GEOFF MILLER. Shangri-la and AUSMIN—assertions, contradictions and questions.

Prime Minister Turnbull’s keynote speech last weekend at the Shangri-la security dialogue in Singapore contained many strong assertions, but also contradictions. It also raised, and left unanswered, some big questions. 

For example, while describing the United States as a “steadfast friend and ally”, he also said that “in this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests”. He said that China is a “good friend and partner”, but in the guise of support for “the US-anchored rules-based order” and “preserving the rules-based structure” he launched a sustained warning about China’s growing power, and a warning to it that a “coercive China” would find its neighbours looking “to counterweight Beijing’s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships between themselves and especially with the United States”.

This theme of the “rules-based order” also figured prominently in the joint statement issued in Sydney two days later after the AUSMIN talks, between US and Australian Foreign and Defence Ministers. It read in part:–“They urged all parties to refrain from further militarisation of disputed features, including in the South China Sea. They emphasised the importance of upholding lawful freedom of navigation and overflight and adhering to the rules-based order….They decided to increase bilateral collaboration in relation to the Indo-Pacific”.

According to press reports (“The Australian”, June 16), in the AUSMIN context Secretary of State Tillerson ‘highlighted threats to the passage of commercial shipping posed by Beijing’s construction of militarised “islands” in the South China Sea. “We oppose China’s artificial island construction and their militarisation…we cannot allow China to use its economic power to buy its way out of other problems”’.

This is strikingly strong language, but the issues are not as clear-cut as the Prime Minister or Secretary Tillerson made them sound. In regard to the South China Sea, for instance, China has made no threats to “the passage of commercial shipping” nor hindered it. The free passage of commercial shipping through the South China Sea is more important to China than to any other country. Rather the issue is one of strategic competition in an area close to China where the US Navy has been used to ruling the roost. It is worth noting that China’s claims in the South China Sea, the notorious “Nine-Dash Line”, were not originated by China’s current communist government, but were first put forward by the nationalist government of Sun Yat Sen, in the early years of the last century.

Similarly, the insistence of maintaining the “rules-based order” frequently omits to note that it is a Western, and particularly a US-based, order. It is not surprising that as China becomes stronger it seeks a voice in this order, in an area abutting its coast. (In that regard the Prime Minister was blunter, speaking of the “US-anchored” order.)

Even more striking is Tillerson saying that “we cannot allow” China to “use its economic power” to buy its way out of other problems. He seems to be criticising China for being what it now is, a large economically strong country able to use that strength in support of its policy goals—as the United States has done around the world for decades. It’s tempting to think that these remarks by the Secretary of State came from frustration at President Trump’s taking the US out of the TPP, an action which was widely seen in Asia as a sign of declining US commitment.

More basic questions again are “why now?”, in regard to the US, and “why us?” It’s only a short time since Presidents Trump and Xi met in the US, and after their meeting Trump declared himself very happy with its outcome, and with his relationship with Xi. There has been a lot of progress on trade issues. So why these strikingly strong attacks on China? One possibility—and that’s all it is—is that the Americans are annoyed because they have concluded that the Chinese are not going to give significant assistance in regard to North Korea. But if that is the problem, demanding that China do more, while at the same time warning against and criticising it, seems unlikely to be productive.

In regard to Australia similar questions suggest themselves, particularly given our very important trade relationship with China, recent seemingly cordial contacts at the highest level, and also our record of declining to join the US in “FONOPS’ in the South China Sea. Perhaps the PM’s strong language was influenced by US views and lobbying; perhaps it was a case of “rage, rage”, not against the dying of the light, but against the inexorable changes to the strategic order in the Asia-Pacific, changes which our Government wishes weren’t happening.

Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and government official. He was Ambassador to Japan and the ROK, served in the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister and Cabinet, and was Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.  


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4 Responses to GEOFF MILLER. Shangri-la and AUSMIN—assertions, contradictions and questions.

  1. Dennis Argall says:

    There is a huge problem in the ‘professional’ commentariat too. How to turn the ship around…?

    I don’t think political leaders will leave their orthodox cave without the evidence of a practicable line to another position. The presence of James Clappers at ANU is a bit like the situation for the ROK having THAAD in place. Serious ballast for conformity.

