Commentary | 14 November 2014

Weight of words behind scenes

Weight of words behind scenes

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

14 November 2014

Review Section, page W6.

Please click here for the online text.

  • Rory Medcalf

Weight of words behind scenes

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

14 November 2014

Review Section, page W6.

Please click here for the online text.

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

Never mind the main attractions, it's what happens on the G20 sidelines that really matters, writes Rory Medcalf.

The G20 summit in Brisbane this weekend will give the world's most powerful leaders a valuable chance to seek common ground in reviving global prosperity and managing geopolitical disorder. But for Australia's strategic interests, this big table won't be the main game.

More consequential for our interests are likely to be the associated bilateral visits and headline speeches involving the key players in our Indo-Pacific region: US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Tomorrow at the University of Queensland, Obama will speak on the future of American leadership in the Asia-Pacific – the sequel to his November 2011 speech in Canberra that launched his country's strategic "pivot" or "rebalance" to Asia. Not since its role hosting US forces in the Pacific War has my old home town featured so prominently in Asian geopolitics.

Obama will face some tough questions. How can he package the past three years of uneven engagement with Asia as proof of a clear commitment that the United States is here to stay?

How can he convince the pivot-sceptics that current challenges such as Islamic State, Ukraine and Ebola are not preoccupying his administration? That Washington risks losing sight of the shifts in wealth, power and demographics that make the Indo-Pacific the region where American strength and diplomacy will most sorely be tried?

And how can he persuade the US's ally Australia, and its pragmatic people, that he has their interests at heart even as he again borrows their hospitality as a platform for a topic seemingly removed from their day-to-day lives – American grand strategy?

It will be difficult but not impossible. American staying power amid global strife matters immensely. It should be of concern to us all. The skein of Obama's speech should be about the choices between order and disorder, about how American credibility anywhere reinforces American credibility everywhere, and how partnership between states, as embodied in the Australia-US alliance, provides the best hope for preserving our interests. Whatever the US's failings, it remains the indispensable partner for Australia's security, just as American investment undergirds our economy and its commitment to an open society resonates with our own.No place for complacency

But there is no room for complacency: each generation of Australia will need convincing the alliance is in their interests. This will be easier if the alliance gets more in step with a changing Asia – for instance, if Australia and the United States together can shape a strategy for their forces to work with emerging powers such as India, Indonesia and sometimes China.

The other two historic moments for Australia in the days ahead are likely to be when Xi Jinping addresses Parliament in Canberra on Monday and Narendra Modi does the same on Tuesday.

Economics will be a big theme for both. If Xi announces the conclusion of a bilateral free trade agreement, it will be a victory for persistence, mutual interest and mutual respect. China's economic success has done much to benefit Australia's, but the relationship needs more diversity, durability and depth.

Moreover, with this week's welcome steps towards dialogue and conflict-prevention in the maritime and historical differences between Beijing and Tokyo, the Chinese leader will have little reason to chide Australia for its renewed friendship with Japan. Instead, President Xi will have reason to stress the benefits of working together to preserve regional stability and the conditions of prosperity.

The most ground-breaking speeches Australians are likely to hear, however, in the looming carnival of diplomacy will be not in Mandarin or English but in Hindi. The dynamic new leader of the world's largest democracy will make history not only by being the first Indian Prime Minister to address our Parliament, but by greeting a rally of more than 15,000 supporters at Sydney's All Phones Arena.

This will be diaspora diplomacy on a scale never seen before in our nation of immigrants. Modi's challenge will be to deliver economic and strategic dividends for Australia-India relations to match the energy of Australia's fast-growing Indian community.

The United States, China and India are powers whose weight and choices will shape or shake Australia's future well into this century. Along with Indonesia and a still-substantial Japan, whose leader Shinzo Abe will be on his second visit here in five months, these must remain our five-star relationships, a Southern Cross to position Australian diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific era, wherever the G20 journey might lead.

Rory Medcalf is director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute.