Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Weekend catch-up: AUSMIN, the UK election, Qatar, and more

A US meeting with an ally that didn't lead to fireworks, diplomatic ructions in the middle East, a Belt and Road sceptic and the new space race; it was another busy week on the Interpreter.

The American and Australian Defence Minsters review the troops at Victoria Barracks in Sydney on Monday (Photo: US DoD)
The American and Australian Defence Minsters review the troops at Victoria Barracks in Sydney on Monday (Photo: US DoD)
Published 10 Jun 2017   Follow @EmmaMConnors

The week began with plenty of VIP planes zipping around the region. US Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew into Sydney on Sunday night ahead of the AUSMIN talks with their Australian ministerial counterparts on Monday. General Mattis had come from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore where, in response to a question from the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove, the Defense Secretary used the words of Winston Churchill to reassure his audience the US was not – despite some appearances – abdicating its leadership role and would – eventually – do the right thing.

On AUSMIN proper, Interpreter readers heard first from a former participant, Sir Angus Houston, on what the talks are all about. While they were underway, Dougal Robinson wrote on hopes participants would resist focusing on the obvious – terrorism, the Middle East – in favour of the difficult:

This year’s AUSMIN will be a success if the two sides meaningfully work towards a shared strategic concept for Australia’s Indo-Pacific region.  That means addressing tough questions about the role of China. It will invariably be a difficult conversation – the more hawkish types in the US have long thought Australia was somewhat ‘soft’ on China and called for Canberra to muscle up.

In the end, Interpreter commentators scored the meeting a win for the US while wondering if Australia needed to lift its game. Here’s Mike Green:

The meeting stood in stark contrast to the recent NATO Summit, where President Trump managed to raise more questions about the American commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance than he answered. In Sydney, the four ministers sung from the same hymn book about common values and interests and renewed their strong commitment to fighting terrorism

And James Curran:

There is, then, a whiff of blind faith being employed by some Australian ministers in their responses to these kinds of American sentiments. They refuse to hear the doubt and uncertainty coming out of this US rhetoric. They hear only what they want to hear.

Elsewhere, the world, shocked by another deadly attack by Islamic extremists in the UK, this time in London, waited for the results of Thursday’s general election. Writing a few days before the vote, Mike Rann predicted a Tory win but suggested PM Theresa May...

...has personally lost stature in a campaign focused on her leadership. Even if she wins handily, she has been damaged within her party and in the public's eye by her own campaign performance.  Instead of being the 'coronation' her advisers expected, the Prime Minister who said only she offered 'strong and stable leadership', has at times looked brittle and even rattled.  

Rann also wrote that while the groundswell in support for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would not be sufficient to deliver a win, it may have other consequences.

Labour moderates are terrified that a better-than-expected result for Corbyn could cement him into the Labour leadership and see a continuation of policies that would guarantee only permanent opposition and political irrelevance.   

In the end Jeremy Corbyn did much bettter than just about anyone expected, with Labour knocking off enough Conservative seats to result in a hung parliament. At the time of writing, it is unclear if the Conservatives will be able to form a government though it is still the largest party in parliament. Theresa May has refused to resign.

The ever-intriguing tale of how much control the China Party-state yields elsewhere in the world got a poke on Monday night with the airing on ABC TV of a special investigation by Four Corners/Fairfax Media into Chinese influence in Australia. Sam Roggeveen concluded the program’s revelations regarding donations to political parties highlighted the bind Australia’s two major – and cash-strapped - parties find themselves in. Given there is no easy fix to this, Roggeveen wrote:

if you agree that Australia faces some major decisions about its place in the world in the face of a rising China and declining US, then you would also have to agree that our parties and our system are not well placed to make those decisions.

While Merriden Varrall wondered if some of the more conclusions reached in the program might have been a bit of a stretch:

... the investigation did not convincingly demonstrate that the Chinese Party-state is orchestrating a coherent, strategic effort to infiltrate and influence Australian policy.

Of course there is no denying China’s growing clout and plenty are scrambling to get on board the multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Iniatitive. But are Western governments alert to all aspects of BRI? In a thoughtful post that drew on her recently completed book on the topic, Nadège Rolland sounded a note of caution.

The rhetoric and policies surrounding BRI give priority to 'development rights' over human rights and dismiss universal norms as 'Western values' that must be rejected. In Beijing’s eyes, regional stability means having authoritarian neighbors who share its own concerns about nefarious Western liberal ideas that threaten their grip on power. The Chinese Communist Party’s vision for the region is an outward extension of the model it is applying to its own country, in which the state controls flows of capital, resources, people, ideas and information.

Liberal democracies should push back against Beijing’s attempts to take the ownership of an idea which was meant to give rise to a totally different Eurasian continent than the one envisaged by China. At a minimum, Western governments need to recognise that, if successful, BRI’s outcome would be contrary to both their interests and their values.

Kicking off a migration series on The Interpreter, Henry Sherrell discussed the growing need for all of those involved in setting Australia’s migrant intake – which includes the private sector and universities, as well a government – to take a more active role in public debate.

In the Middle East, the Qatar crisis developed as the week wore on. Bob Bowker suggested Qatar might have to make overtures to Russia if it wanted to attract the attention of the US while Anas Iqtait traced back the multiple sources of the standoff that saw Saudi Arabia and some of its allies cut diplomatic ties with Qatar.

Also in the Middle East, Rodger Shanahan discussed terrorist attacks in Tehran, and what came next.

And while the US State Department expressed condolences to the people of Iran over the attack, the churlish statement from the White House in which President Trump effectively said Iran had it coming was described by Iran's foreign minister as ‘repugnant’. Even amid tragedy the Trump Administration finds a way of exacerbating, rather than ameliorating, tensions.

On Thursday all of Washington, and many beyond, were riveted as sacked FBI director James Comey said his piece. The congressional testimony was the latest development in the various investigations underway into ties between Russia and the Trump Administration. Norman Bell suggested these will be a major distraction for the White House in the months and years to come.

In what could be viewed as some consolation for those concerned about what the unorthodox Trump presidency means for the liberal world order, Andrew Carr argued that order was not America’s to break.

The US played a hugely significant role in bringing peace and order and has been the greatest force for the spread of liberal ideas bar none. But it did not do these things alone, and very rarely was it able to compel them to occur. By overstating the importance of American involvement in the past, we over-emphasise the risks of American absence tomorrow.

American decline and withdrawal from the world would be extremely serious. But it does not necessarily mean the collapse or end of many of the improvements of the 20th and early 21st century. We will need many hands to pitch in and help maintain order, but that’s just as true of those right on the front line of these conflicts, in places such as Indonesia and Turkey, as it is of Washington DC.

Finally, Morris Jones provided one more perspective on shifting trends, summarising recent advances in space by China and India that demonstrate where the action is now - and where it is not:

Space policy, programs and funding have been shockingly fickle in the US. Right now, NASA doesn’t even have an administrator. Russia’s program looks stagnant, with serious quality control problems. Europe shuffles ahead but generally makes no waves. How different it all seems from the state of the world half a century ago.

You may also be interested in