Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Testing Scott Morrison’s diplomacy

In a frank admission – rare for prime ministers, who like to impress they are confidently in charge – Scott Morrison has revealed what keeps him awake at night. That is the feud between our biggest customer and our closest friend. The problem for him is he doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what to do about it, and as such it is a nightmare for the nation.

Not that answers can come easily when your closest ally, the United States, is led by Donald Trump, a man who has turned flying by the seat of his pants into an art form and whose cack-handed trade war with China has mightily disconcerted practically everybody else on the planet. Not making Prime Minister Morrison’s nights any more comfortable is the reality that our biggest customer is led by the wily, ambitious autocrat and canny president Xi Jinping.

Morrison’s candour came in an interview recorded by Channel Seven’s Sunrise program. The show broadcast just three minutes of it earlier this week, but put the entire 25 minutes online. Whether the producers thought that, like good wine, it would improve with age is not clear. But it’s hard to disagree with Morrison’s assessment that “this is going to be one of the most difficult periods in which to manage our relationships with some of the biggest powers in the world, and Australia is living in a part of the world which is the focus of all of this”.

Morrison tempered interviewer David Koch’s description of China as merely our “biggest customer”. He praised Beijing’s success in lifting millions of its people out of poverty. He also sought to distance himself from hawks on his own backbench, in the military and security establishments who see China’s rapid emergence in cold war threat terms. The PM sees China as “a partner”. He said, “Why would we want to contain China’s growth? That would just be numpty, I would have thought.”

In the interview, Morrison did not demur when Koch put it to him that the trade war could seriously stall world growth and recession can’t be ruled out. The Reserve Bank governor is equally pessimistic. The Sydney Morning Herald reported Philip Lowe, in a private business briefing, said: “I do not have a clear idea of what strategy the US has.” He went on to say some people in America “say that it is time for Team West to muscle up against China, and that is very worrying”. He says the heightened tensions between the world’s superpowers are the biggest risk to global stability.

Morrison may not admit to wanting to contain China, but he is certainly looking to take out as much insurance as he can. He told “Kochie” his ambition for the region is that everyone maintains their sovereign independence, and he will be reaching out to neighbourhood democracies such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

The prime minister didn’t mention Vietnam, but our former enemy is now looking like China 20 or so years ago – growing fast economically and minding its own business while it does so, but looking for opportunities where available. On Saturday Morrison is completing the first standalone visit there by an Australian prime minister since 1994. Hanoi certainly appreciated the gesture: besides an extended one-on-one meeting with Morrison’s counterpart, Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, there are all the trimmings of a full state visit. In a business dinner speech on Friday Morrison enthusiastically hung out his “open for business welcome sign” to the assembled entrepreneurs. As with China, many in the audience, if not all, would be members of the Communist Party, as it is the only real way to prosper in any one-party authoritarian state.

Sounding like John Howard before the former PM’s many trips to China, Morrison midweek praised Vietnam as one of “the region’s economic success stories”, which reflects “the significant steps it has taken to liberalise its economy”. He said “our relationship with Vietnam has never been stronger” and his visit “will be an important opportunity to drive forward that strategic partnership”. China dominated Vietnam for nearly 1000 years and the present regime is resisting anything that resembles a return to historical subservience. It is currently in fierce dispute with Beijing over islands and fishing rights in the South China Sea.

In the early hours of Sunday morning Morrison will arrive at the French seaside resort town of Biarritz. His visit comes at the invitation of President Emmanuel Macron, the host of the G7 summit. Australia – along with India, South Africa and Chile – will participate in some of the sessions wherein seven of the world’s richest democracies try to come to grips with contentious issues. This meeting may not be so comfortable for the Australian leader.

Macron, like most of the G7, is more serious about climate change action than Australia. Trump’s America is the exception. One of the sessions Morrison will participate in is listed as “Climate, Ocean and Biodiversity”. Even Boris Johnson’s Britain is concerned Canberra is dragging the chain. Guardian Australia has reported the British high commissioner, Vicki Treadell, met Marise Payne and Angus Taylor – Australia’s foreign minister and energy and emissions reduction minister, respectively – after the May election. Treadell conveyed the Conservative government’s view that all countries, including Australia, should increase their climate ambitions.

No one is expecting a Pauline conversion from Morrison as he flies from Hanoi to France. Despite failing to convince Pacific Islands nations that Australia can reach even its highly inadequate Paris targets, he will not be deterred. Australia’s performance in Tuvalu has seriously damaged our standing in the region, and it’s a misstep China is already exploiting.

A sure sign of how the so-called Pacific step-up became the “Pacific stuff-up”, as shadow foreign minister Penny Wong describes it, is the reaction of next year’s Pacific Islands Forum host nation, Vanuatu. Its foreign minister, Ralph Regenvanu, has made it clear a repeat performance from Morrison is not welcome. He is referring to the tense 12-hour tug of war in this year’s forum, where Australia insisted the Kainaki II Declaration for urgent climate change action to save the sinking archipelagos be watered down – pardon the pun.

Australia refused to agree to the description of the situation in the Pacific as a “climate crisis”. This weakened the position the Pacific Islands wanted to take to next month’s United Nations climate meeting in New York. Still, the declaration did manage to “note with grave concern and fear for our collective future”. It says “without urgent action we will exceed 1.5 degrees by as early as 2030 and reach 3 degrees or more by the end of this century”. It doesn’t mince words about what this would mean for the islands and, indeed, the planet.

Regenvanu says Pacific leaders expect Australia to come to the forum next year ready “to make further, tangible commitments on climate change”. “We call on Prime Minister Morrison to lead on climate change,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Guardian Australia. “The Pacific wants action, and we want it now.”

Our intransigence and the insulting paternalism from Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack goes against Australia’s stated foreign policy objectives to improve relations with the Pacific as a buffer against China’s expanding influence. McCormack was caught on camera saying he was “annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries who point the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector”. McCormack added insult to injury by going on to say the Pacific Islands would survive climate change because their workers “come [to Australia] and pick our fruit”.

The fact is the Pacific did not ask us to shut down our resource industry, the islands’ leaders just wanted us to stop opening new coalmines and transition more quickly to low-emission renewables. Economist Richard Denniss says opening the Adani mine and all the others proposed in Queensland’s Galilee Basin would double our coal exports. But he says, “We would also drive down the world price of coal, drive down production in existing coalmines, and drive up global emissions.” He says, “While Australia shows no signs of transitioning away from fossil fuels, we have well and truly transitioned away from economics and common sense when it comes to coal.”

Whatever China thinks of it, Australia has no intention of transitioning away from its alliance with the US. Before he flew to Vietnam the prime minister announced that, along with Britain, Australia would join the US in assuring freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Morrison insisted it was an “international operation” in Australia’s national interest because 30 per cent of our refined oil passes through the strait. Australia’s surveillance plane will be involved for only one month, followed by a frigate for six months. Where have we heard that before? This time it is a very small “coalition of the willing”, but pondering how to keep Donald Trump onside is enough to make anyone lose sleep.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Awake to the difficulties". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.