There is still a lot we do not know about how and why the APEC Summit just ended in Port Moresby was such a diplomatic disaster, from which APEC may not readily recover anytime soon.
China’s President Xi had been the first leader to accept the 2016 invitation to attend the 2018 APEC meeting in Port Moresby, extended by the Chairman, PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. At that time, the focus of Chinese interest was thought to be seeking to involve more Pacific island countries in joining China’s One Belt One Road regional trading infrastructure initiative. Peter O’Neill was the first Pacific leader to sign up for OBOR .
This set alarm bells ringing in Australia’s US -reliant strategic and intelligence communities. Counter-plans were developed, including: more generous Australian infrastructure aid to Pacific countries , obviously to counter China’s growing influence ; an attempted rebranding of the traditional diplomatic term ‘Asia-Pacific region’ to ‘Indo-Pacific region’, a clumsy attempt to belittle Asia’s and China’s centrality; and an ill-conceived and inappropriately-timed announcement by US Vice-President Mike Pence at APEC, that an Australia-US joint military base would be set up on the now infamous Manus Island In PNG, to confront the presumed adversary to the north, China.
APEC has a long and creditable history . It was a mainly Australian vision, under Hawke and Keating, to develop an Asia-Pacific regional cooperative grouping that would not go the way of that discredited and now moribund Cold War relic, SEATO. The focus would be on economic cooperation under a free market framework, but not aggressively so. APEC would be open to all. It was understood that it was desirable to try to bring ASEAN and China and Russia on board as important Asia-Pacific seaboard country members.
All this required a subtle and sensitive Australian diplomacy, which in those years Australia had the the skills and political maturity to practice.
None of this was in evidence at the diplomatic debacle just ended in Port Moresby, from which APEC as an institution may not recover any time soon – perhaps never.
The US sent its Vice-President Mike Pence, who was clearly cranked up and ready to play hardball with China. Bizarrely, he chose to accommodate himself in safe and comfortable Cairns, from where he flew up to Port Moresby to do battle with the Chinese each day. The meeting itself took place , equally bizarrely, on ocean liners moored in Port Moresby harbour.
The meeting was preceded by weeks of mounting US verbal assault on Chinese trade practices , and the unilateral imposition of US tariffs (trade sanctions) against China, contrary to WTO rules. This global contest effectively came to eclipse any contest over local influence in South Pacific nations. Both China and the US were now playing for bigger stakes before a bigger audience that included India, Russia, Japan ,Korea, and the ASEANs.
We don’t yet know a lot of what transpired at the meeting. The skills of former Pacific ABC correspondents like Sean Dorney and Louise Callaghan in ferreting out useful behind-the- scenes colour and movement are sadly missed these days in the ABC.
We do know from the public record that Xi appealed passionately for observance of traditional multipolar courtesies among sovereign nations which had come together freely in APEC. He condemned blatant bloc-building efforts by the US. Pence, undeterred, handled himself as if he was attending a NATO or SEATO meeting. This would be for the US an opportunity to lecture China about her alleged aggression in the South China Sea, to humiliate a captive Xi in front of a largely Asian audience of his peers.
To his discredit , O’Neill as Chairman made no apparent effort to control the meeting, to pull the Americans into line, to remind them of APEC’s conciliatory diplomatic traditions and protocols developed over decades. Nor did Australia seem to play any role encouraging him to do so. Australian diplomacy seemed missing in action.
In fact, Morrison and and O’Neill watched on mutely, like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, as the meeting wound down to its disastrous end, marked by an anti-climactic and dispirited ‘Aussie barbecue’ party on an Australian Navy vessel for anyone who was still there.
Before that, there had been some kind of unpleasantness of four ‘burly’ Chinese diplomats allegedly trying to ‘shove’ their way into Peter O’Neill’s office. We have so far only heard the Australian-American media version of this.
But my guess is that the Chinese may have got wind of a planned anti-China communique fait accompli, to be forced through the meeting under US pressure, which would have meant international loss of face for Xi and a victory of sorts for Pence.
Chinese diplomats would have been determined – as was China’s right – that this would not happen. They got their way, in that no communique was issued , which would support my supposition of the possible sequence of events.
Both Morrison and Peter O’Neill were manifestly way out of their depth . Morrison spoke in marketing platitudes, trotting out archaic and now otiose Howard -era lines, to the effect that Australia could maintain a close strategic alliance with the US , while also maintaining China as our no 1 trade partner. He tried to grin his way through the mess , and nothing he might say on it now after the event could be trusted again.
O’Neill lacked the confidence or authority to ensure that China and the US would both behave according to the protocols of APEC.
Australian diplomacy, which should have been stiffening PNG’s chairman’s spine, was missing in action. The meeting fatally degenerated into a theatre for China-US rivalry.
No doubt Australia’s US-compliant mainstream media will spin this story in coming days to try to make it all look like China’s fault. They have already started to do so. But the more experienced Asia-Pacific leaders who were present will not be fooled by such propaganda. They saw with their own eyes what happened, including Australia’s US-facilitating role.
For Australia to host Pence simultaneously in Cairns – an insult to PNG – and to allow Pence to announce in the APEC meeting in PNG the Australia-US joint base to be built on PNG sovereign territory, was grossly insensitive and clumsy . These errors will cost us.
Australia seems under the faltering Morrison administration to be backing away from meaningful and mutually respectful engagement with our region at the rate of knots. First the continuing regional disaster over the Jerusalem Embassy gambit, now this Port Moresby debacle. We will know to our cost if this government in its remaining months manages comprehensively to alienate some of our most important historical partners in our Asian region.
Diplomatic relationships are easy to destroy, much harder to rebuild. A country at odds with its region needs to put a lot of GDP into defence and police, and be prepared for a tense life.
Tony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Poland and Cambodia, and the author of five books, most recently ‘Return to Moscow’ (2017)