4 November 2020
Counting is underway in the United States election, but the result is currently too close to call.
If Joe Biden wins, the result will be greeted by the country’s allies, Australia included, as a return to normality after four tumultuous years with Donald Trump as president.
As a longstanding moderate Democrat, former chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and vice-president under the Obama presidency, Biden would likely treat alliances and multilateral institutions more seriously than Trump.
But, whoever wins, recent years have shown that the United States’ many internal issues – financial imbalances and racial conflict among them – must be resolved. It seems probable that domestic concerns will prevent the president from taking a commanding role on the world stage over the next four years.
Australian policymakers should not count on this election delivering a fully re-engaged treaty ally. Instead, they will need to focus on how Australia can make its way – by itself – in a more contested region.
Selling out of Asia
Two Australian companies with longstanding operations in Asia may soon transfer to foreign ownership, raising concerns about Australia’s reluctance to do business in its own neighbourhood.
Building company Boral is selling its plasterboard business, which operates in seven Asian countries, to its German partner, Knauf. And if Coca-Cola Amatil accepts the takeover bid of Coca-Cola European Partners, its Australian-owned operations in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji will also change hands.
This news comes just months after two reports – one by Asialink and another by Asia Society Australia and the Business Council of Australia – urged increased Australian investment in Asia to take advantage of the region’s growth. Canberra has also been calling for the business sector to diversify its footprint in Asia to reduce the nation’s dependence on China.
Boral and Coca-Cola Amatil have been cited as role models in both regards, despite their mixed financial performances. They have also supported Australian business conferences in Asia and other forms of engagement.
Asia accounts for two thirds of Australian exports, but only about 10 per cent of the country’s outward foreign investment.
A recent survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that the number of Australian businesses operating in Asia has risen only modestly in the past fifteen years. As a proportion of Australia’s offshore business it remains fixed at 22 per cent.
Clearly, the government’s economic diversification strategy faces some challenges on the ground.
China going solo
The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party signed off on a new five-year plan last week. The deliberations of the 200-member committee are the closest the party gets to broad-based policy discussion.
The details may not be fully known until the plan is rubberstamped by parliament early next year, but an official summary released by the committee underlined Xi Jinping’s commitment to a so-called “dual circulation” strategy.
This would see the country focus more on economic self-reliance than international engagement. It is mainly driven by technological rivalry with the United States.
Australia’s exports to China, its largest trading partner, have remained strong despite diplomatic tensions and sanctions on some agricultural exports. But if Xi’s strategy remains in place, the outlook for key Australian exports, such as iron ore, may be uncertain. He is expected to secure an unprecedented third term in office in 2022.
On Sunday, Myanmar will hold its first general election since 2015. The election five years ago was widely seen as a revival of Myanmar’s democracy.
Voters will choose almost 1200 members for national and regional assemblies. An electoral college of legislators will then choose the president. As in the last election, 25 per cent of seats in parliament will be reserved for the military.
It is significant that a second ballot is being held on schedule after the manipulated and erratic elections of 1990 and 2010. But the worldwide enthusiasm that greeted the poll in 2015 is largely non-existent this year.
The 2015 election, which brought the National League for Democracy to power, followed decades of military rule in South-East Asia’s fifth most populous country and raised hopes that Myanmar would continue to shift towards democracy.
However, under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, the NLD has not delivered on expected reforms. It has also been complicit in the expulsion of most of the country’s Rohingya Muslims by the increasingly nationalistic majority Buddhist population.
There is little Australia can do about the setbacks in Myanmar in the absence of firmer action by the country’s South-East Asian neighbours. The events of the past five years have shown how new democracies can be overwhelmed by internal tensions – it can take time to progress from holding elections to achieving genuine political representation.