The great game is not a spectator sport
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The great game is not a spectator sport

The great game is not a spectator sport

Michael Fullilove

Sydney Morning Herald

5 December 2015

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Executive Summary

Since the Paris attacks of November 13, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been pulled on to the global stage. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the exodus of refugees to Europe, the challenge of terrorism, the future of the liberal international order - these have been the issues on the minds of leaders in recent weeks, even at the Asian summit meetings.

Australia has powerful interests in the struggle against jihadism. No Australians were killed in Paris, but we know from Bali that terrorism can touch us far from our shores. More than 100 of our own citizens have been drawn to the conflicts in the Middle East like iron filings to a magnet.

Furthermore, Australia has always seen itself as a country with global interests. After all, we learned our strategic policy at the knee of the largest empire in history. Australians have always been inclined to see ourselves as part of the great game. You can discern that inclination in the history and pattern of our military deployments over the past century - and in the remarkable public support for the US alliance.

Alongside global politics, however, there have always been two other dimensions of Australian foreign policy. There is our participation in the activities of international institutions. With his early announcement that Australia is a candidate for both the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council, Turnbull has revealed himself to be less of a UN sceptic than his predecessor, Tony Abbott.

The third and final dimension of Australian policy - one that has roared into prominence in the past half-century - is our connection with the region around us.

Australians once saw Asia mainly as a source of trouble. One of the first acts of the new Commonwealth Parliament introduced the White Australia policy. In the years that followed, Australians worried about a series of Asian powers, including imperial Japan, communist China and anti-imperialist Indonesia. Alongside our allies, we participated in several significant regional conflicts, namely the Pacific, Korean and Vietnam wars, the Malayan emergency, and Konfrontasi.

But as the century progressed, we became more alert to the upside of Asia. This process began with the Japan commerce treaty in the late 1950s. However, the real shift came in the 1970s, when Britain joined Europe and we rethought our approach to Asia, dismantling the last elements of White Australia, ending our participation in the Vietnam war, and establishing diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China.

There has been much discussion in recent years of America's pivot to Asia. But Australia pivoted long ago. For decades we have been facing Asia head-on.

All our recent prime ministers have quickened the pace of our interactions with the region. Gough Whitlam recognised China. Malcolm Fraser accelerated Asian immigration. Bob Hawke established the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, and Paul Keating upgraded it to leaders' level. John Howard deepened ties with China. Kevin Rudd helped to expand the East Asia Summit. Julia Gillard added ballast to key relationships. Tony Abbott signed free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea.

Now it falls to Malcolm Turnbull to further deepen Australia's engagement with Asia. He should consider establishing cultural and educational centres in key Asian capitals, modelled on the UK's British Council, Germany's Goethe-Institut, China's Confucius Institute and the Japan Foundation.

The Australia centres would be vehicles to promote Australian ideas, culture and services in Asia. They would host exhibitions and festivals; promote Australian education, arts, science and sport; provide language teaching; act as hubs for existing programs such as the New Colombo Plan; and connect Australians with their Asian counterparts.

But Asia is not all upside. There is a need for realism as well as optimism; strength as well as agility. No country illustrates this point more clearly than China. Turnbull is alive to the positives of the China relationship. But the PRC is not just our leading trading partner; it is also our principal ally's most serious rival.

It is in our interest that relations between Canberra and Beijing be strong, positive and co-operative. This is in China's interest, too.

Our China policy is properly a mix of engaging and hedging. The key is to find the right mix. When we were invited to join China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) last year, for example, we hedged for a very long time before we finally engaged. In the end, we joined the AIIB only after Britain had done so.

I am a strong supporter of the US alliance. But reinforcing our relationship with America does not mean we should run down our relationship with China; on the contrary, we should raise it up.

When our interests overlap with China's, we should be ambitious about our collaboration. We should look to expand areas of co-operation. Sometimes we will say yes to China when Washington says no. There is no need to view every issue through an alliance prism. But when our interests and China's interests diverge - and in particular on hard strategic issues - then our paths will also need to diverge.

When we disagree with China - because disagreements will surely arise - we should be forthright, stating our position with respect but without equivocation. In these circumstances, it is best to be clear and consistent. In my experience, China appreciates consistency. And China respects strength, because it aspires to be strong. China does not respect weakness. China was weak for a long time and it hated being weak.

In dealing with China, then, Turnbull should co-operate when he can; disagree when he must; and always be clear and consistent.

Australians must not fall into the trap of shrinking Asia to the dimensions of China, however. Turnbull will want to work with his counterparts in other significant Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia, to contribute to the region's security and prosperity. His visit to Jakarta was warm in every sense. President Joko Widodo's associates say he was impressed with the newcomer.

The goal is to contribute to a stable balance of power in Asia with a leading role for the US. We should not overestimate our influence, but neither should we underestimate it. If we are confident and sure-footed, we can contribute to regional peace and prosperity. Australia can weigh in the balance. But this requires us to think of ourselves as a core regional actor - a maritime nation, reliant on seaborne trade and freedom of navigation, with a responsibility to contribute to regional stability.

When it comes to Asia's affairs, we cannot be a spectator; we must be a player.


Michael Fullilove is the executive director of the Lowy Institute and the author of A Larger Australia: The ABC 2015 Boyer Lectures (Penguin), which was published this week.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions