It’s all out change in Singapore right now when it comes to senior Australian diplomats and business leaders. Australia’s most important partner in Southeast Asia is the scene of personnel change.
Next month Bruce Gosper will finally move to the delightfully well-appointed colonial-style High Commissioner’s residence in the Lion City, replacing Phil Green who finished a busy and successful term late last year and is now heading up Department of Foreign Affairs Southeast Asian desk.
The appointment of Mr Gosper, who had been running Austrade, the government’s offshore business and investment promotion arm since 2013, is the latest move by the Coalition Government to re-affirm its policy of diplomacy through trade.
One his key tasks should be to sink his teeth into Singapore Inc’s strong technology focus and glean what lessons can be learned for Australia.
Mr Gosper is DFAT Deputy Secretary (there are a clutch of them), and prior to heading up Austrade was Ambassador to the World Trade Organization, where he was also Chair of the WTO General Council and the WTO Dispute Settlement Body.
He has also done time as DFAT’s Office of Trade Negotiations, and been an adviser to the Minister for Trade. Offshore he has held senior diplomatic appointments as Minister Counsellor (Commercial) in Washington, and Agricultural Counsellor in Tokyo.
Mr Gosper is particularly senior appointment, which recognises Singapore’s importance to Australia. This is especially the case with Singapore being the fulcrum of trade the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which collectively is Australia’s fourth largest trading power.
It looks like a smart appointment. By itself Singapore is Australia’s fifth largest trading partner and also now not only Australia’s fifth largest foreign investor. Not bad for a country whose population is only slightly bigger than Sydney’s.
As well as Mr Gosper, Singapore has a new Austrade chief in David Campbell as long-time incumbent Chris Rees has moved on.
This timing is good, with a new trade-focused team ready as the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) begins to fire up.
Mr Gosper’s appointment follows another major trade-focused diplomat Jan Adams being appointed as Australia’s Beijing Ambassador in 2015. One would expect that, under the Turnbull Government we will continue to see more of the same.
Still, the unexpected alacrity with which the new US president – property mogul, reality television star and beauty pageant aficionado – Donald Trump has moved with his controversial agenda means that the likes of Mr Gosper and Ms Adams will have their work cut out.
The remaining 11 members of the Trans Pacific Partnership – which include Singapore and Australia – have been left standing at the alter when Trump pulled the plug on the deal.
The TPP was the economic side of the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia. It strategically included the unlikely nations of Vietnam and Malaysia, and was very much designed to counter China’s economic influence in Southeast Asia particularly.
Mr Turnbull who is continues to search – so far fruitlessly – for his moral backbone as he remains silent about some of the offensive moves made by the Mr Trump in his first week still seems to also think there is some hope for the TPP.
But without its anchor ‘tenant’ the US, it’s dead Prime Minister. Please move on. Much of the lure for countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Chile was better access to the US market. That’s gone.
Mr Trump also signaled that he is prepared to blow up other existing US trade pacts – such as the North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico – by slapping a 20 per cent tariff on Mexican goods to pay for his wall.
But by far the biggest threat in this part of the world – and indeed to the global economy – is the threatened trade war with China.
Given the swiftness he has moved on other issues we should expect a move soon.
One imagines this is something that Ambassador Adams could not have anticipated when she took the job in Beijing, but her trade experience will come in handy, just as Mr Gosper’s will Singapore as many of its neighbors seek alternatives to the TPP.
There is already a rival Partnership. Those one is backed by China and so Mr Trump is likely to get precisely the opposite of the result he wanted to with aborting the TPP. But that does not seem to have entered the minds of those of his protectionist, nationalist advisers who appear intent on testing the global economy.
The downside of have trade-focused Ambassadors is that Mr Trump is also threatening the strategic balance in the Asia Pacific with threats to stop China accessing its artificial island in the South China Sea and by his promised build-up of the US Navy.
These thorny questions require broader diplomatic skills still at the core they will be handled in Canberra.
There are other changes too in Singapore at the Australian Chamber of Commerce, with veteran Executive Director Annette Tilbrook deciding 12 years was enough after a tough year and the departure of Mr Green with whom she had a close working relationship.
Something of a love her or get out of her way force of nature, Ms Tilbrook has elevated the Chamber from social club to a more serious business-focused group that regularly attract top drawer guest speakers to often sold out lunches.
The group is in the unique position globally of having its offices within the Australian High Commission, something that the government may want to look at for other countries if it is serious about the closer linking of trade and diplomacy.
Ms Tilbrook, interestingly, will remain on the group’s board, always a dubious piece of governance in any organization.
What is necessary, is that the unusually close relationship between the Embassy and the Chamber stays in tact in what are will certainly be testing times for trade and business across the Asia-Pacific.