Until now, I thought of Malcolm Turnbull as clever but weak, unwilling to challenge the right wing of his party even as they drive his government into the ground. But his handling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership over the last week has left me with the impression that he doesn’t have a clue.
To recap, it’s been obvious for a long time that the TPP was in serious trouble. Both candidates for the US Presidency opposed it, and Trump was particularly vociferous in his denunciation. It’s also important that, within the US policy establishment, the most potent argument for the TPP was that it would cement US leadership in the region, and lock China out.
So, I would have imagined that the Turnbull government would have thought through the consequences of a US withdrawal from the TPP, even if they were surprised by the actual timing. In particular, I’d have thought that Turnbull would have discussed possible responses with Japanese PM Abe when he visited the other week.
So, I was pretty startled when Turnbull floated the idea of bringing China into the TPP to replace the US. At least from the viewpoint of the US and Chinese foreign policy establishments, that would amount to switching our support to China, or least shifting towards neutrality, in struggles about the future of the region. Given the risks posed by an alliance with the US under Trump, there’s an arguable case for that, but it would be a very big move. Turnbull’s floating of the notion seemed like a thought bubble, or maybe a thoughtless bubble.
Even more striking was Japan’s immediate rejection of the idea, accompanied by a repetition of the forlorn hope that the US might come back to the deal. Honestly, how could Turnbull have had a lengthy meeting with Abe and failed to elicit an indication that his proposal would be rejected out of hand?
Finally, as an aside, how about his churlish decision to give an AC to Julia Gillard but not (unless it was offered and privately rejected) to Kevin Rudd? At least Abbott was consistently tribal in his breach of the longstanding convention of making this offer to an outgoing PM (after they’ve left Parliament). With Turnbull it looks like personal vendetta.