POINTS of tension in the relationships governing the interplay between Asia, the US and Australia are everywhere. But I believe many of them to be fixable. Let’s take at these issues one by one:
US/China trade War
Following President Trump’s initial strong statements on various important tariff impositions, he seems to have backed down on virtually every one. He cannot afford threatened retaliation from China, since it would impact on unemployment in the USA. For example, when it comes to car building and exports. Increased tariffs on Chinese imports would have a huge impact on the US cost of living. Both issues would have a negative effect for the Republicans in this mid-year’s elections. And the Chinese are seen to be flexible on the trade issue.
Asia as a collective camp
Nations from Asian tend to join together whenever there is potential for collective improvement of political, trade, strategic and economic issues. Any collaboration between the two Koreas is welcome and strongly backed by China, Japan and Vietnam, since it would reduce any nuclear threat. Having said that, it is still unclear to what extent President Kim will de-nuclearise North Korea and at what concessions from the US. I believe President Kim can afford to stop testing, since his rockets already can go 10 times the altitude of the space stations and presumably reach the US mainland.
South Pacific tensions
I am convinced China will proceed with its global strategies as planned, in the belief Trump doesn’t present any problem they cannot handle. For sure their spread of activities and strategic policies into the South Pacific will create some security problems for Australia in the long term. Perhaps creating another US Navy base in Townsville would be welcomed by Trump and his militants. I think it would have bi-partisan support in the Australian Parliament. China would undoubtedly protest vigorously, but it could be pointed out they have already created an imbalance by their Paracel Atoll base building, and have made approaches to Indonesia, Vanuatu and Samoa. There was also the case of a Russian Navy training ship at Port Moresby working with Papua New Guinea’s Navy. In the circumstances it would be hard to seriously object to a southwestern Pacific base for USN vessels operating in international waters. It would offer maritime protection both to Australia’s north and east. And I don’t think it would affect Australia’s exports to China.
I believe there is now a serious lack of experienced high level diplomats both in Washington and in those US embassies still being manned at ambassador level. In Australia’s case the much heralded ambassadorial appointment of Admiral Harris had to be cancelled in favour of Korea, showing the shortage of experienced talent.
People in Asia in particular place much importance on what they expect from a western government leader counterpart. There must be respect for that individual created by dignity, stability of policies, discretion in communication instead of any “megaphone” tactics, and there must be a feeling of trust and reliability, no matter if there are policy differences between e.g. the US and the PRC.
The US has many problems in this field in the form of mercurial policy changes, massive “revolving door” changes in senior White House positions, the undignified Twitterisms covering every field from admiration for undemocratic Presidents Putin, Xi and The Philippines’ Duterte to the juvenile exchanges of insults between the White House and President Kim.
There is an important problem in any diplomatic context e.g. when a visiting head of state doesn’t show proper respect for saluting military parades. To hand salute the troops in an unbuttoned coat with a huge necktie flowing over a protruding belly is seen as a formal insult and calls for his minders to teach him international etiquette.
Any shows of vulgarity, open contradictions in statements and their withdrawals, coupled by signs of narcissism, name calling, the “fake news” media hatred and crude attitudes towards women may be taken as evidence of insecurity by any leader. The readiness of Trump to accept the Nobel Peace Prize as suggested in South Korean President Moon’s flattering comment may be a case in point.
Internationally the US leadership has also suffered from its perceived loss of reliability by deserting its European partners, as well China and Russia from the signed Iran agreement. UN observers have officially declared Iran has complied fully since inception. The US move may also create credibility questions for the North Korean talks.
Any expressions of one-sided eternal friendships with Asian leaders after just a couple of meetings point to immaturity and lack of understanding of the importance Asians attach to the term “friendship” itself. It has to be nurtured over a long period, and honesty, trust, stability and respect has to be shown and accepted. I believe there is a growing sentiment about the US leadership of “here today, gone tomorrow”.
I believe successive Australian governments from both sides have displayed insufficient comprehension and knowledge to formulate proper strategies and policies on how to deal with Asia. The current low in our relationship with the PRC is absurd and would have been preventable. Australia’s decision not to participate on Prime Ministerial level in the recent Boao Forum (supposedly the only A20 nation not to participate), nor to get involved in the talks about the proposed ‘Chinese Highway’ to Europe shows a lack of understanding of how important these issues are to people in Asian and indeed to the progressive part of the rest of the world.
By avoiding any participation Australia seems, in the eyes of many Asians, to cut itself out from relevance in our Asian relationships, perhaps as clinging to its old Anglophile roots. Instead Australia is expected to show leadership and initiative in the region. There is no reason at all why Australia should not only have attended the PRC-initiated conferences but also pushed for a prominent role in them.
It appears Canberra’s decision not to attend the recent conferences may have been made as a kind of punishment for alleged PRC intrusions in Australian universities, cyberspace and politics. The proper action would have been to set up top level private meeting(s) with President Xi and address the problem in a firm fashion that would command respect. The megaphone approach would only be counterproductive, since it creates a loss of face for the counterpart, which in turn leads to resentment. Again, the lack of understanding Asians is evident.
In a broader context Australia needs to raise the skills of its politicians in order to improve the standard of ministers and their Opposition counterparts. A high percentage have been recruited from political offices, or as advisors or trade unions, often without any experience from non-political life. Their assignments depend largely on inside factions and not on the suitability of the candidate for any particular parliamentary career. I believe there should be a demand for special skills, like anyone going for a medical portfolio should have medical work experience, ministers for defence and defence support should at some stage had worn military uniforms, foreign affairs candidates should have a working knowledge of Mandarin etc.
The DCN has previously printed comments from myself and others on the importance of Australia living up to its international obligations in maintaining a fuel reserve for 90 days, but which has been revealed to be only about 45 days. Recent statements suggest there is no rush to correct this situation until 2022. Any terrorist disruption of tankers carrying fuel to Australia would have catastrophic consequences, with our military deadlocked after a just few weeks. Approaches to the government have been ignored despite the public inputs from senior experts like Federal Senator Jim Molan and Federal Liberal MP Andrew Hastie. A fall-back to use of nuclear power was declared illegal in 1998 by the Howard government, despite us having the richest uranium resources in the world, along with coal. We are unique among the industrialised nations of the world.
We need leadership, initiatives, imagination and drive from our governments. We don’t need irresponsible priorities given to party political issues, especially when such decisions are expensive. We need a professional interaction and relationship with Asia, unless we are prepared to be left behind.
(Footnote: Captain Harry Mansson AM had several decades of close working high level partnerships with Asian counterparts. He has written extensively in the DCN during the past twelve months.