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Turnbull foreign policy: in with Asia, out with the Anglosphere?

It is likely new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will bring a stronger Asia-Pacific focus to Australia’s foreign policy and has already begun to establish a narrative based around economic liberalism, but his government will still struggle to execute one of its signature foreign policy initiatives: the China free trade agreement.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has indicated she will continue in that role under the new leader. But prime ministers inevitably play a significant role in setting the nation’s foreign policy direction, so what should we expect from Malcolm Turnbull?

It remains to be seen whether a new frontbench will continue to focus on national security, though the former communications minister’s well-publicised criticism of the citizenship-stripping proposal suggests he may not be as keen as his predecessor.

One of Turnbull’s most immediate challenges will be to help the China free trade agreement through the parliament. Labor is either creating or reflecting concerns in the community about labour market restrictions for incoming Chinese workers — depending on who you ask — which will make life difficult for a government determined to display its economic credentials leading into an election. There is also doubt whether the FTA will be the jobs boon the government are claiming.

Earlier this month the now-PM emphasised the innovation potential behind this agreement, reflecting the innovation-heavy narrative Turnbull is already encouraging us to view his prime ministership through:

“Australia is well placed to capitalise on this new wave of innovation and disruption emerging from China. However, we all have a role fostering a culture of innovation which must be driven by the private sector, educational institutions and government. In the innovation space, government must lead the way with clear and detailed education, innovation and technology policies that are funded adequately. Industry, too, must embrace disruptive change and most importantly continue to enhance its understanding and relationship with China and its economy.”

More than Manchurian candidate

In terms of broader foreign policy settings, Turnbull potentially offers a stronger Asia focus. In contrast to Abbott’s fixation with the Anglosphere — which, knighthoods notwithstanding, was mostly downplayed once he reached the highest office — and aggressive posturing against everyone from Russian president Vladimir Putin to the Daesh “death cult”, Turnbull’s previous musings on international relations have tended to focus on the importance of the (re)ascent of China.

Offering his analyses of history, Turnbull has previously made the case that although China would naturally take up the mantle of a military great power as its economy grew, it would not necessarily choose to dominate its neighbours:

“while some in the West struggle with the very thought of a future where China and India are two of the world’s three largest economies, the Chinese and Indians are likely to view it as a return to the status quo ante.

” …The speed of Asia’s rise, culture differences between East and West (and the lingering effects of colonialism) could exacerbate the likelihood of conflict.  This transition in global power will be a very different hand-off than from Britain to the US a century or so earlier.

“Some suggest China will in time invoke a latter day Monroe Doctrine asserting its hemispherical primacy as the United States did nearly two hundred years ago. But this analogy is quite inapt. The Western Hemisphere in 1823 consisted of the United States of America, the British colonies in Canada and an assortment of struggling, weak, unstable Latin American colonies which had either just become independent or were seeking to be so. The Western Pacific today on the other hand, apart from China, includes a nuclear power in Russia, the world’s third largest economy in Japan, the world’s fourth most populous nation in Indonesia not to speak of other powerful, rapidly developing powers. The construct of the Western Pacific as a lake in which there are only two players — the US and China — is just dead wrong.”

Instead, the big challenge presented by the rise of China is for Australia to be able to harness the opportunities of a burgeoning middle class while keeping up economically:

“As developing nations catch up with developed, as economies converge and the globe integrates, competition has become truly worldwide. Surf shops in Santa Monica must compete with online sales from Shenzhen factories. Workers must compete too. Highly skilled jobs, highly sophisticated production lines and highly valued intellectual property are no longer the preserve of high-wage developed countries.

“… realistic governments in advanced economies can’t be blind to the impact of convergence, technological catch-up, and growing competition across a range of sectors from the skilled, productive workforces and sophisticated, innovative producers we see in emerging Asia and elsewhere.  Every year the list of trade-exposed sectors gets longer. These forces are exacerbating the fiscal and demographic problems democracies already face with their high incomes, high costs, high tax burdens, high levels of regulatory intervention, and generous social welfare programs. So too in many cases, unrealistically high expectations among voters and politicians alike as to the sustainability of the status quo.  Many of the policies and premises of the past are already unsustainable.”

The American convergence

This reading, which assumes economic interconnectedness will keep Australia safe and even help it prosper, maintains the thinking that led him to cast a sceptical eye over our relationship with the United States in 2011.

In a speech to the London School of Economics, Turnbull argued that, far from professing immutable ties with the Americans, potentially at the expense of opportunities in China, we should recognise that the US has its own interests. Though those interests generally converge with Australia’s, we should shy away from “extravagant professions of loyalty and devotion”:

“It suits President Obama’s domestic agenda to be seen to muscle up to China, even if the additional muscling does not bear too much analysis.  But an Australian government needs to be careful not to allow a doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world to distract from the reality that our national interest requires us truly (and not just rhetorically) to maintain both an ally in Washington and a good friend in Beijing — which is, after all, our most important trading partner and a principal reason why our unemployment rate is half that of North America or Europe.

“If extravagant professions of loyalty and devotion to the United States strike a somewhat awkward note for many Australian ears, how do we imagine they sound in the capitals of our neighbours? And the same may be said in respect of equally extravagant compliments paid to Beijing.  Australian leaders should never forget that great powers regard deference as no more than their due.”

Former Defence deputy secretary Hugh White was certainly positive about the prospect of a Turnbull foreign policy back in February:

“it is worth reflecting that Turnbull, if he wins the Lodge, might have more scope to really explore Australia’s place in the world of the Asian Century than any of his predecessors, or any of the current alternatives.

“Politically he has less to fear from an open discussion of the future role of America in Asia than anyone on the Labor side of politics, because he will not suffer from Labor’s deeply ingrained terror of being attacked by the Liberals as disloyal and irresponsible.

“And intellectually he has more to offer than anyone on his own side of politics, simply because he has thought about it more, and more openly than his colleagues. One reason for that is his obviously deep curiosity about China, especially, simply because he seems to see it as the most interesting, as well as perhaps the most important, place in the world today. That’s not a bad starting point for Australian foreign policy.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.