The view from Billinudgel

Cooperation takes a back seat at APEC
As tensions between the US and China rise, it’s getting harder for Australia not to take sides


APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, was originally Bob Hawke’s idea. He envisaged it as a purely economic gathering, a meeting of finance ministers to deal with the growing impact of globalisation and to ensure dialogue and the rule of law between its diverse participants.

But then Paul Keating, worried about what he saw as a rift between China and Japan, refashioned it as a true regional summit, where political leaders could hold regular meetings to thrash out their problems and differences.

He gained considerable support from the newly elected US president Bill Clinton, but on the proviso that it remained primarily an economic forum, and so the name APEC was retained although it morphed to include a much wider range of strategic considerations. And as a result, not only did the economic bit take second place but the cooperation bit became less important as well, leading to the direct confrontation we saw in last weekend’s APEC summit in Port Moresby.

The decision of the US and Australia to combine forces in a joint naval base on Manus Island (at the invitation of Papua New Guinea, of course) represents a direct challenge to China’s expansionism in the region, and the US vice president, Mike Pence, deputised for the chief confronter, made no attempt to disguise its purpose. And by announcing Washington’s participation in what had been seen as a purely Australian initiative, Pence has locked Australia into America’s side in the great game.

Scott Morrison is still trying desperately (does he try any other way?) to play both ends against the middle, to somehow balance the strategic imperative of the American alliance with the essential reality of our trade with China. This was perhaps his motive in making his key speech about the need to avoid protectionism and embrace free trade.

Morrison’s speech was taken as an implicit rebuke to Donald Trump’s policies towards China. But it is unlikely to cut much ice with Beijing. Actions speak louder than words, and a gentle chiding from a neophyte prime minister to a belligerent and unheeding president hardly weighs against the establishment of a permanent military facility on what China regards as its doorstep.

There will be other opportunities; if Morrison is serious he will have to take on Trump in person at the G20 summit in Argentina. A major shirt-fronting may restore the delicate relationship, but at the moment it appears that Morrison has finally made his decision.

Numerous former Australian leaders have wrestled with the dilemma, which used to be called the choice between our history and our geography; the usual solution was the claim that we could have both, and in the past we have generally gotten away with it. But as the rivalry between the US and China has intensified over the nationalist ambitions of both leaders, the need to take sides cannot be avoided.

And with the Manus declaration, there is no doubt which way Australia has jumped. Morrison probably does not even realise its significance; he may think it is just another of his marketing coups. But this week the neighbourhood, and perhaps even the world, is a different place. Keating wanted APEC to matter, and it has – although not necessarily in the way he intended.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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