When Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull came to power in an intra-party coup last fall, there were concerns that given his business connections to China, he might not be tough enough on Beijing. But over the past few months, Australia has been more confrontational and has taken a stand on China’s South China Sea construction. In China last week, however, he tried to avoid discussing the South China Sea and when the subject did arise he told his Chinese counterparts that their behavior was “counterproductive.” Writing in the Lowy Interpreter, Hugh White takes Turnbull to task for those remarks:
In fact the claim that China’s actions are counterproductive to its own aims is almost certainly false. It assumes that Beijing wants to make friends and uphold the ‘rules based global order’, whereas their aims are clearly to display their growing power and replace the current order with ‘a new model of great power relations’. In terms of furthering these aims, their pushiness in the South China Sea is working just fine.
So turning up in Beijing simply to rehearse well-worn clichés about regional order was not serious diplomacy. The natural conclusion is that Mr Turnbull neither intended nor expected his talking points to make any actual difference to China’s policy, or to the situation in the South China Sea. He was just going through the motions, while the risk of conflict grows.
That seems close to a dereliction of duty, when the stakes for Australia are so high. But he got away with it politically because no one expected him to do anything more. Commentators assessed his diplomacy on the South China Sea solely as a test of his diplomatic mettle: would he show strength by speaking his mind, or chicken out and soften his message? No one asked what real difference it would make whether he did or not.
This prompts a question: why do our leaders aim so low in foreign policy, and why do the rest of us not expect them to aim higher? Why do we accept that the only thing at stake in Beijing last week was Mr Turnbull’s reputation as a person willing to speak his mind?
It’s a tough and sobering assessment of the Australian Prime Minister. You should read the whole thing.