The journalist and the mumbler

Scott Morrison’s smile lasts four minutes. He is offended by a question on the Quad. If co-operation is needed between India, Japan, the United States and Australia, the journalist asks, who is it needed against?

“It’s not about being against something, it’s about being for something,” Morrison says. “That’s how we look at it.”

Morrison’s smile returns. It twists at the corners. As always, it is a form of confrontation. It says, “Try me.”

The interview, on American television, is about the nuclear submarine deal and mounting tensions with China. It is obvious Morrison was expecting it to be friendly. No one else on the trip had prepared as much to meet him.

Journalist, on China’s response to the submarines: “Do you expect retaliation for this?”

Morrison: “I see no reason why there should be.”

Journalist: “You haven’t spoken to the Chinese president in well over a year. Things are not very friendly at the moment.”

Morrison: “Well, the phone’s always open at our end. The door’s already – is always open at our end. There is no Australian obstacle to direct dialogue at a political level between Australia and China. But that opportunity, the China side have not shown an interest in. But they’re always welcome when they wish to.”

Journalist: “Would he take your call?”

Morrison: “Whose?”

Journalist: “Have you tried to call the Chinese president?”

Morrison: “Those – those opportunities have been available for years, but that’s not something they’re interested in at the moment. That’s their choice.”

Journalist: “He doesn’t want to take a call right now?”

Morrison: “No.”

Ultimately, Morrison says, conflict with China will not be about Australia. “As I said before, I certainly don’t see it as inevitable and I think it’s all completely avoidable. And those issues, though, are going to be resolved principally between the United States and China. They are not issues that are going to be resolved directly by Australia.”

Having grimaced and prevaricated and adjusted himself in his chair, those few sentences sum up the strategic simplicity of Morrison’s foreign policy.

He is not balancing complex powers. He is not looking for leverage or diplomacy. He is visiting America and asking if they could look after it for him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "The journalist and the mumbler".

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