That Scott Morrison has been granted the honour of a state visit to Washington – the first since John Howard in 2006 and only the second granted by the Trump administration – is a mark of his early success in connecting with the American President, a leader not normally known for his acoustic sensibility to close US allies. The prime minister’s visit will undoubtedly give a symbolic flourish to the recent description by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the US–Australia alliance as “unbreakable”.
Yet amid the pomp and pageantry that is the hallmark of such occasions, the prime minister’s visit comes at a particularly delicate time for his government’s management of Australian foreign and defence policy. The truism that Australia can maintain its delicate traversal of the diplomatic tightrope between Washington and Beijing is coming under increasing strain. While President Trump continues to escalate trade tensions with Beijing, US policy towards China remains unsettled, and it is not yet clear where it will come to rest along the spectrum from engagement to containment.
What is clear, however, is that some parts of the Trump administration would like to see Canberra take a tougher line on Beijing. But the prime minister does not necessarily talk the same language as the Trump administration on China. The government has not endorsed the US National Security Strategy’s definition of China as a “strategic competitor”, and Morrison has consistently eschewed the hot talk of a Cold War–style containment policy towards the Middle Kingdom. That gives him an opportunity to expand on Australia’s position to President Trump and a range of figures across the Washington political community.
At the same time, he might seize the occasion to make the case for why Australia and other US allies would like to see more of an American shoulder put to the diplomatic wheel in Southeast Asia. He can help reinforce to the president and his advisers the benefits to the region of an engaged and committed United States.
The records of past meetings between Australian prime ministers and American presidents provide no ready-made template for the Morrison visit. Nevertheless, some themes do emerge and two in particular stand out.
The first is that there is nothing new in leaders of the United States and Australia adopting contrasting positions and policies on how to approach challenges in Asia. Menzies and Kennedy, for instance, had to grapple with conflicting approaches to the challenge of Indonesian president Sukarno’s aggression towards West New Guinea and the new Malaysian Federation. John Gorton worried that Lyndon Johnson’s administration was preparing the ground for American withdrawal from Asia, while Nixon and Whitlam had acrimonious exchanges over the end of the Vietnam War and the membership and shape of new multilateral forums in the region.
The second is that these occasions can prove somewhat hollow. French President Emmanuel Macron found that a state visit to Washington was no guarantee of progress on issues that mattered to his country or to Europe. Beyond the standard fare of “announceables” that accompany such visits, Prime Minister Morrison will be hoping his visit can achieve a genuine cut-through moment with Trump, not least on the need for the US and China to reach a resolution on their trade dispute. Equally, he may also be hoping that the White House does not press its Australian guest to abandon the measured and moderate tone he has adopted on China since coming to office.