PM Malcolm Turnbull says the TPP could still go ahead, with the possibility of China joining the deal.
AUSTRALIA’S response to Donald Trump’s presidency has been “alarming”, says one expert who says we need to “wake up” when it comes to China.
Dr Allan Patience, the principal fellow of the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, told news.com.au Australia was at risk of becoming a victim of its own ignorance.
“The response to moves from the extraordinary Trump presidency is frankly alarming … and suggests a lack of informed understanding about what the issues really are,” he said.
As an example, Dr Patience said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s suggestion the Trans-Pacific Partnership could continue without the US didn’t make sense as America’s involvement was essential.
As one of his first acts after taking office President Trump signed an executive order to withdraw from the trade agreement covering 12 countries including Australia.
Mr Turnbull still hopes to salvage the agreement and has even suggested that China could join instead.
But Dr Patience did not think this was likely.
“China is Australia’s number 1 trading partner at the moment, to imagine slotting China in after America leaves the TPP, shows enormous ignorance of what China’s interests are and what Australia’s role in the Asia Pacific is,” he said.
“The TPP was meant to give America an enormous trade advantage in the Asia Pacific and was part of its strategy to try and encircle and contain China.
“How can you adapt that by bringing China into it? Unless you reverse it completely and talk about containing the US, it’s just politically stupid.”
In general, Dr Patience said there was a lack of understanding in Australia about Asia — its languages, history, culture and politics.
“The country is really at risk of becoming a victim of its own Asian ignorance,” he said.
“I think it’s time we really woke up in the country, I really do.”
Dr Patience is no fan of the TPP and said its “so-called benefits” to Australia had never really been established. But he said its collapse meant a major plank in the American strategy to contain China had been pulled out.
While experts have pointed to the collapse of the TPP as opening up the threat of Chinese dominance, Dr Patience said this thinking was naive.
“China is already an important player in the region,” he said.
“China will try to exert its influence, it is a great power and this is something that Australia has not yet adjusted to, and does not quite understand. I don’t think the US understands either.”
‘NOTHING SHORT OF WAR’
The TPP decision points to the US withdrawing from the world but Dr Patience said some in Trump’s Cabinet also seemed to be trying to provoke China.
Last week Mr Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, hinted that Washington should prevent China from building islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first the island building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” he said.
If America did take a more aggressive military stance towards China, Dr Patience said this should be “deeply concerning, particularly to Australia”.
“China has made it clear that this would be nothing short of war,” he said.
Dr Patience said it was possible that some in the Trump Cabinet could believe it was better to force a military showdown with China now, rather than in 10 years time when it would be a more formidable enemy.
“They are probably right but at what cost?,” he said.
“If that’s their strategy, Australia has got to do some well-informed policy thinking about how Australia will respond if America does go down that track.”
Unfortunately Dr Patience said he had not seen any indication Australia’s leadership was doing this.
“It really worries me at the moment that the Australian responses so far from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, the Prime Minister and Trading Minister have all been insipid in the extreme,” he said.
“Turnbull is now scrambling to try and respond to the precipitous, reckless behaviour (of Trump) on a number of issues including the sudden cancelling of the TPP,” he said.
“But the government should have been ready for this months ago, they should have known it was coming. They seem to have been sitting on their hands hoping against hope that Trump would change his mind.”
WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING?
Dr Patience said Australia should “pull its head in” and not participate in any of the sabre rattling going on between China and the US. It should also review its links to America.
“We should begin to talk very seriously about what the ANZUS treaty means,” he said.
He said the treaty, which binds Australia and the US to co-operate on military matters in the Pacific Ocean, was first signed in 1951.
“We have participated in every single war that America has waged since 1951, in all of those wars, none of our objectives have been achieved.”
He said the treaty may no longer be in Australia’s best interests.
“Australia has got to wake up to the fact that we are part of the Asia Pacific as never before. “Our future, our security and our prosperity is here.
“America may be endangering Australia’s future in those terms.”
He said Australia should adopt a much more neutral stance towards America and China and engage in more intelligent diplomacy.
“We should talk with our allies in South East Asia and together talk to both sides and get them to cool down.”
Dr Patience said Australians also needed to educate themselves about the region.
“We don’t need to embrace China, we don’t need to embrace anyone, we need to understand and have an open relationship with places like China.
“At the moment there is very little expertise, how many CEOs can speak Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian? Very few, but you’ll find those in Tokyo, Beijing and Jakarta there are plenty of bureaucrats that can speak English.
“Our Asian ignorance is the biggest drawback to our security and prosperity.”
He said China was Australia’s number one trading partner, Japan was number two and South Korea was sixth.
“To not understand the full implication of this is to endanger our children and grandchildren’s future in the region,” he said.
“We need education reform so that we can feel confident about being part of the region. They are no longer ‘the other’, we ought to become intimate with our region and to realise how wonderful it is.”