Malcolm Turnbull’s visits to Washington and elsewhere continue his reshaping of the tone of Australia’s foreign policy, away from Tony Abbott’s bullish moralising. By Hamish McDonald.

Turnbull’s change of tone in foreign affairs

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office in Washington, earlier this week.
Credit: AP

It’s hard to recall another time when an Australian prime minister’s visit to Washington has been preceded by a pointed refusal of a new American call to arms.

This is what happened ahead of Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to the United States capital this week, with Defence Minister Marise Payne confirming Canberra turned down a recent request for more military contributions to the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

Dropped Abbott cabinet ministers Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz were outraged. US President Barack Obama’s administration was unruffled: Turnbull and Obama are reading from the same page on national security and the Middle East.

Obama’s last State of the Union address, against demonising Islam and Muslims with the actions of extremists or sending Western ground forces to fight Daesh, paralleled Turnbull’s message since the October 2 shooting in Sydney’s Parramatta, repeated at Monday’s speech to Washington’s hawkish Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Just four months into Turnbull’s prime ministership, this is the most distinct shift in the foreign policy and national security sphere. “It feels quite tonally different from what we would have had before,” notes former Office of National Assessments head Allan Gyngell after reading the speech. Gyngell says he was struck by the absence of the “moral absolutes” that peppered Tony Abbott’s statements, replaced by words such as “reconciliation” and “engagement”.

Other changes are slowly taking shape. After taking the leadership, Turnbull was quickly introduced (or reintroduced as prime minister) to important counterparts in the end-of-year round of G20, APEC and East Asia summitry. Two specific interventions showed a conscious effort to alter the atmospherics of bilateral relationships left by Abbott.

One was November’s stop in Jakarta, featuring a blusukan (walkabout) in Jakarta’s crowded Tanah Abang textile market with Joko Widodo. It created a warm personal connection with the Indonesian president, in place of the testiness left by Abbott’s turn-back-the-boats asylum-seeker policy and his refusal to apologise for Canberra’s revealed phone-tapping, and by Widodo’s now tacitly shelved run of drug trafficker executions. This should help co-operation on issues such as trade protection, refugee flows and countering the new revival of terrorism in Indonesia under the Daesh banner.

The other was Turnbull’s December visit to Tokyo. Pointedly, this was his first step in north-east Asia, avoiding Kevin Rudd’s mistake of travelling to Beijing first. Yet this, too, showed a changed policy nuance.

Closer strategic co-operation with Japan was not ignored. Having visited France and Germany, whose shipbuilders are the two other bidders for the Royal Australian Navy’s future submarine fleet, Turnbull wanted to assure the Japanese their Sōryū-class submarine was still very much in the running. He also wanted to keep up the practice of annual prime ministerial meetings, alternately in each country, started by Abbott.

Yet Turnbull’s main theme was the potential connection of Japanese technology to the innovative business culture he’s trying to encourage in Australia. Nor did he leave it to media questions to issue a polite but pointed rebuke of Japan’s resumption of whaling, a project of nationalist machismo dear to Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s conservatives.

Under Turnbull, Canberra will be much cooler about Abe’s efforts to revive national pride in the pre-1945 era. It is a shift in nuance at least, but an important one. Meanwhile, the surprise agreement between Japan and South Korea in late December about addressing the wartime “comfort women” issue has eased the most contentious part of this revisionism.

The big game for Turnbull is China, however. This reflects a fascination going back more than two decades, says Murray McLean, a former ambassador in Tokyo and consul-general in Shanghai. “I don’t think he has rose-tinted glasses about China, but he would be pretty much persuaded we have to get the relationship right,” McLean says.

In Washington, Turnbull positioned himself as someone familiar with America and its concerns, from visiting either to see his mother at Rutgers University, or as a journalist, as a Goldman Sachs investment banker, as a parent of a student at Harvard, or as a future father-in-law of an Australian soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through this personal investment, says Gyngell, “he’s establishing the right to speak frankly as someone who knows the place”.

Frank advice there was, mostly related to China. Turnbull urged the US congress to ratify the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership pact on trade, investment and intellectual property, which Republicans have promised to stall to deny Obama a final-year achievement, even though they thought of the TPP first. “Free trade is not just good for jobs. It is good for security,” he said, appealing to US conservatives.

With Turnbull’s kudos in Washington lifted by the Royal Australian Air Force “freedom of navigation” flight over China’s new artificial islands in the South China Sea in December, and by the Australian observer role he revealed at an arbitration case brought by the Philippines against China on their maritime disputes, the prime minister lectured the US senate about ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. “Non-ratification diminishes American leadership where it is most needed,” he said.

We await Turnbull’s first visit as prime minister to China. From his US speech, we can expect it will be a mix of pragmatic realism – cautioning Chinese leader Xi Jinping about stirring military tensions – with economic boosterism, about China’s more consumption-based economy (as sought by Xi’s reforms, beyond the current slump in the export-investment model) fitting Australia as providers of services and fine, safe foods.

So far these shifts in tone and nuance reflect Turnbull’s own thinking. Over the summer he’s now been joined by a new team of like-minded advisers. In national security, ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis and National Counterterrorism Co-ordinator Greg Moriarty were there already. The difference is that Turnbull listens to them, and follows their advice.

The replacement of Michael Thawley as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet removes a figure deeply imbued with the Cold War spirit, inclined to take a hard line with China, and open to a restoration of Japan as a “normal” power. Another departed Abbott foreign policy adviser inclined to a strategic line-up with Japan against China was former diplomat Andrew Shearer. He’d been positioned to succeed Kim Beazley in the Australian embassy in Washington. Now he’s across the road at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, while ousted treasurer Joe Hockey comes in as new ambassador.   

The new PM&C secretary is Martin Parkinson, the former head of treasury whose sacking was one of Abbott’s first moves in office. Parkinson’s advice will be important as weak commodity prices, Chinese financial turmoil, and falling tax revenues test the Turnbull narrative of great opportunity in the post-resources boom phase.

Frances Adamson became Turnbull’s international relations adviser after finishing in November as ambassador in Beijing. She’s been joined in Turnbull’s office by John Garnaut, formerly a Fairfax correspondent in Beijing. Described by colleagues as “super-organised”, Adamson will connect Turnbull to advice within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and knows ways to influence China and their limits.

As foreign minister, Julie Bishop switched from Abbott to Turnbull with the brief-changing ease of the former barrister she is. But she is soon to lose DFAT secretary Peter Varghese and his broad policy expertise as a former head of the Office of National Assessments and envoy to India. He retires mid-year to become chancellor of the University of Queensland. Contenders to replace him include Moriarty and Adamson, and Australian Secret Intelligence Service chief Nick Warner, who is consulted closely by Bishop.

Veteran diplomat and former ASIO chief Dennis Richardson has passed three years as defence department secretary and may be looking to retire after the new defence white paper, expected next month, or after the selection of the future submarine partner mid-year. Contenders for his replacement include immigration and border protection department secretary Mike Pezzullo, who in a previous role drafted Rudd’s 2009 defence white paper, and present defence deputy secretary Peter Baxter, a former diplomat and aid agency chief.

The ambitious 2009 document, calling for a doubling of the RAN submarine fleet, dispelled notions of Rudd as starry-eyed about China. The new white paper, delayed for revision after Turnbull became prime minister and Payne was installed as defence minister, will be the next big pointer on how Turnbull and his advisers position Australia. More tactful “strategic hedging” against China turning nasty and less keenness on Middle East adventures can be expected than might have been the case under Abbott and Andrews.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2016 as "Foreign prosody". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.