If Malcolm Turnbull needed any further confirmation that being in strategic lockstep with the US, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, is going to be far tougher for him than his predecessors, events in recent weeks will have fulfilled his worst fears.
Turnbull — like Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and John Howard before him — has thrown his more or less unconditional support behind the US, further cruelling Australia’s control over its own destiny. But this comes at a pivotal point in history as China’s increasingly self-assured rise shifts the fulcrum of international diplomatic focus to the Asia Pacific.
Last week, in a move that appears to highlight Australia’s increased naval commitment to the region, news was deliberately leaked that Australia had been “confronted” by a Chinese ship off the coast of Vietnam.
Only days later, US Admiral Philip Davidson, who is expected to be confirmed by a US Senate committee as the new head of operations in the Pacific, signaled that he will restructure 75,000 military and civilian personnel, 200 ships and nearly 1100 aircraft in the region as part of a move to “re-calibrate” US presence in the region — as outlined in the Pentagon’s latest national defence strategy.
The overall US re-calibration encompasses its allies too — so Australia is front and centre. Australian ships have been touring around the region, visiting Vietnam last week and Thailand this week. This week there will be naval exercises with Thailand and while some of this is always cast as “regular operations”, the ramped-up publicising of such events is all part of Australia’s deputy sheriff duties.
For their unstinting loyalty, Turnbull and his increasingly bellicose foreign minister Julie Bishop have received a slap in the face: the intended appointment of former Pacific commander Admiral Harry Harris as the US Ambassador being snatched away.
It took 18 months for one of the US’ most unstinting allies to be noticed enough to warrant the appointment of an envoy by Trump (10 months longer than Obama, eight months more than Bush II). Now we are back to square one.
“I’m disappointed that Harry’s not coming because he’s a really good friend and I think Harry will be disappointed that he’s not coming to Canberra too because he loves Australia,” Turnbull moped. But maybe Harris might think a key job like South Korea might be more fulfilling than living in Canberra. On Anzac Day, Bishop declared it was, in fact, “not a slap in the face”.
Meanwhile, two major allies in the US alliance, Thailand and the Philippines have both significantly softened their stance toward Beijing. There is no doubt China is very much a concern, and add to this a fresh focus on Taiwan by the Xi regime in Beijing and the US’ plans to ramp up senior visits to the island.
So now, with the PM as the latest participant in that famous “conga-line of suckholes” to the US, it seems we are “in the Humvee with DJT” in a region where security tensions are increasing at a steady rate and there are few signs that this will change.