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Turnbull and Obama: Time for some variations on well-worn tunes?

Turnbull and Obama: Time for some variations on well-worn tunes?
Published 19 Jan 2016 

When, during the APEC summit in November, US President Barack Obama invited the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to visit Washington DC it was clear what the main agenda items would be.

For some years now, the rhythm of US-Australian relations has stayed largely the same, focused on economic matters such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and pressing matters of security and terrorism. These topics will again dominate discussions during Turnbull's time in Washington this week, kicked off with his speech to the Center of Strategic and International Studies.

The free trade point is a curious one. Ideologically central to Washington’s agenda for decades, the practice of free trade is now an article of faith in Canberra. It could be put like this: the US shapes the theory while Australia implements the practice. Washington retains protections while speaking rhetorically; Canberra has been walking the talk, clearing away protectionist measures and claiming benefits.

The security and terrorism dimensions are often conflated, though terrorism concentrates on threats led by ISIS, and security focuses on the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the 'rise of China' generally.

While these three are not the only issues that will be discussed, they will be the common themes. 

The durable presence of ISIS, for instance, is wedged within the broader regional conflict between Shiite-Sunni interests represented by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively. The at times ill-defined Australian national interest has been hitched to Riyadh, largely as a by-product of Western backing, while Iran has filled the role of fundamentalist bogeyman. This divergence is an odd one, given the essentially doctrinaire nature of both regimes. More recently, the Syrian conflict has led to a need for greater nuance. The large number of participating powers has made closer discussions with more nations necessary. Turnbull is clearly in favour of this, though rapprochement with Iran would have been inconceivable without US sponsorship.

Last week's ISIL-backed Jakarta bombings highlighted the need for greater subtlety. Australia’s relationship with the Middle East remains unduly shaped by US positions, and the linked risk of jihadi stimulation closer to Australia’s north was already present. Turnbull and Obama will discuss regional counter-terrorism measures in Washington, but these talks should not take place in a policy vacuum. [fold]

While it has been traditional for Australia to rush to the sound of a US bugle, Turnbull has shown qualified reserve. His government recently, for example, revealed it had rejected US requests for more Australian troops to fight ISIS. Such a refusal would have been unlikely from an Abbott government, which had a tendency to pre-empt Washington’s calls for military assistance.

The big sticking point however, remains China, or, rather, balancing Australia's historic ties to the US with our growing economic interdependence and other links to nations in this region led, of course, by China. 

In regard to territorial disputes, China has made its expectations plain. 'We hope that Australia,' stated Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei, 'will stay committed to not taking sides on issues concerning disputes over sovereignty'. Turnbull, however, has openly accepted Obama’s position on the subject of the South China Sea, claiming that he and the US president were 'very much of the same mind', on deploying international law as the vehicle for solving regional conflict.

Last year Turnbull went so far as to suggest that Beijing’s island building policy involved 'pushing the envelope', with 'the consequence of exactly the reverse consequence of what China would seek to achieve'

Turnbull’s stance on Asian regional politics shows the dilemma of being allied to a hegemon which essentially sees an ally as a convenient satrap.

The PM has described Australia as 'sitting here in Asia' and noted: 'This is the Asian Century or the Pacific Century and we are perfectly positioned in it'. But old assumptions remain: the whole gamut of US interests is regarded as a source of good nutrition in the Australian political diet; that of China, only partially so.

 While the continuum of US-Australian relations is unlikely to be disturbed for some years to come, next year there will be a new president in the White House. In this election year US politics is in a fractious state.The Democratic camp remains split between the dynastic Hillary Clinton and the alternative, albeit political veteran, Bernie Sanders. The GOP contenders remain a fruit salad collective of extremes. Candidates are jousting and sniping.

At this point, any comment on the successor to Obama is mere speculation. Given, however, the hardline positions adopted by most of the GOP contenders, a Republican White House would likely place greater strains and demands on the Australian position, be it on free trade or broader security deployments. A muscular, jingoistic leader, be it a Marco Rubio, a Ted Cruz or a Donald Trump, would not necessarily be in Canberra’s interests.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library

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