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A Turnbull foreign policy?

A Turnbull foreign policy?
Published 14 Sep 2015   Follow @BrendanTN_

It's official. Malcolm Turnbull has announced his resignation from Cabinet and is challenging Prime Minister Tony Abbott for leadership of the Liberal Party. Luckily, for The Interpreter, this is not the first time that we have had to consider what a Malcolm Turnbull-led Australian foreign policy might look like.

Back in February, Hugh White wrote an analysis of Turnbull's past comments on Australia's position between the US and China:

Turnbull's starting point is the magnitude of the shift in the distribution of wealth and power occurring with the rise of Asia, led by China, which he sees as 'the great geopolitical transformation of our time'. He believes this will inevitably drive major changes in the way the world works. Last month he posed the question: 'How ready are Western nations and Western-dominated multilateral institutions to adapt to a very different distribution of global power than that which they've been used to?' So unlike Tony Abbott, he does not believe that, thanks to the Anglosphere, the world will continue to be run in English.

And on the strategic rivalry and behaviour of Beijing and Washington:

Second, Turnbull does not assume that America has necessarily worked out how best to respond to this challenge. Though he has praised the Pivot as 'a vitally important stabilising reassuring factor in the peaceful development of our region', Turnbull has at times observed that the US is struggling to find an effective response to China's rise. Back in 2011 he said they seemed 'utterly flummoxed'.

On the other hand, he has also criticised Beijing's approach, saying in 2011 that 'China needs to be more transparent about its goals in the region', and more recently that 'there seems little doubt that the tough line taken (by China) on the disputed islands and reefs has been quite counter-productive'.

The Editor of The Interpreter, Sam Roggeveen, also wrote at the time in The National Interest

Turnbull is alive to such risks, and he seems to favor a conciliatory path to resolving U.S.-China tensions. He reviewed quite favorably a book by a leading Australian academic arguing that the U.S. should give up its primacy and instead find an accommodation with China in which the two countries share power in the Asia-Pacific (Turnbull also notes in passing that Beijing’s South China Sea territorial claims are not “without any legal merit”). There is a strong streak of realism in Turnbull, who has quoted the Thucydides line that “justice is only to be found as between equals in power. As for the rest, the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must.”

If Turnbull does become prime minister, one of his first major international challenges may be climate change, with the COP21 negotiations taking place in Paris in November. What Sam wrote in February on this issue still applies today:

The trouble is, the divisions which led to Turnbull’s ouster in 2009 have not been resolved, and the right of the Liberal Party (as well as its coalition partner, the rural-based Nationals) maintains its antagonism to carbon pricing and is suspicious of what it considers an exaggerated or even wholly fictional environmental threat. Since 2009, Turnbull has softened his stance on carbon pricing and said just last week that the carbon tax repeal could not be overturned unless there was a global agreement. It’s not clear whether the public is aware of such nuances – Turnbull will need to mollify the right of his party to return as leader, but at the risk of harming his reputation as a principled, centrist environmentalist.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Veni.

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