Obama's Climate Fiasco Drives Aussies Closer To India & China
Australian, 22 November 2014 (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/weird-speech-makes-obama-odd-man-out/story-e6frg76f-1227130149413
The United States embassy in Canberra advised President Barack
Obama not to make the provocative, anti-Abbott speech on climate change which he
made at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. That the President acted
against the advice of his own embassy reveals a deeply divided and in part
dysfunctional Obama administration, unable to reconcile its foreign policy
objectives and its domestic imperatives.
The speech was not only
damaging for Tony Abbott, as it will be used by all his opponents on climate
change up until the next election, it was a disaster for US foreign policy,
because the gratuitous climate change remarks completely overshadowed all the
regional and security content which Obama's foreign policy team wanted to be the
main point of his major address on his Asian tour.
folly was in striking contrast to the masterful performances of China's
President Xi Jinping and India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Xi and Modi
have both achieved almost everything they wanted from Asia's season of summits.
Obama has achieved almost nothing.
The other big winner from this summit
season was Abbott. Despite the damage Obama inflicted on him, Abbott emerged
from APEC, the East Asia Summit, the G20 summit which he hosted, and the
separate bilateral visits of so many world leaders, with huge structural
The free trade agreement with China has the potential to be
transformative for Australia. It locks the two nations much more closely
together. It contains a host of immensely important specifics, and was
accompanied by numerous side agreements.
But the transformative potential
lies in the door it opens for Australian business into China's future. Don't
think for a moment that resources will cease to be at the centre of
Australia/China trade. The anti-coal propaganda is fanciful nonsense, believed
only by Green dreamers.
Coal will be at the heart of China's energy
generation for decades ahead.
Nonetheless, China is transforming. Coal
and iron ore are about building cities. China has now built its cities on a vast
scale. Cities are occupied by middle class people. They need high-quality food
and high-quality services. The China FTA opens up the services sector in an
unprecedented way. That is the future.
The Indian visit also offers to be
transformative. Modi likes Abbott. But of course such likes and dislikes are
never the real engine of history.
Modi wants India to develop. Modi's
closest friend and partner internationally is Japan's Shinzo Abe. Abe is
Abbott's closest collaborator in Asia. It was Abe who advised Modi that
Australia was a country to take seriously and that Abbott was a PM who could
Modi believes Australia can be a big part of India's
I attended a small business gathering with Modi in
Melbourne. He made a few comments about the need for greener energy, but he also
said: "India will have massive requirements for coal and iron ore." Just in case
his interlocutors missed the point, he repeated it: "Whatever we do, we will
still need massive amounts of coal and iron ore."
But Modi understands
that India also needs foreign investment and expertise. Since the turn of the
century, India has been the second fastest growing economy in the world. Tens,
hundreds, of millions of Indians will enter the middle class over the next
decade. They offer the same opportunities as the Chinese middle class. Trade
Minister Andrew Robb describes the India relationship as being where the Chinese
relationship was 15 years ago. Robb is right. The potential, like China 15 years
ago, is enormous.
The ambition to complete a free trade agreement between
India and Australia by the end of next year is heroic. But it is not impossible.
Indeed, one FTA helps produce another. Australia's success in securing an FTA
with South Korea helped motivate Japan. Canberra's success with Tokyo helped
motivate Beijing. Part of India's motivation is not to be left out of the east
Asian economic success story. So the string of north Asian FTAs Robb has
concluded helps us with New Delhi.
Here we need a note of caution. Each
one of these relationships - the US, China and India - is intensely complex,
influenced by many factors beyond Australia's reach and there are many ways
these ambitious plans could fall short, if not fall apart.
Take each in
Obama's speech was deliberately designed to hurt Abbott. This may
not have been its primary purpose, but it certainly was a significant effect.
