With less than three months experience, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison is facing his first major foreign policy test as Australian Prime Minister with the crucial ‘summit season’ of key regional meetings including the East Asia Summit in Singapore, APEC in Port Moresby over the last week and the upcoming G20 Leaders’ Summit in Buenos Aires.
While preferring to concentrate more on maximising his own domestic political capital with a federal election looming, Morrison has been thrust into international politics with key bilateral meetings with world leaders including Indonesian President Joko Widodo and US Vice President Mike Pence.
Morrison is a foreign policy newcomer, having ministerial experience in other portfolios that touch on Australia’s foreign relations including the treasury and border protection. He has already made several policy gaffes, particularly the suggestion that Australia would review whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions “remains fit for purpose” and the widely condemned potential move of Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem as an ostensible attempt to win votes among the large Jewish population in Wentworth by-election.
He has already skipped key regional and global summits, including the Pacific Islands Forum summit in Nauru and the United Nations General Assembly in September, leaving it to Foreign Minister Marise Payne who at that point had only weeks of experience in the portfolio. Key cabinet members have also come under fire recently for controversial remarks, including Environment Minister Melissa Price who claimed that Pacific Island leaders only visited Australia “for the cash”.
The Prime Minister’s populist rhetoric, which he has sought to use domestically, has not translated well in international relations. The floated Israel embassy move has prompted concern from key Asian allies, including Malaysia and Indonesia, with the latter suggesting that any move may jeopardise negotiations for a lucrative free-trade deal between Jakarta and Canberra.
Changes to ministerial portfolios have also led to some concern that foreign policy has taken a back seat, including the replacement of long-time Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and moving the role of Minister for International Development and the Pacific outside of the cabinet.
While Morrison and his ministers have stumbled in their first months, they have announced a handful of strategically significant policies in security and foreign affairs. The most prominent of these has been the Indonesia-Australia Free Trade Agreement and upgrade of Australia’s relations with Indonesia to a ‘strategic partnership’. These agreements, despite being negotiated over a number of years, will have significant benefits: reduction or removal of 99 per cent of tariffs on Australian trade and 100 per cent of Indonesian trade, the expansion of access to Indonesia’s education sector, and greater political and bilateral strategic dialogue. These expected agreements remain amiss of the ‘achievement column’, however, at least until the Israel Embassy decision is made.
Morrison has also sought to expand on the benefits of free trade in the wider global sphere, reaffirming a commitment to free trade and the World Trade Organisation as the possibility of a trade war between Washington and Beijing materialises.
The prime minister has also appeared to take a strategic interest in the Pacific despite skipping the Pacific Islands Forum earlier in the year, taking a more hard-line approach than his predecessor against increasing Chinese political and military influence. This has been evident in the recent announcement of a significant strategic pivot to the Pacific, in which Australia would launch a $2 billion infrastructure bank and open five new diplomatic posts as well as increasing its Defence Force presence in the region.
Additionally, to protect Australia’s trade and maritime interests in the Pacific, leaders have announced the trilateral redevelopment of a naval base on PNG’s Manus Island between the US, Australia and PNG which will likely be the permanent base for several Australian vessels. While these moves are likely to provoke some backlash in Beijing, it is a clear sign that Morrison wants Australia to be the region’s primary security and development partner.
Despite these significant policy announcements, Canberra is faltering in other areas. Australia continues to be lambasted regionally and internationally for its lack of climate change policy, which has seen significant criticism from Pacific leaders. While refusing to leave the Paris Agreement as some conservative colleagues have suggested, the PM has abandoned implementing policy mechanisms and integrating emissions reduction in energy policy – the lack of policy in this area could threaten its broader strategic pivot towards the region. Its controversial hard-line policies towards refugees and asylum seekers have also attracted international criticism and condemnation, including ignoring the deteriorating mental health of child refugees in Nauru and continuing to reject a proposal to resettle asylum seekers in New Zealand.
Morrison seems to be struggling to win the support of both the domestic electorate and the international community. His inexperience, concentration on domestic politics and gaffe-prone nature has already had an adverse effect on foreign policy. The Prime Minister must now ensure he sticks to the script, avoids any further diplomatic blunders and builds greater trust with allies, the region and the globe.
Euan Moyle is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.