Morrison’s US trip had to navigate between two extremes

Morrison’s US trip had to navigate between two extremes

On his trip to the US, Prime Minister Scott Morrison had to find a way between two fairly narrow gates.

Mr Morrison had to show Australia’s support for the US as our key strategic ally while at the same time politely holding the line where our interests diverge including on China.

He also had to build on his relationship with Mr Trump without falling into the trap of endorsing him unconditionally.

Mr Morrison steered a fairly safe course through both these dilemmas but he is not yet in the clear.

The Prime Minister made unapologetic use of the cultural affinities and bonds of blood between Australia and the US in pushing the case for a deeper alliance in the face of growing Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Yet he did not completely throw in his lot with the China hawks or with the US in its trade war against Beijing. During a White House meeting, when Mr Trump described China as a “threat to the world,” Mr Morrison spoke emolliently of Australia’s “comprehensive strategic partnership with China.”

Mr Morrison may have tilted too far against China on Monday in Chicago when he suggested China should lose the status of a developing country which gives some advantages under World Trade Organisation rules.

Chinese officials certainly objected to this suggestion but it is not entirely a policy the Trump White House will welcome. For Mr Trump trade talks are a no-holds barred brawl that is “easy to win.” Mr Morrison is at least advocating a return to the rules-based WTO even though he suggests the rules could be tweaked to acknowledge that the gap between China and developed countries, although still considerable, has shrunk in the past two decades.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Morrison has got the balance right in navigating between the US and China and perhaps he needs to expend more energy on ties with Beijing. While Mr Morrison has now had a state visit to the US and held bilateral meetings with Mr Trump he is a stranger to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Mr Morrison will also have to make sure that he strikes the right balance in his personal approach to Mr Trump.

Of course, like other world leaders, Mr Morrison had to stroke Mr Trump’s inflated ego.

These fake gushing bromances between political leaders, who actually barely know each other, are always hard to stomach.

But they are part and parcel of diplomacy, especially between leaders such as Mr Trump and Mr Morrison from the same side of politics.

The problem is that Mr Trump might not be president at the end of next year and Australia must ensure it is seen as a friend of the US rather than one very controversial and polarising leader.

It was uncomfortable that Mr Morrison’s visit to Australian firm Visy’s new cardboard box factory morphed into a campaign event for Mr Trump. Also, given many of Mr Trump’s policies are little more than tweets, Australia should not sign up to them without doing its homework. For example, it is unclear what scientific justification there is for Mr Morrison’s $150 million pledge to Mr Trump’s pet space program to Mars.

Australia must not antagonise Mr Trump but nor should it identify too closely with him.

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