A Bolder Vision for Australian Foreign Policy

By Olivia Shen —

Australian Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. Source: Wikimedia user Thennicke, used under a creative commons license.

On 23 November, Australia released its first foreign policy strategy in more than a decade. Touted as a comprehensive framework to guide Australia’s international engagement over the next five to 10 years, the Foreign Policy White Paper is a response to an uncertain era for Australia.

Announcing the release of the White Paper in Canberra, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this was the first time in Australia’s history that its dominant trading partner, China, was not also its dominant security partner, the United States. Much of the white paper is about deepening Australia’s hedging strategy in the face of sharpening U.S.-China competition. On that front, the Foreign Policy White Paper contains very few surprises. It reiterates Australia’s longstanding position that it is not trapped in a binary choice between the United States and China. It puts the Australia-U.S. alliance at the core of strategic and military planning but equally supports “a balance in the region favorable to our interests”. It sets out the values that underpin international engagement, including a full-throated defense of openness and the rule-based order. And it proposes greater investment in relationships in Southeast Asia and the Pacific where Australia’s middle power status and support can have greater influence.

At a time when Australia and many of its neighbors are anxious about American staying power in Asia, what the white paper says about American leadership is a deliberate effort to bolster engagement. There is a frank acknowledgement that the United States is increasingly questioning the high costs of sustaining its global leadership and that U.S. power, at least in relative terms, is declining. In this context, it is important for Australia to highlight its dependability as an ally on the one hand and its need to be “sovereign, not reliant” on the other.

On trade, Australia offers a soft rebuke to the United States for withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and focusing on reducing bilateral trade deficits. During President Trump’s recent trip to Asia, he seemed unconvinced that the United States does not in fact have a trade deficit with Australia. While the white paper was at the printers, a framework for the TPP-11 was being agreed in the margins of this year’s APEC Summit. Australia’s cooperation with Japan in pushing for the TPP-11 signals a new willingness to step up to share the burden of leadership on issues like trade liberalization and climate change, with or without the United States.

The white paper’s sharpest criticisms are reserved for China’s land reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea. That quickly drew fire from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and prompted an editorial in the Global Times dismissing Australia as a ungrateful country that China can easily downgrade ties with. The language in the white paper about protecting Australia from foreign interference is also thinly-veiled reference to China given recent investigations into its activities. As for the Belt and Road Initiative, one of China’s crowning jewels, the only reference to it in the White Paper serves more to highlight the social, environmental, and debt problems caused by some of its projects.

Australia cannot and should not make an unequivocal choice between the United States and China, but it will inevitably need to make smaller policy choices on all manner of areas of competitive tension. Often Australia has taken an ad-hoc, halting approach to issues that are sensitive to its two key partners – from pulling out of the quadrilateral dialogue and then reviving it, to hesitating to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank until the eleventh hour.

So it is refreshing to see a white paper that has a “more active and determined” Australia as its overall tone. An oft-repeated phrase in Canberra policy circles is that Australia is a “price-taker” on foreign policy. The white paper charts a more ambitious course for Australia to be a stronger advocate for its interests and values as a regional power with a global outlook.

While the white paper sets out the vision for Australian foreign policy, it is lackluster on the ways and the means. Like President Trump’s refrain about a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, visions without substance are a poor substitute for strategy. Virtually half of the Foreign Policy White Paper’s one hundred pages rehashes policies or programs on trade, defense and national security that Australia is already progressing, including defense spending targets announced in 2016 and free trade agreements currently under negotiation. As laudable and relevant as these initiatives are, they do not constitute substantial new investments in a rapidly changing, rapidly multi-polarizing world.

It will be important for Australia to flesh out how it will implement its foreign policy over the next decade and commit the steadfast resources – in coin and in political capital – that it requires. There are troubling signs that Australia is lacking in both. On political capital, the citizenship crisis that continues to plague Australia’s parliament does not point to stability for Prime Minister Turnbull’s government. On coin, China is increasingly adept at using its economic leverage to temper any perceived attempts to contain it. Australia is a soft target and will need to make pragmatic decisions about how much pain it is willing to tolerate, as well as the long-term costs of losing its nerve.

Ms. Olivia Shen is the 2017 Thawley Scholar at the Lowy Institute and a visiting fellow at CSIS.

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