Changing of the Guard in Australia?

Malcolm Turnbull is challenging Tony Abbott for leadership of the Liberal Party.

This is true for the foreseeable future but it implies a certain complacency about China’s rise, an unwillingness to confront the strong possibility that Beijing is unhappy with America’s uncontested military primacy over the Asia-Pacific maritime theatre. China is already showing signs of wanting to contest that primacy, and the U.S. is pushing back mainly by beefing up its alliances in the region (including with Australia). If this rivalry escalates, it’s not inconceivable that one day, perhaps much sooner than we think, Australia will have to take sides in a clash between Beijing and Washington.

Turnbull is alive to such risks, and he seems to favor a conciliatory path to resolving U.S.-China tensions. He reviewed quite favorably a book by a leading Australian academic arguing that the U.S. should give up its primacy and instead find an accommodation with China in which the two countries share power in the Asia-Pacific (Turnbull also notes in passing that Beijing’s South China Sea territorial claims are not “without any legal merit”). There is a strong streak of realism in Turnbull, who has quoted the Thucydides line that “justice is only to be found as between equals in power. As for the rest, the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must.”

This unsentimental attitude to great powers won’t just guide Turnbull’s interactions with Beijing, but with Washington as well. It is hard to imagine Turnbull uttering Abbott’s line that “few Australians would regard America as a foreign country.” Instead, Turnbull offers the judgment that “there is a lot of merit in Australia being seen to have a mind of its own, while remaining a staunch ally of America.”

On a personal level, too, President Obama may find Turnbull a sticky proposition. Turnbull and Obama are both men of formidable egos – just like Obama, Turnbull is often described as considering himself “the smartest guy in the room.” Moreover, Turnbull’s political colleagues have in the past found him to be a little too free with his advice, though it is said he has mellowed. Should Obama need to make that congratulatory phone call to Turnbull, it will no doubt be a cordial affair.  Whether the relationship maintains that course is an open question.

Image: Flickr/ CeBIT Australia