Mr Turnbull dabbles at the edge of strategic clarity in Japan

Author: Peter Drysdale, ANU

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s first foreign policy excursion of the year to Japan last week should have been the diplomatic slam dunk some reports suggest. No country in the region has a closer alignment of strategic interests with Australia, which built its post-war engagement in Asia on the foundations of the relationship with Japan.

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull talks with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe during a meeting of Japan's National Security Council at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan 18 January 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Shizuo Kambayashi).

Yet alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s deft handling of the geopolitical challenges that Donald Trump’s United States and the rise of China have delivered to our region, Turnbull’s grasp of the foreign policy realities we face looked distinctly less sure-footed.

Getting foreign policy right at this point in diplomatic history has never been more difficult, nor more important.

Abe and his team have made an excellent fist of it. The US–Japan alliance has been the anchor of peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region, providing the foundation for US power projection in the western Pacific, ensuring the United States’ status as a Pacific power.

The election of Trump presented the greatest threat yet to that alliance. Trump’s isolationist stance brought new uncertainty to US foreign policy and raised questions about the future of the international institutions and the rules-based order upon which Japan has depended for its security and prosperity.

Abe’s strategic priorities were to wring assurances from Trump on the alliance and build defences for the rules-based multilateral order through marching on with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), ramping up the effort to secure the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in East Asia, mending the relationship with China and actively counselling the long and complex game in dealing with the North Korean crisis.

Were Turnbull and his team half so clear-headed on Australia’s interests.

It’s not the failure to secure overly ambitious defence ties around legal constraints in Japan that was the core problem.

The starting point for Australia is clear-headed recognition that the economic growth that has come with globalisation has changed the balance of international power. The United States is now challenged by the rise of China. The world is more interconnected than at any other time before. This is the big challenge that Australia and its partners like Japan now confront.

There is no budging on rock-solid faith in the US alliance relationship as the bastion of global rules and its importance to Australia navigating new uncertainty. Equally there is no backing away from the importance of the partnership with China and acceptance of the legitimacy of China’s sharing responsibility and power as well as the reality that like all great powers, China will seek to influence the region to suit its own interests.

Turnbull, unlike Abe, continues to dance around the edges of this reality and his mishandling of the China relationship compromises regional security strategies that must embrace China as well as the United States.

Abe and Turnbull could do more to create the architecture to make the US–China relationship easier to manage. The Indo-Pacific strategy looks and feels like a hedge too far. China is too large and too integrated into all the economies in the region not to have these US allies seek to manage the differences with China.

The central question is how Asia — which has benefitted so much from the certainties of economic openness that the World Trade Organization and other global institutions have provided — can protect its strategic, economic and political interests in the face of the retreat of leadership by the world’s largest economy.

Even if Trump and his White House advisers do not embrace all of the policies that they have foreshadowed, policy uncertainty will undermine global economic and political security as well as damage US standing in the world.

Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP forewent the potential lift to US incomes that the deal would have delivered (mainly through the opening of the Japanese markets to US farm and services trade). The threats to impose trade barriers against US trading partners will actually reduce US incomes.

US protectionism empowers protectionists globally. But the rest of the world has a continuing and strategic interest in new commitments to openness however Trump’s United States might choose to inflict damage on itself.

No one country — even China which is the second biggest economy and largest trader in the world — can make the difference alone in holding the line as the United States turns inwards. There is thus a powerful interest in pushing collective leadership on trade openness from Asia.

Asia’s economic dynamism depends, in turn, upon success with its own programs of economic reform, which have been made more difficult in a hostile international policy environment. Confidence in the global trading system is important to Asia. It has underpinned the growth of Asian interdependence, economic prosperity as well as its political security.

In guarding these strategic interests ASEAN has a critical role to play, through the ASEAN-led RCEP. RCEP includes not only the ten ASEAN economies but also Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand. It is a coalition of countries with economic weight that is able to deliver a powerful message to the world. But without movement in ASEAN, RCEP won’t go anywhere.

It might seem strange in this time of global crisis to turn to ASEAN, which is dogged by perceptions of weakness and vulnerability and is distracted by the political and security problems in the South China Sea. But ASEAN, with Indonesia at its core, is a regional enterprise with a distinctly global outlook and objectives, an experiment in open regionalism that has succeeded. ASEAN’s economic cooperation strategy has persisted despite its perceived weaknesses and slow pace. It is still the crucible for action on regional cooperation within Asia and across the Pacific.

Hopefully Turnbull will get this clear before the ASEAN Leaders Summit in March or else Australia is set to miss another opportunity for strategic clarity.

Peter Drysdale is Head of the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research and Editor-in-Chief of East Asia Forum in the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

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