As the prime minister heads to ASEAN, trade, Vietnam and China will be high on the agenda


Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Given a world in turmoil, an ASEAN leadership three-day summit to begin in Bangkok this weekend has slipped off radar screens. But this is not to say the event lacks importance.

The year-end summit of leaders of the 10 ASEAN nations plus eight dialogue partners may well prove one of the more significant regional gatherings, historically.

Away from the tumult in Europe over Brexit, the United States over impeachment, and a US-China trade war, ASEAN and partners have been quietly working to put in place two constructive initiatives.

The first is the bare bones of a mega trade deal that would knit together ASEAN members plus six regional partners. The second is progress towards a regional security framework.




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Neither of these initiatives will be fully consummated this weekend. But, if progress is made, the Bangkok 2019 summit may well come to be regarded as more than a pro forma talkfest.

Let’s start with negotiations over a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). If the ASEAN summit reaches agreement to push ahead with this initiative, with the aim of completion over the next 12 months, this would represent an important advance in the liberalisation of regional trade.

The RCEP, proposed by China as a counter to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) from which it was excluded, would bring together the ASEAN 10 plus six dialogue partners.

The ASEAN 10 are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The dialogue partners are Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand and South Korea.

Needless to say, a trade liberalisation pact that accounts for 45% of the world’s population and a third of global GDP would represent a momentous development, potentially.

The TPP is a free trade agreement that was renamed the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after Donald Trump withdrew the United States from it in 2016.

That agreement brings together 11 regional countries, some of which are ASEAN members and would also be parties to the RCEP. The awkwardly acronymed CPTPP comprises Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

This is a significant trading bloc. However, it would be dwarfed by an RCEP, dominated by China and India, with the emerging economies of Indonesia and Vietnam as part of the mix.

The RCEP is an important initiative. It matters from a trading standpoint and as a regional power balance in the ongoing strategic rivalry between China and the US.

Beijing correctly views the initiative as a means of countering US-initiated trade and other pressures.

From an Australian standpoint, an RCEP would serve the useful function of providing more certainty to a liberalising regional trading environment.

Australia has a free trade agreement in place with ASEAN and other members of the proposed RCEP, including, importantly, China, Japan and South Korea.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will attend the Bangkok summit along with Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, reflecting the importance Canberra attaches to these events.

The vast proportion of Australian trade resides in its trading relationships with RCEP countries, principally China, Japan, South Korea and India.

Australia’s trade with ASEAN, both merchandise and services, totals more than A$50 billion a year, or about 12% of Australia’s total exports.

At the same time, ASEAN countries’ investment in Australia exceeds A$118 billion. These are significant numbers.

Among all of Australia’s trading partners, six RCEP parties – or seven if you include Hong Kong as part of China – are in the top 10 Australian export destinations.

These are, in order, China, Japan, South Korea, India, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong. Making up the 10 are the US, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

This brings us to one of the principal drags on an RCEP deal in Bangkok.

Indian concerns about Chinese goods flooding its market remain a sticking point under any RCEP arrangement. New Delhi is seeking safeguard mechanisms that would guard against surges in imports and what it regards as unfair competition. India’s particular concerns relate to its vulnerable agriculture sector.

Whether these Indian reservations can be satisfied in time for a broad agreement to proceed with the RCEP in time for the Bangkok summit remains to be seen.




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There is another important issue that will feature in Bangkok and on which progress is far from certain. These are matters relating to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. Beijing is in dispute with five ASEAN members over conflicting territorial claims: Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

Conflict with Vietnam over potentially oil-rich territorial waters is the most vexatious of these disputes.

At previous ASEAN sessions, China has aligned itself with client states like Cambodia to bully and block reasonable discussion about its territorial ambitions.

In efforts to reduce tensions over Beijing’s behaviour, ASEAN negotiators hope to achieve a “first reading” of a code of conduct for the South China Sea that would provide some sort of framework for resolving disputes.

It’s not clear whether China will go along with such an initiative.

Judging by remarks made by China’s defence minister, General Wei Fenghe, at a recent defence forum, Beijing will be reluctant to yield ground. He said:

We will not relinquish a single inch of territory passed down from our forefathers.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In his first major foreign policy test, Morrison needs to stick to the script



File 20181113 194500 179zyor.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
After a positive start, Morrison’s relations with his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, cooled off after he suggested moving the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Susan Harris Rimmer, Griffith University

Attending a global leaders summit might look easy – all interesting shirts, family-style photos and unusual handshakes – but these occasions can prove extremely difficult for leaders who focus solely on domestic politics or brand new leaders with uncertain electoral prospects.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is both.

Morrison faces a busy week of foreign policy tests in his first big moment on the global stage. He first travels to Singapore for the ASEAN and East Asia Summit, then hosts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s historic visit to Darwin before jetting off for the APEC Summit in Papua New Guinea on the weekend. This power week will be followed by the G20 Leaders Summit in Buenos Aires at the end of month.

