MACK WILLIAMS. Canberra wrong-footed in our region?

For Ms Bishop to be talking in Singapore about China and democracies, the Japanese “big ship” and rallying the claimants while pleading with the US to remain staunchly committed in the region certainly is risky. We could be exposed as being more hard line than the US might turn out to be and interpreted as Australia insensitively lecturing the claimants.  

Well before the election of President Trump there was a rising number of voices calling for an urgent review of the challenges to Australian national interests in the Asia Pacific. These stemmed from the recognition that US policies of “pivot” followed by “rebalancing” had faltered amid growing doubts about US intentions and capabilities in our region. To which was the added concern about Chinese longer term aims in the South China Sea and the likelihood the would be achieved by non-military means ( as they since largely have) .

The surprise election of President Trump quickly sharpened these concerns which have continued to cascade through the first months of his Presidency and the stark new policy processes ( or lack of) which he has introduced. To this date Trump has been able to fill only a very small percentage of the 6-7000 “political” positions in the Government – and none other than Cabinet positions in either State or Defense departments! He has also announced big cuts in staffing and resources for State – and the US aid program. Not surprisingly, stories of a demoralised State department are rapidly spreading.

After a lot of rumours and conflicting Presidential tweets no clear sign of new strategic thinking has emerged. This has since has been overlaid by serious new developments on the Korean peninsula which inevitably impinge on the wider strategic view in the White House. Secretary of State Tillerson’s visit to North Asia this week may provide clarity on an emerging US strategy. But that remains to be seen given the way the US policy making process seems to be working (or not). And especially now that a senior State Department     has stated prior to Tillerson’s visit that the words “pivot” and “rebalance” are to be removed from the US lexicon. She added that apart from the TPP , which was the centrepiece of the policy, the policy will remain much the same. That will fall well short of any assurance to allies and friends in the region and look like the dreaded “policy drift”.

Sadly Foreign Minister Bishop’s recent words in Singapore lead back to the concern in our earlier blogs that we risked being caught out if we did not tread carefully during the period when Trump was trying to develop his policies in the region. The Trump policy with emphasis on “everything on the table” for deal-making instead of lengthy intellectual policy construction – especially in dealing with China – was likely to look quite different to the way Obama approached the region. This would necessarily involve concessions in some areas for gains in others – with Trump keeping his cards very close to his chest. There some tentative signs from the US media that the South China Sea SCS) may well prove to be an area in which he would accept the reality and some concession (albeit semantic but reducing the risk of confrontation).

For Ms Bishop to be talking in Singapore about China and democracies, the Japanese “big ship” and rallying the claimants while pleading with the US to remain staunchly committed in the region certainly is risky. We could be exposed as being more hard line than the US might turn out to be and interpreted as Australia insensitively lecturing the claimants. It also sets us up for a “hard” request from the US if Trump decides to retain the hard line in the SCS – maybe even with Japan whose involvement in the SCS is bound not to be without some concerns from the claimant states.

Preparation for Ms Bishop’s visit to the Philippines must understand the real trigger for President Duterte’s outburst against the US. Late last year she pushed firmly for Duterte, via the AFR, to stand up to China more aggressively over the SCS claims and patch up his relations with the US. Yesterday Duterte reminded the Philippine media, in relation to possible conflict with China in a resource rich sea just to the north-east of Luzon , that ‘these are not worth going to war about so we have to continue to discuss quietly’. Ms Bishop’s pre-Manila media briefing reported that , as she should, speak to Duterte about human rights issues. This will require very deft handling as it was precisely this issue on which Obama’s comment sparked Duterte off against the US. Getting the balance right between retaining influence in the Philippines and taking a strong stance on these issues will be critical.

Mack Williams was a former senior Australian diplomat and Ambassador to the Philippines. 

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4 Responses to MACK WILLIAMS. Canberra wrong-footed in our region?

  1. Scott MacWilliam says:

    Lecturing anyone on human rights and democracy is especially risky, even blatantly hypocritical, when it is done from a pulpit in Singapore. That country, which retains the death penalty, has been a one party state for decades. Opponents of the Harry Lee (alias Lee Kuan Yew) dynasty have been harassed, beaten, jailed and worse to ensure that the PAP continues to form the electoral and parliamentary basis of the regime. To lecture the Philippines government, even as it goes through an especially brutal period, on rights under the shield of the government of Singapore, where the rulers preside over a tax haven, parasitic entrepot centre is particularly arrogant. But then this Australian government and the Foreign Minister also supports reactionary Zionism and marks the US under the Trump regime best buddy.

  2. Peter Fuller says:

    Can we assume that Mr Trump and his team are developing any kind of “strategic thinking” about Asia? One has the impression that Trump is mostly concerned with appearing at supporter rallies, where he feels comfortable, and prefers to leave policy development (insofar as any is being done) to the few in his administration who have some kind of grip on reality. The US government is in freefall.

  3. michael lacey says:

    And pray tell which democracies is she referring!
    # The ones since 1945 that have that has Overthrown governments through military coups, acts of war, support of terrorist organisations, covert ops in support of regime change in over 50 countries.
    # The ones that supports dictatorships and installs them to suit their purposes.
    # The ones that openly tears down democracies and instigates civil unrest to allow for the smooth following of their agenda.
    # The ones that have used every known chemical on the battle field and sells such weapons to dictators for their use on civilian populations.
    #The supporting of fundamentalist regimes that provided the terrorists for the greatest act of terrorism in their own country (Saudi Arabia)
    # the ones that use cluster bombs, brightly coloured so as to attract children.
    # The democracies who conduct illegal wars and ignore the rules of the United Nations Charter when it suits them.
    # The ones that start conflict on false flag incidents
    # The democracies that believe in a social hierarchy of “haves” and “have nots”.
    # The democracies that don’t like the minimum wage, or other improvements in wages and working conditions.
    # The democracies that hate unions and people organising to improve their working lives.
    # The democracies that hate universal Health Care.
    # The democracies that loved the Free Trade Agreements that stripped sovereign governments of their rights with corporate control.
    # The democracies that love austerity for the poor and banquets for the rich.

    Is that the democracies that Julie is referring

    • richard le sarcophage says:

      Bravo, Michael! The best ‘democracies’ that money can buy. Democracies that produce creatures like Turnbull as leaders.

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