CAVAN HOGUE. How should Morrison respond to Trump’s invitation?

President Trump wants to invite Australia to attend the forthcoming G7 meeting as a guest  along with Russia, Japan, South Korea and India. Mr Morrison has said he will consider a reply.

This invitation puts Australia in a difficult position. We may be damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The issue is fraught with peril for Australia and we would be well advised to keep as low a profile as possible.

President Trump has postponed the scheduled G7 meeting in Washington from June to September. Other members did not want to travel to the USA because of the virus situation there and the riots can only have confirmed that view. Trump is talking about inviting Australia, South Korea, Russia, Japan and India to the meeting. We may assume that anything he says or does at the moment is related to his election campaign and this move is clearly designed to create a bloc against China. This creates problems not only for Australia but also creates the same dilemma for Japan and Korea.

Why does Trump want us in? Presumably, he wants a reliable ally who can be counted on to toe the American line in the G7.  Our track record suggests this is not an unreal bet. However, on a larger canvas, the USA is engaged in a power struggle with China which has nothing to do with ideology but with who will be number one. To that end, the more countries who clearly and reliably back the US against China the better for the US. This is not just Trump and his courtiers but a general American interest.

Australia has wavered on occasions because of our important trade interests with China plus our relative geographical and strategic positions. Therefore it is in American interests to try to detach us from China as much as possible. Getting us to join in a move that is blatantly directed against China might help to pull us further apart. Ambassador Sinodinos has taken the view that the Alliance must be maintained above all but that view is under question more than in the past. Domestically, Trump will want to show that he has international support and that China does not. Turning Xi Jin Ping into a reborn version of the insidious Dr Fu Manchu is part of his election strategy.

So what is in it for us? To accept the invitation and support Trump will add to the woes we already have with China and lessen our credibility further.  First of all, Trump doesn’t control the G7 so permanent membership would require the support of the other members. He can, however, invite us as a guest as Macron did when it was held in Paris.

Do we really want to attend the G7 when we are already a member of the more important G20 which does include China? Russia is also on Trump’s list of invitees so to the G7 so the values argument, flawed as it is, doesn’t  hold up. Relations with the USA aside, there seems to be no convincing reason to join or even attend a G7 meeting as an American guest. We would hitch ourselves to the American wagon even more than we are presently attached and gain nothing except Chinese ire.

On the other hand, to refuse an invitation from The President of the USA which has been made public may not go down well in the US and especially with the Trump ego. How will he react?  Will a refusal adversely affect Australian interests in the US?  The Democrats might hold a refusal up as evidence that even a reliable ally like Australia has dumped Trump and we do not want to get involved in American domestic politics.  If Trump loses the election then getting too close to him may not be a good look with the Democrats. If Trump is reelected we don’t want him there carrying a grudge.

So where do Australian interests lie? Between the Devil and the deep blue sea!. At a time when the US is self-destructing how close should we be? How the other invitees react will be important. If the others decline, especially Japan and Korea, then we would be in good company but if we were to accept when the others decline the result would mark us as the monkey to Trump’s organ grinder.

We do not know at this stage what the other members will do, especially Germany and France.  And, of course, the virus situation in the US may still be bad in September requiring a further postponement. We should prevaricate as long as possible but not get involved in what is so obviously a blatant Trump election effort. We could argue that our membership of the G20 provides all that the G7 might offer. The dangerous COVID19 situation in the USA would also give us and others a reason not to go and may well lead to a further postponement which would enable all of us to postpone any decisions.

The Prime Minister will  look to public opinion in Australia and the hawks in his government. Will he try to spin it as standing up to China and supporting our important ally? He does not have a sophisticated understanding of international relations and his Foreign Minister seems wedded to the hard-line intelligence/defence lobby in Australia. We can but hope that his pragmatic instincts will carry the day and that avoiding a decision will be an attractive option for the moment.

What we do in the long term is tied up with the whole question of our alliance with an imploding superpower and a tough rising one. That will require more courage and insight than Australians have yet displayed. As a religious man, our leader might seek divine guidance in the face of a difficult situation but he might like to consider Oscar Wilde’s view on decision making. He said:  “Whenever I’m in doubt I ask myself what would Jesus do? Then I realise that Jesus got crucified so maybe his decision making isn’t all that great.”  Let us hope our Prime Minister avoids getting Australia crucified.

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Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.

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