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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Mack Williams former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.

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