Whatever else might be said about Scott Morrison he is not astute. He is out of his depth in a number of policy areas particularly foreign policy. This he shares with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
There are substantial and complex international issues none more so than the crisis of climate change; there are also the confected confrontation with Iran, China seeking to secure regional power and control trade routes, Russia elbowing to be a world player, US fearing a loss of power and influence, the prospect hastened by its erratic leadership, Britain's Brexit conundrum and the crisis of refugees, food and water shortages.
Morrison and his advisers appear to have scant understanding of the Middle East. His decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel flew in the face of years of Australian diplomacy which sought a balance between Israel and Palestine. It was made in response to a similar decision by Trump, which was equally ill advised. He has not condemned Saudi Arabia for it's cruel bombing attacks in The Yemen, the abuse of Saudi women within the Kingdom and the state murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
He has demonstrated no understanding of the issues surrounding the US withdrawal from the treaty governing the Iranian production of enriched Uranium. Not for him the sophistication and understanding of the European signatories to the treaty appalled at Trump's precipitate action. Instead he seems drawn to Trump's dangerous bellicosity. The Trump administration push against Iran is led by an eager and hawkish White House security adviser, John Bolton. The US appears keen to have a crack at Iran. A short sharp military action to teach Iran a lesson, to make it understand it's place in the region and to demonstrate American military and political dominance.
In light of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, such thinking demonstrates that America has learnt nothing. They are on the same song sheet. Entry into the war in Vietnam was engineered through a contrived attack against an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin by a North Vietnamese patrol boat. Except it never happened. The incident was made up. America is attempting the same in the Gulf of Hormuz. Claims that the Iranians have detonated explosive devices against foreign oil tankers are patently nonsense. Why would the Iranians attack a Japanese tanker while the Japanese Prime Minister was in Tehran conducting trade talks? It makes no sense. More likely the tankers have been hit by drones with explosives devices fired from the United Arab Emirates, who along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Israel and the United States wish to see Iranian influence diminished.
Morrison has not ruled out joining the US in any conflict they might engineer. That would be a mistake to say the least. Trump says he was ready to bomb nuclear installations in Iran but pulled back because of the thought of injuring or killing 150 or so Iranian workers. Rubbish. Trump has no empathy. More likely what happened was that US intelligence operatives spelled out to him the extent of Iranian retaliation. The UAE would be targeted, bringing to a halt Emirates Airlines and perhaps prevent them from operating for some time. American and other expats and workers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bahrain, Dammam and Kuwait would be killed along with many local nationals and oil installations damaged. And that remains the case. Any small attack would quickly escalate into a major confrontation. One in which China and the Soviet Union would offer help to the Iranians.
Morrison has not ruled out joining the US in any conflict they might engineer. That would be a mistake to say the least.
Morrison, along with advisers and public servants hang their hats on the United States coming to Australia's assistance in the event we get attacked, presumably by the Chinese or Indonesians. The US will not. Surely, we have learnt by now that America only protects its own interests. If our interests coincide so be it, but then if that's the case what is the need for a one-way alliance?
Morrison and the Australian government grapple with what they see as the difficulty of 'balancing' the relationship between the US and China. Both countries need to be pushed back. China over its surveillance and attempts to control key members of the Australian/Chinese community, its hacking of Australian academic institutions, intelligence and government organisations and its purchase of strategic assets such as water and infrastructure. America needs to be pushed back over its assumption that Australia is compliant to the point of complacency, from Pine Gap to the basing of marines in Darwin to lazy statements of support for whatever the US might contemplate, including war against Iran.
China is asserting control over the South China Sea; America is resisting and exhorting countries in the region to join it with mixed success. Australia has been active in patrolling but has avoided confrontation. Singapore has just signed a defence agreement with China. Indonesia may follow.
China is active in the South Pacific, building infrastructure on island states some which has a defence application. They discuss the climate crisis with island leaders. There is no debate in China about this, they accept climate change as a reality. Pacific leaders like what they hear. Morrison and LNP appointed intelligence chiefs fear what they term the encroachment of China into our region. Our region... We have studiously avoided the Pacific states for decades, we have ignored their pleas on climate change, we have short changed them on aid, we have patronised and talked down to them and in the case of PNG we have used them for our own political ends. It's a bit late - the horse has bolted.
Last year Morrison announced a mixed bag of $3 billion in aid for the Pacific and a further $250 million was announced this year in aid to the Solomon Islands. Australia has thrown down the gauntlet in a bidding war for the hearts and minds of Pacific Islanders that it has no hope of winning. China can out bid Australia and it will do so. A better strategy might be to enter into partnership arrangements with China to further the needs of the people in the region. But that is not the game. If Australia wants to regain lost influence and respect it needs to listen and respond to local leaders and opinion. However, the chances are not good, if it can't do that at home with the Indigenous population how can it do it overseas? White superiority writ large.
Morrison will not lead on climate, nor on water, Morrison will stick to the narrow precepts of his church and the IPA.
- Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and former diplomat.