Scott Morrison China
Xi Jinping and Scott Morrison (Image: AAP)

Fresh from an unexpected election win, having just visited his friend Donald Trump in the White House and seemingly with the world at his feet, last year Scott Morrison ventured a bold and positively Trumpian foreign policy perspective.

In an address to the Lowy Institute, Morrison attacked multilateralism and international institutions, which he characterised as “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy” and “international institutions [that] demand conformity rather than independent cooperation on global issues”.

“We should avoid any reflex towards a negative globalism that coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community,” Morrison claimed.

But about a month later, his treasurer contradicted him. Frydenberg, in a speech to the ANU, warned “there is no alternative to multilateralism” and urged the world to “recapture the co-operative spirit of Bretton Woods” which had led to “institutions that remain important to this day” such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank.

Frydenberg was speaking from an economic perspective, in which Australia is a relatively small country that needs a functional international order and set of rules in areas like trade in order to prosper. Otherwise, we end up… well, we end up right where we are now, with China using trade to try to subject Australia to exemplary punishment for criticising and questioning the tyrants of Beijing.

In a foreign policy speech yesterday, delivered to a British thinktank, did Morrison continue the Trump act and attack multilateral institutions and damn “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy”? Unsurprisingly, no. Indeed, Morrison has changed his tune quite dramatically.

He wanted to explain to the Brits “why groupings and institutions like the G7, the WTO and the OECD matter in a turbulent world and indeed the G20”.

The OECD matters, of course, because he couldn’t say otherwise while his government is backing, complete with a taxpayer-funded jet, Mathias Cormann’s bid to lead it.

While insisting “international institutions are most effective when they are driven by, and responsive to, accountable to, the society of sovereign states that forms them”, Morrison now sees “international institutions” as providing the gateway to a world in which “there is no need to build global spheres of influence in order to secure economic opportunity or exert influence”. They would act as “circuit-breakers” for international tensions.

From railing at “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracies”, Morrison has now moved to repeating, over and over, the importance of “rules-based solutions”, “rules-based order”, “agreed rules and norms”.

With China having to decided to ignore “a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community” and target Australian exports, Morrison’s conversion to supporter of rules-based order is unsurprising.

But there was some continuity with that speech last year. Back then, Morrison insisted “even during an era of great power competition, Australia does not have to choose between the United States and China”. Australia would, he said, reject “the binary narrative of their strategic competition”. He told the Brits “our preference in Australia is not to be forced into any binary choices”.

That of course echoes the line John Howard long used about China, that Australia doesn’t need to choose.

Increasingly though, the line rings hollow. Australia under Morrison has chosen. Not chosen the US, although its choice places it firmly in the US camp, but chosen to, in Morrison’s words, “be true to our values and the protection of our own sovereignty”.

Australia’s pushback against an increasingly aggressive Xi Jinping dictatorship reflects an adherence to values and sovereignty. It has targeted China’s suppression of democracy in Hong Kong; its refusal to provide transparency about the origins of the pandemic that has inflicted such colossal damage on the world; its interference in Australian politics and attempts to intimidate Chinese-Australians and Australian institutions; its refusal to heed international law in the South China Sea.

Australia’s values are inconsistent, messily applied, hypocritical and occasionally incoherent. But unusually, the Morrison government has pursued those values at the expense of our economy, much to the fury of appeasers and Beijing supporters in business and the commentariat.

And it has been the right call to make. As it turned out, our values and our economic interests are, at least for the time being, a binary choice, and we’ve made it in favour of values.

Morrison optimistically hopes that all will be well. “Greater latitude will be required from the world’s largest powers to accommodate the individual interests of their partners and allies,” he said. “We all need a bit more room to move.”

A United States under Joe Biden may be more ready to do that than Trump. But China is unlikely to accommodate anyone.