Commentary | 23 June 2017

Malcolm Turnbull is taking a pragmatic regional approach to China

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

The PM's call for a regional-based approach to China suggests he wants to avoid trading one cringe for another.

Nearly two years into his government, Malcolm Turnbull's speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore has at last indicated how he sees Australia in the wider Asian region – a foreign policy blueprint that had until now been missing. Amid controversy at his recent reference to China as Australia's "frenemy" and allegations of China's interference in Australian domestic politics – it is important to look again at Turnbull's change of official language in Singapore.

Until Shangri-la, the government's most substantive policy speech on Asia was that given by Julie Bishop, also in Singapore, this March. Bishop firmly endorsed the liberal international order, but still failed to articulate Australia's place in the region clearly. The strategic holding pattern she described back then appears now as an apt description of the government's own hesitance and Turnbull's caution, reinforcing suspicions that the "rules-based international order" amounts to little more than an aspiration to preserve the status quo. That may no longer cut it.

Turnbull's speech three months later showed a considerable variance in the foreign minister's and the prime minister's regional visions. When Turnbull used the word "liberal", it was strictly in the limited sense of economic openness. Turnbull's narrative, though peppered by customary references to the "rules-based international order" is on close reading more pragmatically attuned to a vision of regional order not based expressly on liberal values. Turnbull describes values as the US's greatest source of potency. But, he also said values should not be a "straitjacket for Australian policymaking".

The Prime Minister referred to "our region" 19 times in his presentation. He sought to paint his vision for it as "optimistic and born of ambition rather than anxiety". Nonetheless, the emphasis on "gathering clouds of uncertainty and instability" weighed heavier than sunshine in his strategic weather forecast.

Blunt warnings

Singapore is particularly favoured by Canberra for speeches on the region. Perhaps this is because it allows Australians to conveniently borrow Lee Kuan Yew's old-school Singaporean realism – big fish eating little fish – and offer blunt warnings. Turnbull's reference to "not winning through corruption, interference or coercion", was levelled at Beijing. Chinese interference in Australia's domestic politics has been a major news story in Australia over the past two weeks. Nor, the Prime Minister warned, should Beijing be allowed to use "its economic largesse to reward those toeing the line".

On the one hand, according to Turnbull, Australia wants freedom of navigation to be unchallenged. But this was rhetorically undermined by his own admission that "the economic, political and strategic currents that have carried us for generations are increasingly difficult to navigate". In other words, the rules-based order that Australia seeks to protect is actually the status quo ante.

Turnbull's rhetorical tea-leaves, like most of the fare at Shangri-la, were minutely scrutinised for inklings of doubt about President Trump. There were scattered hints of this. But the main intent, if not always clear in the thread of Turnbull's argument, was to put the burden of leadership back on the region. Hence, the concern with "signals for all of us to play more active roles in protecting and shaping the future of this region".

By stressing rules and order rather than values, Turnbull is moving Australia's regional policy further along than many of those who have criticised him, especially for tilting closer to the US than China, might have acknowledged. Australian critics tend to take a binary view that there is a choice to be made, whereas Turnbull may have suggested in Singapore that he does not want to swap one cringe for another.

Attention for ASEAN

Turnbull's speech went down best among the south-east Asians at the meeting. He gave more attention to ASEAN than most south-east Asian speakers would normally. Turnbull is hosting all 10 leaders, in Sydney, next March, a significant vote of confidence in the organisation's relevance, despite the battering it has received over the South China Sea in recent years. Turnbull supports a "strong, united ASEAN", though that again can be no more than an aspiration against China's divide and conquer tactics in recent years.

When it comes to Australia's regional security contribution, Turnbull pointed to the government's investment in the ADF, and the largest naval expansion in peacetime. Defence spending will rise to 2 per cent of GDP by 2020. That is laudable. However, while the ADF's capability is among the most advanced in the region, Australia's military capacity is limited by the standards of many of our partners.

When it comes to security and especially defence cooperation, the political constraints on an Australian leadership role are equally apparent. India, which Turnbull visited recently, is reluctant to invite Australia to observe the Malabar naval exercises. Even the relationship with Singapore, the most reliable and capable of Canberra's south-east Asian partners, received little or no attention in Turnbull's speech, or that of Defence Minister Marise Payne, who did not meet her Singaporean counterpart bilaterally on the sidelines of the summit.

The Prime Minister has belatedly recast Australia's regional rhetoric in starker terms. The region must act collectively to preserve the existing order in the face of China's challenge. That cannot be Australia's lead alone, but lending substance to that vision is what his government will ultimately be judged by.