Commentary | 08 September 2013

Rebalancing Australia's role in Asia

In this article in The Wall Street Journal Asia Edition, Rory Medcalf argues the need for Australia's new Coalition government to bring steadiness to matters of security and diplomacy, which will be particularly critical in a changing Indo-Pacific Asia.

  • Rory Medcalf

In this article in The Wall Street Journal Asia Edition, Rory Medcalf argues the need for Australia's new Coalition government to bring steadiness to matters of security and diplomacy, which will be particularly critical in a changing Indo-Pacific Asia.

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

Rebalancing Australia's role in Asia

The Wall Street Journal, Asia Edition

Rory Medcalf

8 September 2013

As strategic tension has risen across Asia, Australia was distracted by internal turbulence. Over six tumultuous years of Labor Party rule, bitter internecine leadership battles led to political dysfunction. The Labor party dumped Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for Julia Gillard in 2010, only to reinstate him in desperation just 75 days before this weekend's fateful polls.

Hopefully that ended Saturday when the voters handed Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party a decisive election win. The new government is expected to bring steadiness to Australian politics in general, and not least to matters of security and diplomacy.

This is critical because Australia is increasingly consequential to regional geopolitics. The rise of China and India has strengthened the economic and security links between the Pacific and Indian oceans, creating a new super-region that might best be termed Indo-Pacific Asia. That puts the land down under, which has China as its largest trade partner, uncomfortably close to the action.

Another reason Australia matters so much is the role it plays in the Obama administration's "rebalancing" strategy. The Gillard and Rudd governments encouraged Washington to renew its focus on Asia, intensifying alliance ties and providing enhanced U.S. military access to Australian territory to help make the pivot to Asia a reality.

In some ways there will be more continuity than outsiders might expect. The election campaign focused on domestically sensitive issues like illegal immigration, but there is bipartisan support in Australia for the big themes of engaging Asia and supporting the alliance. Mr. Abbott has talked the right talk on these.

Now he has a chance to go further and repair Australia's reputation for consistency and credibility in international affairs. As a democracy of just 23 million people, Australia cannot afford to let political intrigues weaken its ability to hold its own in a region of powerful states.

To be fair, Labor had some noted achievements. Mr. Rudd shaped a vision to give his country strategic weight through a modernized navy. The former diplomat also encouraged the U.S. to help balance Chinese influence by taking its seat at Asia's top diplomatic forum, the East Asia Summit.

However, Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard undermined their own good work in foreign and defense policy through inconsistency, short-termism and infighting. Even when they got things right, such as Rudd's defense plans and Gillard's 2012 blueprint to transform the nation's economy and society for an Asian century, they failed to follow through, especially when it came to honoring or funding each other's initiatives.

Enter Mr. Abbott, who lacks foreign policy experience but wants to emulate the quiet accomplishments of earlier Australian conservative Prime Minister John Howard. An early challenge for his government will be to prove its maturity and competence as a strategic player in Asia.

That will involve salvaging the sensible parts of the Rudd-Gillard legacy, especially where it built upon Mr. Howard's pragmatism in forging relations of mutual respect and economic gain with China, Japan, India and Indonesia. These are the countries new Foreign Minister Julie Bishop rightly recognizes as Australia's priorities alongside the United States.

Australia will increase its diplomatic credibility if it has strategic weight. So it is critical that Mr. Abbott and his prospective Defense Minister David Johnston keep an election promise to reverse the decline in defense spending. Labor had cynically let this drop to 1.59% of gross domestic product, its lowest level since 1938, even while talking big on ambitions like building new submarines.

Prominent friends of the alliance such as former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have warned that Australia will lose respect and be seen as a "free rider" unless it spends around 2% of GDP on defense. If Australia is serious about the alliance, it should also look at upgrading its own strategically located air facilities, such as bases in its northern territory and the runway on its remote Cocos Islands, to expand scope for cooperation in such vital areas as maritime surveillance.

Restoring funding and focus to defense will in turn help Australia have a say in the nature and purpose of a rebalancing strategy which seems to be losing momentum in Washington. This would be Australia as the best kind of ally: offering smart counsel hand in hand with practical support. Mr. Abbott and his team also could show how the alliance does not undermine Australia's independence and leverage in Asia and can be a diplomatic force multiplier.

As it happens, the prospective new foreign and defense ministers are both from Western Australia, and could bring a distinct Indian Ocean perspective on their country's changing posture. Both recognize the importance of powers such as India, Indonesia and Japan in building a resilient security order, so that everything does not boil down to an imagined choice between China and the United States.

Even as the eyes of the world are on Syria, the challenges in Indo-Pacific Asia quietly increase. Australia's new government may have won a mandate to put the nation's house in order, but its biggest test may be about showing strategic judgement.

Mr. Medcalf is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute and a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.