Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Seven traps for Turnbull this Asian summit season

A high degree of diplomatic difficulty awaits as Australia debates its foreign policy future.

Đà Nẵng in Vietnam, host city of the 2017 APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, August 2017 (Photo: Anh Dinh/Flickr)
Đà Nẵng in Vietnam, host city of the 2017 APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, August 2017 (Photo: Anh Dinh/Flickr)

Asia's ‘Summit Season’ begins this week and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull faces a high degree of diplomatic difficulty on this big Asian stage. Three Asian multilateral meetings are scheduled back to back: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit in Vietnam; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in the Philippines; and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Philippines.

While Turnbull will still have to reckon with domestic difficulties intruding on his foreign policy efforts, as was seen on the recent Israel trip, the international agenda is daunting. Here are seven traps that Turnbull will need to avoid during his summit sessions.

1. US leadership in question

The US is unlikely to find the same reception in Asia as in previous years, with more ambivalent stance towards the unpredictable Trump Administration. Turnbull will have to navigate this carefully, aware of a growing chorus of opinion at home that urges Australia adopt a more independent stance.

Donald Trump could make mistakes in the summit environment, based on his G20 performance. Big, huge mistakes. When leaders attend summits, much depends on the quality of information provided to them in a timely manner as events unfold. The US faces a vacuum of experienced advice on the ground in Asia and in Washington DC. The US still has its top Asian diplomatic and defence posts vacant and many ambassadorial positions yet to be filled or even nominated. North Korea, terrorism, and trade issues are likely to feature as the priority policy areas. A Trump advisor states that the key message will be that ‘we’re running out of time (to deal with North Korea) and will ask all nations to do more’.

Turnbull has already echoed Trump’s deterrence threats on several occasions and Australia has followed the US lead on sanctions. Trump may ask more of Turnbull in relation to putting pressure on China.

2. Unruly hosts

Sometimes a summit host can smooth the course of difficult events, but it is unlikely Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte or Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang will be particularly interested or suited to that role. Turnbull recently supported the Trump Administration’s invitation for Duterte to visit the White House, but Duterte declined. He said: ‘I've seen America and it's lousy…’

Careful diplomacy is not likely to be the winner over the coming week.

3. ‘Big Men’ ascendant

Chinese President Xi Jinping has emerged stronger than ever from the 19th congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won re-election with a resounding margin, reigniting the idea he may try to change Japan’s pacifist constitution. South Korea’s new leader Moon Jae-In will be tested in his first Asian summit season (but with a G20 under his belt), as will New Zealand’s new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Turnbull will have to chart a course between the powerful presence of the Chinese and Japanese leaders.

4. Wicked problems

The contemporary Asian diplomatic agenda is crowded with difficult security and rights issues. The headline is North Korea, but there are also simmering tensions in the South China Sea, conflict in the Philippines with fears of a new ISIS front in Asia, the Rohingya crisis and ongoing ethnic conflict in Myanmar. There also remains the lingering challenge of transitional justice in Sri Lanka, rising authoritarianism in Cambodia, border tensions between China and India, and ongoing tension between China and Japan.

Climate change will hit Asian cities first and hardest (Osaka, Hong Kong, Shanghai), according to global data. Democracy is more fragile than ever. On trade issues, the scene is more fluid since the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which sought to isolate China. This means the ASEAN-centred proposal of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership now takes centre stage.

The US has adopted a more protectionist stance, potentially making these summits as awkward at the G7 and G20 summits were on trade issues.

5. Policy gaps

Turnbull faces a lot of difficult questions about what Australia wants from the region when he greets his Asian counterparts, ahead of Sydney hosting the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in March 2018. Australian foreign policy is in a period of contestation as to the best strategy for engagement with Asia and key governance bodies of the region. This debate will culminate in the release of the Foreign Policy white paper later this year.

Policy differences, as described in a recent headland speech by Shadow Minister Penny Wong, go to whether Australia’s relationships with Asia are too ‘transactional’, lack a narrative, and are not geared towards deeper and more entwined relationships where Australia gains acceptance as truly part of the region. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen outlined a ‘FutureAsia’ manifesto to revive the Gillard-era Asian Century white paper and strengthen Asian literacy in Australia.

There is considerable bipartisanship in this area of foreign policy. The Coalition rejected the Australia in the Asian Century report in 2013 but kept the ASEAN Ambassador and maintained a priority interest on ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, and the bilateral relationships with China, Japan and Indonesia. The Coalition has focused on economic diplomacy, pursuing free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and China and presently focusing on India. Yet at the same time, Australia has reduced its official development assistance to the Asian region as part of dramatic overall cuts.

6. Difficult questions

Australia has yet to develop a clear strategy on how it will deal with Asian emerging economies asking for more representation and voice in global institutions and in the UN. Australia is also unclear about how to treat the creation of parallel institutions such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS New Development Bank (NDB), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Silk Road Fund, and so on.

Australia joined AIIB late in the game, for example, yet has so far declined China’s offer to formally link the Northern Australia project to One Belt One Road. RECP is huge and yet there is almost no public debate or scrutiny of the plan in the community and media.

There is also no consensus on whether Australia should start the long campaign to become an observer member of ASEAN. The region is changing rapidly in terms of its ambition to lead and become rule-makers rather than rule-takers, and Australian ambivalence may be construed as a lack of support for a larger global role for our neighbours.

7. Sending the right message

The Australian public is likely to see the summits as an occasion for dubious fashion choices, or worse, as a waste of money. The Government must do more to help everyday Australians understand that their future is being shaped by meetings such as these. Australia needs some serious strategy around the future directions of Asian governance and what contribution can be made.

Turnbull should use this summit season as a platform to launch a broader conversation leading into the release of the white paper. He should lead the debate about shared Asian futures and our place in this part of the world.

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