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24 February 2021

With Greg Earl

Facebook diplomacy

Scott Morrison moved quickly last week to seek support from foreign leaders for Australia’s showdown with Facebook, which led to the tech giant banning news from its Australian platform.

Given the potential economic power a global technology platform can wield in a dispute – even with a relatively large economy, such as Australia – seeking diplomatic support was a good strategic move on Australia’s part.

Australia already has global credibility on this issue, due to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s innovative work on regulating the power of social media companies.

Combined, these actions may have played a role in Facebook’s decision on Tuesday to reverse its position on blocking news.

However, the Australian government should be aware that advancing its competition policy at the diplomatic level, as Morrison did in a conversation with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, poses risks – especially given the complex relationship between social media companies and democracy.

New technology was once lauded as a global democratising force, but it is increasingly seen as a means of concentrating economic and political power.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has skilfully used social media to campaign in India, Facebook’s biggest market and the world’s biggest democracy, but his government has also confronted Facebook and Twitter for providing digital platforms to his opponents, including those involved in the current farmer protests.

A democracy like Australia must be careful that its attempts to foster a more competitive social media ecosystem are not cynically exploited by authoritarian regimes – such as China or post-coup Myanmar – to justify placing constraints on the technology’s liberalising potential.


The Quad rises

Last week, foreign ministers from Australia, the United States, Japan and India held the first meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue since Joe Biden took office.

The telephone meeting was convened at the request of the new administration, suggesting that the Quad is likely to play an important role in Biden’s promise that the United States will consult more often with like-minded democracies.

This was the foreign ministers’ third meeting since the idea of the Quad was revived in 2017, in response to China’s growing assertiveness. The group was launched a decade earlier, but it faltered due to its members’ differences, including their differences on China.

Last week’s telephone meeting followed Japanese media reports that the United States wants to step up the pace of the group’s activities by holding a leaders’ meeting in future months. But a US statement after the meeting only referred to an annual meeting of ministers, along with regular officials’ meetings.

The Quad is one of a growing number of ‘mini-lateral’ diplomatic gatherings across the Indo-Pacific that Australia is playing an active role in – but it is one of the more significant of these groups.

Australia’s interest is in both engaging with China and hedging against Chinese assertiveness. To achieve these aims and to support the long-term prosperity of the Quad, Australia should work to ensure the Quad focuses on more than just constraining a rising China.


Vietnam power play

The Vietnamese Communist Party has just conducted its thirteenth national congress – a leadership renewal process that occurs every five years. In Vietnam, power has been shared and regularly rotated among four senior leaders since the end of the Second Indochina War.

This time around, the unusual decision was made to give the senior leader and general secretary of the party, Nguyen Phu Trong, a third term – despite the fact he has exceeded the retirement age of sixty-five. He will also remain president, a role he took over when the incumbent died in 2018 and which is usually kept separate from the general secretary role.

The prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, an economic reformer and friend of Australia, missed out on the top job in what was apparently a highly contested congress. He might still become president in the future.

While there appears to have been an opaque compromise between competing ideological and geographic factions in the Communist Party, the lack of expected change at the top level seems to hint at a fragile leadership.

This uncertainty is significant, because Vietnam is emerging as a rising player in Asia and seems set to play a more important regional role. It is more comfortable with trade liberalisation than many of its peers, it has managed COVID-19 particularly well, and its fast-growing economy has just overtaken those of Malaysia and Singapore.

It has also become one of Australia’s newer diplomatic interlocutors in the region – a status that is being reinforced by the development of the Australia–Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy, which aims to enhance trade and investment between the two countries.


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