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Op-Ed World Affairs

Australia’s foreign policy white paper, frank in depiction of challenges

Canberra, Australia

The Australian government has published a new Foreign Policy White Paper. It is 14 years since the Howard government launched its own Foreign Affairs and Trade White Paper in 2003, although the Gillard government produced the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper in 2013. Much has changed in Australia’s international environment since either of those papers were released.

Indeed, much has changed since the initiation of the current White Paper process some 15 months ago. Few would have predicted the election of Donald Trump, the extent of protectionist sentiment in North America and Europe or the acceleration of the North Korean nuclear crisis. In this new and more complex international economic and strategic environment, the Australian government has produced a foreign policy blueprint that is refreshingly frank in its depiction of the challenges its policymakers now face.

In this week’s lead essay Peter Drysdale describes the White Paper as ‘a masterly articulation of the fluidity and uncertainties in Australia’s diplomatic circumstance today’.

The White Paper makes clear that the most significant of these challenges stems from the two major powers in our region — the United States and China — and the relationship between them. Few will be surprised by Australia’s view that it faces a more contested and uncertain international environment as a result of the changing balance of power between the United States and China and its concerns about how China may use its political, military and economic weight in the future.

What will surprise observers is the White Paper’s unequivocal statement of the threat to international order emanating from the United States. Those threats include deep-seated protectionist and anti-globalist sentiment, a lack of support for key global and regional institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and debate about the country’s willingness to pay the costs of ongoing global leadership. The White Paper states time and again that the United States will remain Australia’s most important international partner and ally. But in betraying such a note of alarm about US retreat it is apparent — as one observer has argued — that the Australian government ‘doesn’t believe its own public rhetoric about the United States as some sort of security guarantor’. Drysdale explains that ‘for the first time here there is clear official acceptance, and disclosure to the public, of the diplomatic problems that Australia and its partners now confront’.

So the Australian government is shifting its diplomatic attention to the region — in particular to what it calls the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. It has adopted the Indo-Pacific label because it sees India as a future economic power and, more importantly, as a hedge against China. In the face of an uncertain US ally and a more assertive China, the Australian government sees partnerships with major Indo-Pacific democracies — India, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea — as the best means of shaping the future regional order.

Australia’s decision to commit greater diplomatic attention (and presumably resources) to these regional neighbours is a welcome and much-needed change. But its focus on the democratic character of the countries with which it is choosing to partner is problematic. Such a strategy will likely inhibit Australia’s ability to deepen its engagement with governments of a range of different political stripes across Southeast Asia — a region that is critically important to Australia’s economic interests and which the White Paper defines as sitting at ‘the nexus of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific’.

The reframing of the region to downplay continental Asia — a region that is responsible for the largest part of global economic weight and dynamism — and emphasise the Indo-Pacific — a primarily maritime security construct — brings some risk for Australia. As Drysdale explains, the Indo-Pacific nostrum is not a diplomatic concept anywhere tested in the White Paper, ‘except through its footnote definition as a geographic area that touches every continent bar Europe’.

More importantly, the White Paper proposes no clear framework for how to deal with China: the major power in the region. Instead, it is a relationship that the White Paper seems to suggest will proceed largely ‘business as usual’. This is a missed opportunity. Drysdale notes that President Xi’s ’19th Party Congress commitment to the multilateral system and a shared community of interests’ is the obvious agenda on which to engage China and put real meat on the bones of an upgraded Australian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China (which the White Paper recommends).

The paper acknowledges the importance of the China relationship for Australia both in terms of China’s economic weight and in terms of the challenges posed by China’s rise. Those challenges are seen as China’s potential use of coercive power, anxieties about its influence on Australia’s domestic institutions and society, frictions stemming from differences in the two countries’ interests, values, and political and legal systems as well as questions about China’s record on international rules and norms.

On the latter point, the White Paper clearly views China’s behaviour towards smaller countries in the South China Sea and its apparent challenge to freedom of navigation as litmus tests for how Beijing will operate in other international settings, although it fails to acknowledge that while China may be challenging freedom of (US) military navigation in the South China Sea, freedom for commercial shipping remains unimpeded.

Given the scale of these political and security challenges, the importance of China to Australia’s economic future and the fact that China will influence every regional and global issue on which Australia has an interest, it is disappointing that the White Paper does not propose specific measures for how to elevate the Australia–China relationship in ways that will allow the two countries to manage this critically important relationship and the difficulties that will inevitably ensue.

The White Paper succeeds in spelling out Australia’s foreign policy challenges and, as Drysdale advises, ‘should not be relegated to the dustbin’ by any future government. Some of the gaps in the strategy to achieve the White Paper’s aims are filled by existing, carefully considered public studies that engaged the public in their making. The previous government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper has a clear strategy for engaging the Asian economy and developing the diplomatic, business and community assets to do so. The Australia–China Joint Economic Report defines clear ways to elevate the bilateral relationship, to work at furthering shared interests and to make the management of the complex relationship much easier. Some of the central ideas in these complementary studies are reflected lightly in the Foreign Policy White Paper, but taken together these strategic documents offer practical guidance for Australia to navigate and shape its region in the coming years.

Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum, 27 November 2017

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.½7/australias-foreign-policy-white-...