Commentary | 10 November 2017

Malcolm Turnbull is facing big choices, but picking between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping isn't one of them

Originally published on the ABC website.

Originally published on the ABC website.

Donald Trump's first trip to Asia as President has made for a strange spectacle.

In Seoul, Trump praised South Korea's "ancient modern wonders", and in Tokyo, during a round of golf with Mr Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe fell into a bunker.

But Mr Trump has avoided the hazards so far. He is at the centrepiece of his trip — the "state visit-plus" to China. Mr Trump will push Xi Jinping for trade concessions and assistance in squeezing North Korea.

Australia will be watching closely. Keeping the US engaged in Asia is a priority. But Malcolm Turnbull has already signalled that a more assertive Australia policy towards Asia is in the making.

Those worried about Mr Trump's isolationist streak should be happy that he is coming to Asia at all — this is a President who was homesick when he moved to Washington. US diplomacy in Asia requires presidential attention — it is essential to show up.

The stakes are high, but the expectations are low. Mr Trump's gaffes and lack of interest in policy have been normalised, so if he gets through the trip without causing a major diplomatic incident, it will look like a success.

China and the US on even ground

Mr Trump comes into the meeting with Xi in a shaky position. After 10 months in office he has no major legislative achievements. His approval rating is 38 per cent. The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election casts a dark shadow over his presidency.

In contrast, Mr Xi recently solidified his position at the head of the Chinese Communist Party at its five-yearly conference. His philosophy, Xi Jinping Thought, is now enshrined in the Party constitution. His ambition for China is on show for the world to see.

Mr Trump will likely get a sugar hit from the visit: something to tweet about on trade, vague promises on North Korea and pseudo-royal treatment. But despite his self-declared reputation for negotiation, he is unlikely to draw many concessions from Mr Xi.

Adjusting for leadership, the two countries look as evenly matched as they have in modern history.

This has sparked another round of the familiar debate: does Australia have to choose between the US and China?

A multipolar future

Australia is entering a period of strategic uncertainty. The last thing we should be doing is closing off options.

But more importantly, this question is reductive. There is much more to Australia's strategic circumstances than the US and China.

This is not to underestimate the scale of the challenges facing Australia. We do have big choices to make.

China wields coercive influence over its smaller neighbours and undermines the rules-based order. We should not underestimate the precedent set by China's expansive claims, with no legal basis, to territory in international waters.

And our ally, the US, is led by an unreliable and weak leader. Accounts of inevitable American decline are often exaggerated, but the country faces serious problems. Its politics are bordering on dysfunctional. Its soft power has taken a hit. It has been at war in the Middle East for 16 years.

But our region is not becoming bipolar — it is becoming multipolar. Other Asian countries are preparing to play bigger roles.

The 'choice' trope should go

There are signs the Government is adjusting to this multipolar landscape.

In his security-themed speech to the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore in June, Mr Turnbull argued that middle powers in Asia should take more responsibility for maintaining the regional order, declaring "we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests".

And in an address last week in Perth, the Prime Minister warned we cannot take the liberal character of the Asian regional economy for granted, warning of the rise of protectionism and of "large states … engaging in economic coercion against the small."

But the question is how to accomplish these ambitions. We should start by doing away with the "choice" trope that has outsized influence in our foreign policy debate.

The US alliance is in good shape, if you consider the gravity of concerns over Mr Trump's foreign policy during the 2016 election or his infamous phone call with Mr Turnbull in February.

Look to other countries

The real growth area for Australia lies in relations with other Asian states.

On the security side, a bipartisan consensus is emerging over Australia's participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with India, Japan and the United States.

The rhetorical groundwork has been laid. Expect to hear the phrase "Indo-Pacific" regularly in future. The challenge is to do this without China viewing it as containment.

On the economic side, Mr Turnbull has backed Japan's push to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership minus the United States. Progress on this at the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam is of strategic importance.

Australia faces more hazards than before.

Mr Trump and Mr Xi will not be around forever, but they should both serve as a wake-up call to Australia.