Malcolm Turnbull in Singapore

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finally had his big Asia moment, delivering the keynote speech at the annual regional security summit, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue — or, more officially, IISS Asia Security Summit — in Singapore on Friday evening.

It was, in many ways, a signal moment for Turnbull’s foreign policy, whose priorities are being buffeted by a three-way pull involving:

  • Australia’s traditional defence ally the United States, now being run by the wildly unpredictable, utterly unprepared Donald Trump;
  • the region’s and world’s ever-rising power China, Australia’s biggest trade partner and wannabe regional hegemon; and
  • the increasing threat of Islamic fundamentalism/radicalism in the world’s largest Muslim country Indonesia and, most recently, in its northern neighbour the Philippines, where martial law was declared in the war on the Muslim province of Mindanao 10 days ago.

The good news is rather than fluff it by sitting on the fence too much — vis-a-vis China’s aggressive island-building in the South China Sea — Turnbull laid out a sensible but firm approach. In fact, he actually took the fight to China, in terms of regional security, while rightly noting that Australia does not have to “choose” between China and the United States.

“If we are to maintain the dynamism of the region, we must preserve the rules-based structure that has enabled it so far. This means cooperation not unilateral actions to seize or create territory, or militarise existing areas,” he said in a clear reference to China’s island-building efforts.

This was pitched by some Australian commentators as “warning” China — but really, without the full backing of the US, with what ultimatum?

China, of course, is well aware of the realpolitik that Australia need not, and will not, make any choice. Still, China is relentless in its ambitions and will continue to use its incredibly well-funded soft-power program to influence Australia.

Turnbull’s focus on the South China Sea was important, because under the still-nascent Trump administration, US policy on China has been almost completely focused on North Korea while the South China Sea — a much more important issue to most nations in the Asia Pacific — has been sidelined.

Turnbull’s words were backed up — in fact praised — at the summit by US Defence Secretary James Mattis, former head of the US Marine Corps and widely regarded as one of the most competent people in Trump’s cabinet. Mattis still appears very focused on North Korea although the language on China has been toned down, thankfully.

It’s apposite, too, that the capacity for violence by China is remembered with deep sorrow each year on June 4. Last night was the anniversary for the Beijing Massacre at Tiananmen Square on the evening of June 3, and then, during June 4, when the People’s Liberation Army tanks rolled into the centre of the capital to crush peaceful demonstrations, killing hundreds and maiming thousands more in a key fork in the road for modern China.

One particularly noteworthy element of the Turnbull speech was that he also made a point of including India, alongside China, in two important sections of his address. Often omitted — or simply forgotten as something of an also-ran in broader discussion of the Asia-Pacific — India has a population expected to pass China’s sometime in the next decade, taking it the world’s most populous nation. The two countries are mortal enemies having fought a brief war in 1962 and they are still in dispute over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which sits between Nepal, Myanmar and China.

India and Japan — the latter a key Australian ally in the Pacific — have drawn closer in recent years over their joint loathing of China. India continues to develop as an ever-more valuable trading partner for Australia, as well as a supplier of foreign students and tourists. The only problem with closer relations between India and Australia is the rising Hindu fundamentalism of the former, under its firebrand Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Attacks on other religions, including Christianity, have increased in the past two years in India.

This, of course for diplomatic reasons, was not touched on by Turnbull. But there was a hint of wanting to get closer, too. For want of a better phrase the democratic fellow former colony devil we know better than China, perhaps.

But arguably the core message of Turnbull’s speech was that we have entered a new world, one where Australia needs to rely on its own wits and council a little more. Countries like Indonesia, now under threat of radicalism, can do with more of our help.

After years and years, decades actually, of making all sorts of noises about better engagement with Asian countries, yet really only focusing on trade, it is certainly time to step up and Turnbull, on the back of last weeks’ speech showed that he has arguably more comfortable on the international than the domestic stage.

Peter Fray

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