One of the many ways in which Malcolm Turnbull is not your average Australian politician is that he has thought quite deeply about foreign policy and strategic issues. Among aspirants to the Lodge in recent years, only Kevin Rudd has comparably developed views about Australia's place in the world. But of course that was Rudd's day job for much of his career. For Turnbull it has been, one suspects, more a sign of his wide-ranging natural curiosity, and perhaps also prudent preparation for the post which seems now for the first time to be within his reach.
He has set out his views in a series of speeches and essays over the past few years. This post draws on just three of those, including the one he gave in the US late last month as the Liberal Party's leadership crisis flared. They present a consistent and coherent set of ideas which suggest that, if he becomes prime minister, he would pursue a rather different policy from his predecessors, including and perhaps especially from Tony Abbott, on the central question of positioning Australia between America 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.
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'. [fold]
Third, Turnbull thinks that responding to China's rise and its implications for our place in Asia requires rather more sophisticated diplomacy from Australia than we have seen so far. A few days after Obama's big Pivot speech to the Australian parliament in 2011, he delivered this thinly veiled rebuke to Julia Gillard's gushing response:
An Australian Government needs to be careful not to allow a doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world to distract from the reality that our national interest requires us to truly (and not just rhetorically) to maintain both an ally in Washington and a good friend in Beijing.
He suggested that this requires a careful balance in our positioning with both powers, warning against 'extravagant professions of loyalty and devotion to the United States' and also against 'equally extravagant compliments paid to Beijing.'
And he certainly doesn't buy Kevin Rudd's idea of muscling up to China militarily:
I disagree with the underlying premise of the 2009 Australian White Paper that we should base our defence planning and procurement on the contingency of a naval war with China in the South China Sea.
Above all, Turnbull has warned about complacency, assuming that:
...the strategic and diplomatic posture that served us in the past can and will serve us unchanged in the future: or that it doesn't matter if our strategic and economic messages to our region are somewhat contradictory.
Of course it is anyone's guess how these ideas would translate into policy if Turnbull should become prime minster. We can assume he would tread carefully and pay due respect to the patterns and precedents of Australian diplomacy, at least up to a point. But it is worth reflecting that Turnbull, if he wins the Lodge, might have more scope to really explore Australia's place in the world of the Asian Century than any of his predecessors, or any of the current alternatives.
Politically he has less to fear from an open discussion of the future role of America in Asia than anyone on the Labor side of politics, because he will not suffer from Labor's deeply ingrained terror of being attacked by the Liberals as disloyal and irresponsible.
And intellectually he has more to offer than anyone on his own side of politics, simply because he has thought about it more, and more openly than his colleagues. One reason for that is his obviously deep curiosity about China, especially, simply because he seems to see it as the most interesting, as well as perhaps the most important, place in the world today. That's not a bad starting point for Australian foreign policy.