This week, Morrison will have his first meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, US Vice President Mike Pence and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in addition to new (but not so new) Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.




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So what can we expect from Morrison’s debut summit season and in particular his meetings with Xi?

Pundits have been speculating whether Morrison might try to use the August leadership spill and appointment of new Foreign Minister Marise Payne as a way of pressing the reset button on relations with China.

Payne’s recent visit to Beijing was viewed by both parties as a success, so Morrison should have a more pleasant meeting with Xi than former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull might have.

Payne’s visit to China was the first by an Australian foreign minister since Julie Bishop’s trip in 2016.
Thomas Peter/EPA

But Morrison’s first months in office show a leader who speaks without due care to the reactions of foreign governments – floating the idea of shifting the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is the most glaring example – and a leader with little political capital to spare.

He needs to stick to the script this week.

Danger signs

Morrison has already courted controversy on foreign policy in a short period of time. He skipped the UN General Assembly in September. He also missed the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, forcing Payne to reassure Pacific neighbours that he wasn’t “snubbing” them.

Morrison did go straight to Jakarta in his first overseas trip as leader to meet with President Joko Widodo and sign the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Indonesia.

But he was then accused of playing “straight from Trump’s songbook” when he mused about moving Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem without consulting diplomats or generals beforehand. It was widely seen as a crude attempt to win the Jewish vote in the Wentworth by-election.

One downfall of Australian leaders is they can sometimes look parochial and small-town while on the big stage. For example, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott made a cringeworthy speech to G20 leaders in Brisbane in 2014 about GP co-payments and stopping the boats. Opposition leader Bill Shorten described it as “weird and graceless”.

In his case, Morrison failed to realise the negative reception his embassy musings would receive in Indonesia. Now, his meetings with Widodo are likely to be frosty, with no plans to sign the free-trade agreement by the end of the year.

Morrison’s meetings with Xi, Putin and Modi

In his recent headland speech, Morrison seemed to adopt a Malcolm Turnbull-style line on taking a middle path with the US and China, noting that a confrontation between the two powers:

risks unimagined damage to economic growth and the global order. Damage where no-one benefits. Lose-lose.

Nevertheless, the speech was strong on values, many of which China does not share.

It is also not clear how Xi will view the recent Pacific push from Morrison, though he seemed to offer the possibility for partnership in the region.

Morrison’s meeting with Putin at the East Asia Summit will likewise be interesting to watch. This is Putin’s first time at the summit, but by no means his first rodeo. His presence is perhaps indicative of Russia’s intention to pivot more attention towards the Indo-Pacific region, taking advantage of Trump’s absence.




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In yet another foreign policy stumble, Abbott once famously vowed to “shirtfront” Putin over the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Putin enjoys such displays of toxic masculinity; hopefully, Morrison can restrain himself.

Australia wants to enhance its partnership with India, so we should see Morrison make a beeline for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ASEAN meeting, hoping for one of Modi’s signature hugs.

Before meeting Modi, Morrison will hopefully have carefully read the India Economic Strategy to 2035, authored by the former high commissioner to India and head of DFAT, Peter Varghese.

Modi got a hug of his own from Abbott during his high-profile visit to Australia in 2014.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Our Pacific family

Last week, Morrison made perhaps his most important foreign policy speech – a major strategic announcement on the Pacific. He said Australia would open five new embassies and launch an infrastructure bank in the region to the tune of A$2 billion, and declared the Pacific “our patch”:

This is our part of the world. This is where we have special responsibilities. We always have, we always will. We have their back, and they have ours. We are more than partners by choice. We are connected as members of a Pacific family.

The announcement came after he signed a deal for a joint naval base in Papua New Guinea. Both this and the infrastructure bank were seen as ways of countering Chinese influence in the Pacific, but Morrison did refrain from using any anti-China rhetoric.




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This is noteworthy. Tess Newton Cain has pointed out that Australia often misses the right tone of respect and partnership in its announcements to the region.

But despite this new push for Pacific engagement, Australia is still seen as weak on climate policy – a hugely important issue to Pacific leaders. This could result in difficult conversations for Morrison at APEC, as PNG has invited many Pacific nations to attend for the first time.

Sit down, be humble

Even if Morrison puts his best foot forward to overcome his poor start on foreign policy, he will still have difficulty standing out in the crowd.

Even leaders require some political capital to stand out in those big rooms.

The churn in Australian prime ministers means that some foreign leaders may not consider it worth the time or energy to build a relationship of personal trust with Morrison if they view him more like a caretaker. Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had spent 10 years building up this diplomatic trust and stability in her various roles, but that was severed abruptly.

My advice to Morrison? Stay humble and listen. Read the briefs, listen to the diplomats and do everything Payne and DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson say to do, to the letter.The Conversation

Susan Harris Rimmer, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Griffith Law School, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.