The defence policy statement released by the Morrison government this month was almost shocking in its pessimism about the new dangers to Australia’s security. The Prime Minister launched the Defence Strategic Update with a speech that made repeated references to the fraught international politics of the 1930s and which described an Indo-Pacific region that would be “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly” after COVID-19.
The Update describes an environment in which high-intensity war between advanced nations is still unlikely but “less remote” than before, and in which we need to be almost instantly ready to fight because there will be far less warning time.
But although this was a defence policy statement, the consequences of this assessment go well beyond the strategy and structure of our military forces. We can’t just pull up the drawbridge and wait for an attack to come; we need to shape our region so that Australia’s strategic circumstances improve. At the very least, we should aim to reduce the rate at which they deteriorate.
This is the work of foreign policy, so it is worth asking what kind of foreign policy would align with the pessimism of the Defence Update. In my view, given the heightened risk of armed conflict described in the Update, conflict that could very easily involve nuclear-armed Great Powers, Australia’s highest diplomatic priority should be to encourage the creation of a regional order that reduces the risk of war.
That sounds like an uncontroversial observation — diplomacy is always about encouraging negotiation and compromise to prevent or delay the resort to arms. But if Australia makes the creation of such an order its highest priority, other priorities will need to make way, some of which we now think of as being essential, or even part of our identity.
Of course, we should never be prepared to make peace at any price, but given the catastrophic consequences of a war between Great Powers that may ensnare us, we ought to be thinking about what we are willing to do, and the compromises we are prepared to make, to secure peace.
So what would a regional order focused primarily on peace actually look like? To begin with, it cannot be a liberal order, because the Communist Party in Beijing regards liberal values as a direct threat to its legitimacy. Even India and Indonesia, Asia’s two rising democracies, are not liberal democracies, so they won’t sign up to such an order either. We may not like this, but we need to face the fact that the coming order won’t be shaped exclusively by Western powers, and in fact Asian powers will be its leaders.
Australia can still be a principled opponent of authoritarianism and Chinese communism, but we should resist the idea that the liberalism we value is a universal good. As philosopher John Gray put it: “It is possible to cherish and defend values of tolerance and personal freedom without believing they are ordained by God or underwritten by history.”
In fact, rather than a liberal order, Australia should think in terms of a conservative order. This is not an ideological signifier or an appeal to the prejudices of one political party. Rather, it draws on an old diplomatic tradition, one rooted in acceptance of the need for power-balancing, which values sovereignty, which is anti-interventionist, which is suspicious of the liberal desire to transform states into democracies, and which sees diplomacy as a practical business to peacefully further the aims of sovereign states rather than a pathway to global solidarity.
But, like the 19th-century European concert of powers, a conservative order in Asia would above all be devoted to avoiding catastrophic war between its leading members. The formulation Foreign Minister Marise Payne used in a June speech at the Australian National University describes it pretty well. Australia, she said, should encourage a rules-based order that “protects sovereignty, preserves peace, and curbs the excessive use of power”.
If these sound like modest ambitions compared to the ideals of spreading democracy and human rights, then perhaps the dangers the Strategic Update warns about have not fully hit home. In fact, Australia’s position is worse than the Update describes because, for understandable diplomatic reasons, the document avoids discussing America’s relative decline as an Asian power. “It is the government’s intent that Australia take greater responsibility for our own security,” it declares, which is as close as it gets to an acknowledgment that the US is becoming a less reliable partner.
The task for Australia, in such an environment, is immense. It is to play a leading role in building a new order that tames Asia’s power contest. Peaceful relations between China, India, Japan, Russia, the US and others won’t be sustainable if we rely purely on a balance of military power. The contest for power in Asia has to be restrained and subdued by the slow weaving together of rules and customs that forms a loose regional constitution. This is not a modest ambition; it is the greatest diplomatic challenge Australia has ever faced.
Sam Roggeveen is director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute.