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Scott Morrison gets ready for Asia’s summit season

Yes, familiar themes abound, but there was plenty of interest in the PM’s first big foreign policy speech.

Photo: Department of Defence
Photo: Department of Defence

One question has dogged Scott Morrison since he took over leadership of his party and the government on 24 August in a party-room coup: why are you Prime Minister?

Morrison’s speech at the Asia Society in Sydney today, designed to launch the “summit season” in which the PM will jet off to the East Asia Summit later this month, then APEC in Papua New Guinea, and finally the G20 in Buenos Aires, will do little to settle that question because Morrison said little that would have sounded unusual if it had been uttered by his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull.

This was a speech that could have been delivered by any modern Liberal leader.

Yes, there was perhaps a slightly higher emphasis on values, and Morrison dropped the odd “fair dinkum” into his remarks. But otherwise this was a speech that could have been delivered by any modern Liberal leader.

Of course, that is to be expected, at least to a large degree. Morrison comes from a party and political tradition that favours the US alliance, free trade, and strong bilateral relations in Australia’s region. His speech reflected those themes. And within that broad structure, there was plenty that was of interest in the speech. Here are a few highlights:

  • It is fascinating to see how quickly the prospect of heightened rivalry between the US and China has entered the political mainstream. Morrison spoke of a “higher degree of competition” and described China as “the country that is most changing the balance of power, sometimes in ways that challenge important US interests”.
  • Morrison spoke later about working with Japan, Indonesia and South Korea to “forge a balance in the region”. It was presumably considered impolite to say who these nations are balancing against, or perhaps that was taken for granted.
  • Not too long ago, this kind of talk would have been considered somewhat controversial coming from a political leader. My guess is that the turning point was the Foreign Policy White Paper in late 2017, after which our leaders started to talk much more openly about this subject. This is a good thing. It is by no means certain that the rivalry will continue to grow, but the prospect is high enough that Australians should be prepared.
  • I will check this when I see a transcript, but Morrison seemed to offer Australia's services to the US and China “whenever we can assist to de-escalate”. Hmmm …
  • As for Australia’s bilateral relationship with China, Morrison said in the Q&A that his message to President Xi Jinping would be one of reassurance and providing confidence that we can get back to business as usual. So in that sense, Morrison was perhaps using the August coup to his advantage, signaling that the leadership change in Canberra could be a circuit-breaker.
  • The shadow of China’s growing might was also apparent in Morrison’s remarks on India. He said India was at the “front rank” of Australian partnerships: “we share values, a commitment to democratic institutions, enormous goodwill and strong relationships between our people. And we share a common strategic outlook.”
  • Morrison spoke at length about the Pacific Islands region, and sounded quite a lot like Bill Shorten at the Lowy Institute this week when Morrison emphasised that Australia’s motivation was to “strengthen the Pacific for the sake of the Pacific”. The inference, of course, is that Australia is acting as a good neighbour and not out of fear of Chinese encroachment in our backyard. I’m not sure anyone was convinced by either Shorten or Morrison.
  • Morrison twice referred to Australia as the greatest immigration success-story in the world. He also said that “shrinking into ourselves never, ever works”. Perhaps a response to recent comments by Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott, who have both argued for at least temporary immigration cuts?



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