensuring that resolutions mention its value, in part due to an absence of US leadership in a range of forums.

Since Trump came to office, the US has withdrawn from the Human Rights Council, the Paris Accord and Arms Trade Treaty, cut off funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, attempted to reverse gains on issues such as women, peace and security, and taken months to appoint an ambassador to replace Nikki Haley. Its ability to utilise the UN effectively has been diminished through a lack of consistency and coherence within the State Department, confusing traditionally like-minded countries such as the UK. It’s no surprise that China has seized the opportunity and sought to fill that vacuum in leadership.

Global cooperation and rising nationalism are issues of concern to the Europeans. France and Germany are intending to launch an ‘alliance of multilateralism’ to promote global cooperation this week. There are indications Australia may join, which would be a positive move. But pressure is clearly on the US. Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper stated clearly that ‘sustained US engagement in the international system, including the United Nations, remains fundamental to international stability and prosperity’.

Morrison should be commencing his multilateral advocacy while in Washington, using his one-on-one engagement with Trump as an opportunity not only to emphasise how Australia is contributing to the alliance, but also to stress the value of US leadership of and engagement with the United Nations, and in support of the rules-based global order. That includes speaking out on issues such as human rights.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has indicated that the US may seek to use this year’s forum to talk about human rights and China’s internment of Uyghurs. That would be a welcome move, although it will be quite rightly met with some scepticism given current US government policies on immigration. Australia might face similar criticism. With the exception of references to accountability in Syria and the ‘complex crisis’ in Myanmar, Australia was largely quiet on the issue of human rights abuses in its statement to the General Assembly last year, even though Payne referred to Australia’s current term on the Human Rights Council.

As the United Nations approaches its 75th anniversary next year, the Australian government should be giving serious thought to how it can work with allies and partners to encourage their strong engagement in shaping the multilateral system in a way that supports protections for human rights, addresses new challenges and commits to global cooperation. Morrison’s first national statement to the General Assembly should seize on that opportunity.