Australia and Timor-Leste finally sign treaty; Italy’s poll results. By Hamish McDonald.

Duterte to miss ASEAN summit in Sydney

Then White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn (right) with Nick Ayers, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, last month.
Then White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn (right) with Nick Ayers, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, last month.

Malcolm Turnbull will be wondering how many more will drop out of next weekend’s love-in in Sydney with the leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, after Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement this week he had more pressing things to do, namely attend a military graduation ceremony.

The special summit with ASEAN’s 10 leaders has been billed as a major step in filling what everyone in politics agrees is an overlooked, neglected, taken-for-granted part of the world, a region we need to help boost and stay on good terms with as China starts to throw its weight around.

Duterte’s absence removes one of the more controversial attendees, whose presence would have been guaranteed to draw protesters. Only last month, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, announced she was opening a preliminary investigation of the extrajudicial killing of alleged drug dealers and addicts authorised by Duterte, now estimated at 12,000 victims since he took office in mid 2016.

It will, however, limit development of one of the major themes Canberra sees for the summit: regional cooperation in fighting terrorism as South-East Asian recruits of Daesh trickle back from Syria and try to regroup in home countries. Since last year’s seizure of Marawi by a Daesh-inspired group, several countries including Australia have stepped up surveillance of the southern Philippines.

Another waverer is Cambodia’s leader of the past 33 years, Hun Sen, who has sounded off about planned demonstrations by Cambodian migrants and exiles against his suppression of opposition ahead of elections in July. “If they burn an effigy of me I will pursue them to their homes and beat them up,” Hun Sen said recently, though conceding later, “If the dog barks at us, then it is difficult to bark at the dog.” Meanwhile, Australian filmmaker James Ricketson has been in his cells for nine months, charged with espionage .

So far, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is coming. She can expect a much cooler public reception after her silences on the massacres and mass expulsion of the Rohingya Muslims, though Turnbull will be diplomatic, given his immigration officials are trying to pay several Rohingya asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island to return.


ASEAN minor

Some in Australian foreign policy circles say Turnbull is flogging a dead horse to expect much out of ASEAN anyway, as its members refuse to delegate it much authority, subordinate national interests, or criticise bad behaviour by member states.

“The regional institutions that were intended to socialise rivals to the rules of the game had a fatal design flaw,” writes the ANU’s Michael Wesley in the latest Australian Foreign Affairs journal. “All were based on the ASEAN principle of consensus, depriving them of the ability to sanction bad behaviour or even to discuss the contentious issues.”

The Lowy Institute’s Euan Graham sees a hedge creeping into Canberra texts. “The emphasis on ‘South-East Asia’ in Australia’s latest foreign and defence policy white papers is also instructive,” he wrote in Lowy’s Interpreter blog. “References to the ‘ASEAN region’ are still popular in some quarters of the Australian foreign policy commentariat, where hope remains that Australia will one day join the grouping. But such proprietary terminology only flatters to deceive. Australia’s engagement with ASEAN needs to be recognised as subordinate within a wider South-East Asia policy, Timor-Leste included.”

ASEAN proponents say the group has kept the peace among its members, and in total is a market of 638 million people, total GDP of $US2.7 trillion, doing $A72 billion in goods trade and $A28 billion in services trade with us, sending almost as many students as China, and has invested $A127 billion here.

It’s a cultural thing we have to work on, says the ANU’s John Blaxland. “Barely monolingual Australians really don’t feel comfortable mixing it with the ASEAN 10,” he said in riposte to Graham. “After all, there is no one in charge. And which language of the 10 does one bother to learn? What is more, ASEAN countries refuse to make decisions the way Australians would like them to. Often enough, they don’t even have the word ‘no’ in their vocabulary, so getting a straight answer is devilishly difficult.”

Too devilish for the Australian business culture anyway, with a few exceptions such as Coco-Cola Amatil and Harvey Norman. Here long term means three years; the investment community applauded ANZ Bank’s recent moves to sell the Asian grassroots network set up by former chief executive Mike Smith, the bank’s second retreat from Asia after its sale of its Grindlays Bank subsidiary in 2000. Turnbull will get only lip-service from local business leaders next weekend.


Restoring border

Many readers will have choked a little on hearing Julie Bishop’s assertion in New York this week that the new maritime boundary treaty with Timor-Leste shows Australia’s adherence to the rules-based international order and the disputes-settlement measures of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

They may recall the Howard government withdrew Australia from international court jurisdiction on maritime boundaries in 2002, got its spies to bug the cabinet room in Dili while bilateral seabed negotiations were going on, then had to be dragged into the compulsory conciliation that has just ended.

Dili has got its symbolic median-line boundary in the Timor Sea, and a vastly increased share of the Greater Sunrise gas field. But not all its troubles are over. Its chief negotiator, Xanana Gusmão, did not attend the signing ceremony and earlier fired off a letter to the UN saying the conciliation panel was not impartial and Australia was trying to get Greater Sunrise gas piped to Darwin.

The new treaty certainly does contain incentives for Dili to drop Gusmão’s dream of gas-based industry along Timor’s south coast. If it agrees to the less risky and less costly alternative of Darwin, its share of revenue goes up from 70 per cent to 80 per cent, with jobs, training and support facilities thrown in. Gusmão is not easily sidelined, however. With fresh elections called for the deadlocked Timor parliament in May, he has opportunity to disrupt ratification.


Italians become Bannon fodder

Chaos continues in Washington, DC.

Donald Trump announced he would put steep tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, citing national security grounds. It turned out that Canada would be the main foreign victim, its shipments to the United States vastly more than those of China, while input costs would be raised for US manufacturers employing about 15 times as many workers as those making the metals.

Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, put in his resignation. Turnbull, who thought he had a Trump promise to exempt Australian steel, now joins other allies seeking exclusion on national security grounds.

Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner lost his top-secret security clearance, bringing his Middle East peacemaking role into doubt. It was reported Kushner tried to get loans from Qatar last April to bail out his family’s Fifth Avenue building project, failed, and later in the year tried to get Secretary of State Rex Tillerson fired for opposing the Saudi-led embargo on Qatar.

Spinoff from Trump’s circle arrived in Italy, where last Sunday’s election gave victory to protest parties. La Lega (The League), led by the anti-immigrant and would-be tax-cutter Matteo Salvini, was the biggest winner on the right, with 17 per cent of the vote, mostly gained in the prosperous north. Meanwhile, the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) won big in the subsidy-hungry south, winning 32 per cent. The centrist parties languished: Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia got only 14 per cent, and Matteo Renzi’s Socialists 18.7 per cent.

Anything could now happen. Trump’s former adviser and sometime Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon popped up in Tuscany to praise Italians for going further and faster than the British did with Brexit and the Americans with Trump. He suggested a coalition between La Lega and Cinque Stelle, sending a populist signal to the “permanent political class” in Rome and Brussels that people wanted change.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 10, 2018 as "Turnbull may find summit missing ".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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