Morrison's antics: Australia apparently sides with U.S. in China trade war

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PM Scott Morrison was infamously dubbed the "Titanium Man" by U.S. President Donald Trump (Cartoon by Paul Dorin / @DorinToons).

Washington D.C. is usually a busy place, but it has been particularly busy of late. 

The Democrats, somewhat short of ideas, are again flirting with impeachment options against President Donald Trump. Externally, the President is waging a trade war with China that is biting. An aspect of the battle entails has a flawed thesis: that China’s current status as a “developing country” must be revised as part of a broader revision of international trade rules. 

The White House, in July, attempted to explain the status of a developing country as an advantage for those proffering it. 

In cloak and dagger fashion, such a status included:

Longer time frames for imposing safeguards, generous transition periods, softer tariff cuts, procedural advantages for WTO disputes, and the ability to avail themselves of certain export subsidies – all at the expense of other WTO members.

The Trump administration has charged U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer with the gaslighting role of undermining current World Trade Organisation (WTO) arrangements on the subject of developing status, using “all available means”. 

Washington, Trump affirms in the memorandum to Lighthizer:

 'Never accepted China’s claim to developing-country status, and virtually every current economic indicator belies China’s claim.'

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, might have adopted a more cautious approach to the matter on his visit to the United States. A calm head might have helped, if only modestly, to diffuse the trade war fixation of the current President.

Instead, Morrison did what Australian prime ministers tend to do when they take the fumes of "Freedom’s Land": go gaga and spout the Washington party line with imbecilic enthusiasm. 

The occasion to do this was the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Morrison said:

China’s economic growth is welcomed by Australia and we recognise the economic maturity that it has now realised as a newly developed economy. This was the point of the world’s economic engagement with China.

Having accepted the raw Trump thesis on China’s economy, it followed that others should also accept it. 

Morrison continued:

The world’s global institutions must adjust their settings for China, in recognition of this new status.  Having achieved this status, it is important that China’s trade arrangements [and] participation in addressing important global environmental challenges, with transparency in their partnerships and support for developing nations, reflect this new status and responsibilities that go with it as a world power.

Morrison’s speech, leaving aside its point-by-point regurgitation of White House China policy, stood out with colourful hypocrisy.  His Government is the most hostile administration to the environment in recent years, a friend of coal mines and a card carrying enemy of the ecological movement (the convenient vanishing of Melissa Price, former minister of the environment prior to the May election, proved the point).  

The Government’s speeches on climate change remain highly evasive, its ministers often in denial that the environment is altering at an alarming rate. The obsession with fossil fuel markets remains gripping, even as energy prices remain gouging and high. 

But Morrison had a tactic to impress his Chicago audience: speak of Australia as an island continent pristine but beleaguered, facing problems associated with “oceans, climate, illegal fishing and plastics pollution” while blaming China for not pulling its weight on those very things.

Despite only mentioning climate once, and careful to avoid the annexure of “change”, he had room to backhand Beijing as a skiver of its international obligations, a loafer.

More informed commentators could not have failed to observe that Morrison was being hosted by an Administration that announced on June 1, 2017, that it would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement

The Trump Administration, at the time, claimed it would:

“Cease all implementation of the non-binding [Accord] and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country. This includes the implementation of the nationally determined contribution and, very importantly, the Green Climate Fund, which is costing the United States a vast fortune.”

Since then, the Trump administration and the Morrison Government have been blood brothers in undermining environmental security within their respective countries, linking arms with polluting industries. 

In the United States, analysis from the Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School and the New York Times shows that the Trump Administration has wound back, or is in the process of winding back, some 85 environmental rules and regulations.

The issue of development itself has always been somewhat artificial, not to mention hopelessly relative.  Jeremy Wallace of Cornell University suggests that China is both developed and developing, but “because China is such a huge country it is still the case that there are huge number of rich people”

This is a position generally accepted by Beijing, with commerce ministry spokesman Gao Feng explaining in April that China was the “largest developing country” in the world. 

Mr Feng said:

“We do not shy away from our international responsibilities and are willing to assume obligations in the WTO that are compatible with our own economic development level and capabilities.” 

The Chinese response to Morrison has been one of balletic poise. 

A statement from the Chinese embassy in Canberra conceded that:

'China, through its own efforts, has made remarkable achievements in economic and social development over the past decades and become the world’s second largest economy.' 

But there remained 'a big gap between China and the developed countries in terms of development level.  China still has a long way to go to achieve full modernisation.'

In the shimmering mirage that counts as gross domestic product (GDP), China might well boast figures of $US14.2 trillion relative to Australia’s $US1.5 trillion, but this comparison is in of itself meaningless. 

The bigger picture is more telling: with some $10,000 per capita, the country comes in at 70th in the world stakes. As the embassy acknowledged, a challenge remained in negotiating “unbalanced development and underdevelopment".

The Chinese argument on preferential treatment is problematic, but the U.S. response in unilaterally altering the WTO classification can hardly be seen as a selfless correction in the name of international comity. In truth, it is an effort to rewrite international rules while proclaiming they are being breached, the cartoon vigilante claiming to be the enforcer. 

The WTO, in a sense, is irrelevant to Trump’s jingoistic enterprise. In more acute terms, this is an effort on the part of a debtor nation to correct the successes of its creditor, one which so happens to be the world’s largest. 

Australia, as in 2003 regarding the illegal invasion of Iraq, does not want to be left out of this folly ridden game. A wise government might well do so: the consequences of the invasion destroyed a state and unleashed a sectarian conflagration through the Middle East. 

The confrontation between Washington and Beijing risks doing the same thing to the global economy.  But never ask an Australian prime minister about any clear thoughts on global chess play, encumbered as they are by that long umbilical cord that continues to stretch across the pacific.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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