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Shock at Trump, shrill at China

Posted By on June 13, 2017 @ 06:00

The shock of Donald Trump has prompted Australia to become shriller about China. Struck dumb by The Donald, Canberra can at least find its tongue about China.

‘Shock and awe’ is probably too grandiose a term for the Trump effect in Canberra so far. ‘Shake and appal’ better catches the feeling.

Shake and appal drives Canberra to play nice with The Donald, and say nothing publicly that is critical of Trump. The discipline is dressed with great swathes of affection for the alliance. If you can’t say anything nice about the 45th president, please talk about all the wonderful things America has done in the past and could do in the future. It mightn’t be much of a template for policy, but it helps structure the speeches.

One knock-on effect of shake and appal has been the sharper language Australia is using about China. In quietly questioning Washington, Australia doesn’t want to be seen simultaneously moving towards Beijing. Instead, the approach is to question gently in one direction while pushing loudly in the other.

Strong words about China’s threat to the rules-based system can serve a dual purpose: speak to Beijing about the value of the system while implicitly pleading with the US not to abandon the system it has built and policed—and mightily profited from.

See the Trump-China dynamic in two Australian speeches in Singapore to the International Institute for Strategic Studies: The Fullerton Lecture in March by the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, (entitled ‘Change and Uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific’) and this month’s keynote to the Shangri-La Dialogue by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

First, the China shrillness. The scene was set by Bishop’s depiction of China ‘rising as an economic partner and geo-political and geo-strategic competitor with the US and other nations’.

The tone was even more striking when Bishop got to values and rules:

‘The importance of liberal values and institutions should not be underestimated or ignored. While non-democracies such as China can thrive when participating in the present system, an essential pillar of our preferred order is democratic community.’

From Bishop’s democratic backhander, Turnbull then put in the strategic boot, offering a ‘dark view’ of a ‘coercive’ China wanting ‘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 US’.

My column from Singapore on Turnbull’s speech carried a big chunk of his China bashing. The strength/shrillness of Turnbull’s words on China made it eminently quotable. But the China stuff wasn’t what Asian and American delegates in the room were parsing after the speech. The interest was in Turnbull’s frantic semaphoring towards the US as he spoke of what Asia must build for itself—particularly the PM’s line that we can’t merely rely on the superpowers to protect our interests. And that the Oz alliance with the US isn’t a ‘straightjacket’. Australia couldn’t abrogate responsibility for its own destiny.

Turnbull’s Shangri-La speech is one of the most important foreign policy readouts of his leadership. It’s strong on how Asia has got to where it is now, firm on the things we don’t want to happen, and very strong on the importance of the US. It’s not so sure, though, on what to do next. And then there’s the silence on Trump, which a lot of people in the Shangri-La ballroom heard as the mute companion wail to the China shrillness. There was no criticism of Turnbull for any duality. Everyone is struggling.

Trump wants to dominate. If he can’t dominate, he disrupts. And amid the disruption, he reaches for a better deal. How to plan or predict with such a leader? It’s tough to talk values and rules to a man who works better at disruption and deals.

The shake and appal fears about what Trump might do—or fail to do—shape the silences and the gaps in Canberra’s Asia discussion. By contrast, the language on China rings louder. Look for Trumpian shapes in the spaces.

The coming Oz Foreign Policy White Paper is going to be a symphony, notable for the absence of Trump-et solos. There’ll be lots of stuff about the strength and vitality of the US alliance, along the lines of the AUSMIN talks with Defence Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson in Sydney last week. The peak Oz-US ministerial had a ‘retro’ feel, and not just because it was held in the wonderful historic ambience of Government House. The ‘adults’ from Washington were visiting; but how much weight to put on their assurances about the great disruptor in the White House?

The questions the Americans directed at the Australian side could draw point from the 2017 Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment, released at Shangri-La by IISS. One of the 12 chapters on ‘key developments and trends’ considered ‘Australia’s uncertain regional security role’.

The key judgment offered on Oz was that it’d be logical to expect that a challenging regional order will cause Canberra to play a more active role, yet ‘doubts remain about its capacity and willingness to do so’. IISS judges the Turnbull government ‘cautious’ about any regional initiatives: ‘The considerable prevailing uncertainty over the depth of commitment of the new US administration to Asia-Pacific security may have contributed to Canberra’s strategic holding pattern.’

Expect more shrillness. The silences will be harder to maintain.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/shock-trump-shrill-china/

[1] Change and Uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific: http://foreignminister.gov.au/speeches/Pages/2017/jb_sp_170313a.aspx?w=tb1CaGpkPX%2FlS0K%2Bg9ZKEg%3D%3D

[2] keynote to the Shangri-La Dialogue: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2017-06-02/keynote-address-16th-iiss-asia-security-summit-shangri-la-dialogue

[3] column from Singapore on Turnbull’s speech: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/malcolm-turnbull-asias-times-trumps-hunger-games/

[4] AUSMIN: http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/Pages/2017/jb_mr_170605.aspx

[5] Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment: http://www.iiss.org/en/publications/strategic%20dossiers/issues/asia-pacific-regional-security-assessment-2017-e17e