Malcolm less bullish on China; Putin boosts Assad; ALP to follow British Labour’s left turn?; Singapore’s Lees By Hamish McDonald.

Turnbull and Bishop in existential talks

Britain’s new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, at a Battle of Britain commemorative service this week.
Britain’s new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, at a Battle of Britain commemorative service this week.

Malcolm Turnbull is greatly indebted to Julie Bishop for his caucus victory over Tony Abbott, making the dynamics of the relationship between the prime minister and the foreign minister something to watch.

Abbott’s tolerant guffaw at Peter Dutton’s crass jokes about Pacific islanders and Indigenous Australians might well have been the last straw for Bishop. It came after a week in which climate change and its threat of rising sea levels and massive storms was a central issue in Port Moresby at the annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting, where Abbott was in the firing line as a representative of industrial nations. Bishop had worked hard at relations with the Pacific, quarantining the region from aid cuts.

Turnbull so far has said Bishop and Environment Minister Greg Hunt (assuming he stays in the portfolio) would be taking the same offer of emissions cuts announced recently to the UN climate change meeting in Paris this December. Let’s see, now that Abbott’s hand is lifted, whether the delegation shows more flexibility to move with any emerging international consensus.

One subject the two will have to sort out is whether Daesh is an “existential” threat or not. In April, Bishop, made the assertion that must have startled even the audience at Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute, that Daesh presented the greatest threat to world order since the end of World War II, greater than the rise of communism and the Cold War, and one that could “threaten the very existence of nation-states”.

In July, Turnbull rebutted this. “Just as it is important not to underestimate, or be complacent about, the national security threat from Daesh, it is equally important not to overestimate that threat,” he said. Daesh was “not Hitler’s Germany, Tojo’s Japan or Stalin’s Russia” and despite its aspirations to world domination, “we should be careful not to say or do things which can be seen to add credibility to those delusions”.

1 . Malcolm less bullish on China

Turnbull will be much less fixated on the Middle East than Abbott anyway, and may leave the running of it to Bishop while he concentrates on the “exciting” new possibilities of the rising, more consumer-oriented economies of Asia – exciting, at least, for financial types like himself, if not immediately for the working class.

Where Abbott was concentrating on strategic stuff to line up Asian powers such as Japan, India and Vietnam against Chinese might, Turnbull will be sotto voce about this side. In one recent speech he singled out four big trends: “the rebooting of India, economic rebalancing in China, structural reform in Japan, and continued liberalisation of trade and investment.” He also urges the 12 countries still negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, including the United States and Australia, to try to include China in the trade and intellectual property pact.

This approach may cause some friction with the hawkish team that Abbott has installed in the Prime Minister’s Office and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, including the PM&C secretary Michael Thawley, and national security adviser Andrew Shearer. Possibly Turnbull may cast an eye over the final draft of the government’s new defence white paper, due for release next month.

According to The Australian’s Cameron Stewart, a preferred drop for leaks from defence, the white paper will advise orders for eight new-generation submarines, eight anti-submarine frigates, and 10 offshore patrol vessels. Turnbull is unlikely to challenge this, and indeed will be encouraging South Australian hopes of getting the bulk of the construction work, but he may look carefully at the tone of the strategic justification.

2 . Putin boosts Assad

Meanwhile, the air campaign against Daesh in Syria, joined by Australia just two days before Abbott’s fall, is looking less like a game-changer and more and more like a sideshow, as Vladimir Putin steps up his support for the beleaguered Assad regime.

As we’ve been reporting, Russia has been flying in air traffic control systems, housing units and half a dozen tanks to build up an airbase near the city of Latakia, a centre in western Syria where much of the country’s remaining population is huddled under Assad’s dubious protection. A similar hardening is reported to be under way at the Russian naval depot in Tartus, a base to sustain operations outside the Turkish choke point on the Black Sea exit.

Some reports suggest that Russian fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and 1000 special force soldiers could be stationed at Latakia and Tartus. But while the Russians are denying plans for a direct role against anti-Assad rebel groups, Putin has emphasised a belief that Assad and his government are necessary to fight “a terrorist aggression”. This has dashed hopes, created by an unusual flurry of regional meetings organised by Moscow, that Putin may be preparing to broker a peace settlement in Syria by pushing Assad aside. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said US and allied forces should co-operate operations in Syria with Russia to avoid “unintended incidents”.

The US Defence Department is reported to be considering scaling back its $US500 million effort to create an effective moderate force of 5000 to fight Assad. Its first 54 trainees fell into the hands of the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra immediately on being deployed into the field. A separate CIA training program in Jordan is also showing lacklustre results.

Now, according to Washington’s Foreign Policy online, the Pentagon is looking at training a small number of Syrians to embed with Kurdish militias in northern Syria to help direct air strikes against Daesh by the US-led coalition. This of course won’t please Turkey, which has been bombing the very same Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) in Syria.

3 . Labor to follow Britain’s left turn?

With Turnbull’s ascent removing Bill Shorten’s best selling point ahead of next year’s election, does the rise of the far-left Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour Party leadership in Britain, after the centrist Ed Miliband’s recent electoral trashing, offer any pointers to the way the ALP might react to adverse polls?

Our parties have taken cues from Thatcher and Blair in the past, to the point where difference is nuance and personality. Maybe the left-wing revolt (suicidal, according to Blair) will be followed by a trade union-greenie-pacifist backlash here.

4 . Singapore’s Lees

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong duly moved to capitalise on the public mood created by the death of his father, founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, and the 50th anniversary of the emergence of the island republic to hold a snap election on September 11.

He boosted the vote of the People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore without interruption since 1959, by about 10 percentage points to nearly 70 per cent.

Lee, who at 63 has already had two successful treatments for cancers, will now be pondering when to exit the leadership. A third-generation Lee is unlikely to be ready in time. Conjecture already swirls around the rising star of Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. His moves to expand social welfare greatly helped the PAP resurgence. But is Singapore ready for a prime minister from the 10 per cent Tamil Indian minority, however able?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "Turnbull and Bishop in existential talks".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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