    I am not physically able to drive to Canberra these days. Those who are in Canberra might consider getting a public round table together with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute to discuss this passage from their recent document reviewing the defence budget:

    “…barely a day goes by without a call for Australia to take a ‘more independent’ position—which is code for moving away from the United States. That sort of view is especially prevalent among young Australians whose memories of the United States begin with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and end with Donald J. Trump’s election…” – page 4

    Discussion in this likeminded blog space will not make changes to public policy. And no contrarian argument is going to work without presentation of how to get from A to B.
    I recall Liberal Foreign Minister Nigel Bowen’s advice to senior officers of Foreign Affairs in 1971 (as retold to me in the department by one present): “I’ll recognise Peking tomorrow if you can show me how to do it while being consistent with our policy of the past 22 years.” There is a terrible force of ‘consistency’ in how our public policy moves, or rather, doesn’t move. An inertia that will be an increasing problem as we see democracies elsewhere, in Europe, including the UK , shifting to a different spirit. We don’t need “I have a dream.” We do need “I have this idea of the future and we can discuss how to get there.”

    • Tony Kevin says:

      I agree with this. I think the sentence singled out by Dennis Argall is indeed significant. As ASPI admits itself here, we are talking about seventeen years of hegemonic, unilateralist US govt policy since the inauguration of George W Bush. I think that is long enough to start to draw some conclusions about the trend of US foreign policy and how Australia should begin to adjust our own foreign policies in response to this and other changes eg the rise of China, the recovery of Russia. To suggest otherwise – to imply as this ASPI quote does that this is simply naive young people’s folly and that they should heed their olders and betters – is frankly arrogance and folly. Dennis Richardson, Paul Dibb, Rick Smith and your likeminded, I am looking squarely at you here. I note that there are many older former senior public servants – e.g. Dick Woollcott, John Menadue, Paul Barrett, John McCarthy, Richard and Alison Broinowski, Richard Butler, Geoff Miller, myself – who support re-evaluation of where Australia is going.

      Unfortunately the establishment foreign policy system, now heavily Defence and national security dominated, is very resistant even to dialogue with dissident thinkers, let alone change.

      A personal note – offered not in self-pity, but factually. In the 19 years since I retired from DFAT to become an independent academic and writer on matters of foreign policy relevance, though I have met with courtesy on the part of recent departmental heads on social occasions when we met, I have never been invited to take part in any such discussion on any area of foreign policy where I might have been presumed to have some expertise to offer: despite having been head of Policy Planning for four years, and ambassador subsequently to Warsaw and Phnom Penh, and continuing to write and occasionally send some of my written material to DFAT. The system cannot cope intellectually with non-conformist thinking. The system simply shuts it out and pretends it isn’t there.

      Sent from my iPad

  2. Tony Kevin says:

    It is also a neat historical irony that my friend Laurie Matheson built up Australian meat exports to Russia in 1971-74′ against the prevailing Cold War orthodoxy of isolating the Soviet Union, because he had a farsighted Country Party Deputy PM John McEwan backing him all the way. It seems Barnaby Joyce is too dim-witted to see his responsibilities to protect export markets of Australian dairy farmers? Or maybe they don’t vote National Party any more? See Chapter 3 of ‘Return to Moscow’ , ‘Laurie’ .

  3. Tony Kevin says:

    Nice piece, thank you Geoff Miller. The contradictions you expose in the PM’s speech actually mirror the confused state of foreign policy thinking in Australia at this time. Our policy elites really are divided and perplexed by shifting great power relativities and agendas, and of course by Trump’s random walks through whatever we thought of as stable certainties. I would not want to be Malcolm’s foreign policy speechwriter at this point in time. If I was , my advice would be – don’t be dogmatic about anything, you may have to eat your words before long.

    One thing missing altogether , it seems, from the speech – I have not yet read the transcriptf – might be Russia. This particular nuclear-armed great power continues to be an Australian blind spot , unless we want to emote over Ukraine. On Russia, I have found evidence now contradicting my earlier view that Russia-bashing is relatively cost-free for Australia. It isn’t .

    Victorian and NSW dairy farmers’ severe economic difficulties are a direct result of Murray Goulburn sharply reducing its buying prices from dairy farmers . This is a direct result of Russian Govt counter sanctions banning Western dairy imports . The EU lost overnight a $500million per annum market in Russia and Australia lost a small but growing $20million direct market . Much worse, the redirection of EU dairy exports to China meant prices for our major export market there have collapsed overnight. Simple economics – Australian dairy farmers have been badly hurt and there is no end in sight to Western sanctions and Russian counter sanctions. Maybe the penny will drop eventually with our politicians – Russia-bashing is not cost-free. Sanctions against a great power never make good political or economic sense. We should have no part in them.

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