Historians of the relationship cannot cite a single similar example of a
visiting president going out of his way to wound an Australian prime
The speech was bizarre in many ways and deserves proper
analysis as a pointer to the divisions and dysfunction within the Obama
administration, features which will only get worse as power, and a sense of
responsibility, ebb away from Obama in the less than two years he still has in
There was also an element of cowardice in the speech. Obama would
never have given that speech at home before the congressional mid-term
elections. There would have been some courage in such a speech delivered, say,
in West Virginia, or Ohio, a week before the mid-terms.
What was Obama's
purpose? Can one more celebrity orgasm really be more important to the President
than maintaining his relationship with his closest ally in Asia? Was Obama
preparing for his post-presidential life, as a new and improved Al Gore?
Finally, other senior Americans put it to me that many high-level
figures in the administration, in so far as they think about Asia at all, think
only of China. They fail to understand that a successful China policy has to be
embedded in a successful Asia policy. This contributes to their taking close
allies for granted.
Virtually all senior Asia hands in Washington outside
the administration agree that Obama has never really paid attention to managing
This was evident in the fact that the Obama team decided to do
the speech at the last minute, insisted it be to a university audience, never
gave their Australian hosts any hint of what the President was planning to say,
and refused to offer the Australians either a text or a summary of the speech
before it was delivered. All of that is truly a bizarre way to treat an
Nonetheless, Obama's selfindulgence will not cause the Abbott
government to back away from co-operation with the US. The alliance is much
bigger than Obama and Australia participates in the alliance because it is in
our interests and reflects our values.
The vacuum created by Obama in
Asia is partly filled by Xi, although other formidable Asian leaders such as Abe
and Modi also occupy important strategic space.
Xi, like most Chinese
leaders, is a super hard head with little sentimentality. He is the most
powerful leader in modern China since at least Deng Xiaoping. He offered an
ambition to make China more democratic in his beautifully crafted speech to
parliament, but in truth he has suppressed what little liberal space formerly
existed in China.
Nonetheless, Xi is genuinely an economic reformer,
which is one reason he undertook the FTA with Australia. Xi's climate deal with
Obama is another masterstroke. It commits him to nothing of substance, nothing
he was not doing anyway, but, with Obama's benediction, will help insulate
Beijing from the type of criticism it suffered after Copenhagen.
a lot of time in Australia and devoted a lot of attention to us. This speaks
well of him, and of Abbott. But again, we have to be a bit careful of assessing
Chinese policy, even Chinese policy towards us, in a narrow Australian
This past few months, Xi has been on a charm offensive with
everyone. He even kissed and made up with Abe. As well as his climate faux
agreement with Obama, Xi agreed to various confidence-building and military
consultation measures with the Americans, which Washington has wanted for
Nor is it quite true to say that Australia is the first advanced
economy with which Beijing has done an FTA. Xi finalised an FTA with South Korea
just before the one with Australia.
All of this is in stark contrast to
the aggressiveness Beijing has displayed over the past few years in the South
China Sea and the East China Sea. Intelligence agencies in the US and Australia
are flat out trying to work out whether this friendliness is the new paradigm
for China, or, as one senior American put it to me, "a judo move", that is,
moving back for a second in order to trip the opponent up.
in the disputed maritime territories over the next few months will be critical
in determining the answer to this question.
Abbott convened a trilateral
leaders' dialogue with Obama and Abe. The official communique was full of
concern over Russia, Islamic State etc. It didn't mention the main actual topic
of conversation - China, or another topic of conversation, Canberra's ambition
to buy Japanese submarines and install US weapon systems on them.
finally Modi's India. Modi offers India its best hope in decades for breaking
free from poverty and achieving sustained, socially transformative economic
growth. But just as analysts are pondering Xi's true intentions so they are
asking one central question about Modi - can he tame the Indian bureaucracy and
produce results? This astonishing two weeks of summits has given Australia a
great deal of benefit, but left huge and intriguing questions for the
Full analysis (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/weird-speech-makes-obama-odd-man-out/story-e6frg76f-1227130149413