In her Fullerton lecture delivered on Monday in Singapore, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave a full-throated defence of the prevailing regional order. From what is conceptually speaking the most interesting foreign policy statement by a senior Australian official in a long time (even if it was rhetorically somewhat clunky) one can make a number of observations about Australia’s perspective of Asia’s contested strategic environment.
1. Liberal rules
Over the past 18 months or so the Australian government has favoured the technocratic and colourless ‘rules-based order’ formulation to describe its preferred regional setting. In an important, if not risk-free move, the Foreign Minister has made it clear that the liberal values at the heart of that order are of fundamental importance. This is not just a further symbolic defence of a status quo that looks ever less durable by the day, but a public statement of the enduring importance of liberal ideas of open markets and democratic values.
Of course, there is a slight irony in trumpeting the importance of democracy in the soft-authoritarian Lion Republic, but that should not spoil the larger message. Indeed there was a remarkably pointed sentence that will doubtless ruffle feathers in Zhongnanhai, which is worth quoting in full:
When the strong impose their will on the weaker state, it invariably leads to the latter’s resentment of unfair agreements imposed on them.
Again, not mellifluous prose, but a turning of the rhetorical tables on China, whose chafing against an unfair international environment has been a central component of its foreign policy.
Beyond the issue of whether China will take umbrage at that move, the emphasis on democracy and liberal values throws clear light on a major, if often unrecognised, divide in the region: between liberal and illiberal societies. It is widely known that under the CCP China not only will not move to democracy of the kind that Bishop means, but that it has little time for an international order in which democratic values play a central part. But what Australia and other liberally inclined countries would do well to focus on is how thinly rooted support for liberal values is in so many countries in the region. And given newly found question marks in the US about these values, the job of organising the region around a shared liberal outlook is a much harder task than Australia may realise.
2. The dependents wait for Trump
A widely quoted phrase in the speech describes how many in the region are in a ‘strategic holding pattern’ while they wait, like characters in a Samuel Beckett play, for the US to figure out how it will approach the region.
Most obviously, nearly two months into the Trump presidency even those of us who focus on US Asia policy more than may be healthy are still guessing about what Trump might do. There was a rather rambling statement from acting State Department spokesperson Susan Thornton prior to Secretary Tillerson’s first trip to Asia this week. All we learned was that the Administration won’t use the terms 'pivot' or 'rebalance' – hardly surprising – and that it would ‘have its own formulation’. Other than that, there is not much to go on.
Trump himself has, characteristically, been all over the place. By taking Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call he put the One China policy in play but then walked it back in a call to Xi Jinping, although that too was done rather oddly 'at the request' of Xi. Although too much was made of the unpleasant Turnbull-Trump phone call, and much effort was made by mainstream policy figures to emphasise the strength of the US-Australia relationship, jittery nerves have not been calmed. Perhaps the only thing that is clear so far is that Trump has no desire to quit the region, indeed the problem may well be not that the US will disappear back to Hawaii but that a muscular and nationalistic Trump may ratchet up tensions dramatically. Either way, the holding pattern continues.
Why do we wait to find out how Trump and co will act? Because, as the Foreign Minister makes clear, perhaps unintentionally, we have become so dependent on the US that there is little alternative but to wait. As Bishop reminded us, she has met with the key Cabinet secretaries and discussed 'constructive ways for the US to become even more engaged'. Yet beyond presenting ideas and trying to cajole the US to act, states in the region have contributed so little to the regional order that we are all price takers on US policy. Indeed, whatever one’s views of the Trump presidency, it has provided a huge service in illustrating how complacent the past 40 years has made us; complacent that the US would always provide public goods and that it would always behave as it has in the past. We can no longer be so certain, and nor should we ever have been.
3. Southeast Asia is back on the radar
The final point is less about the content of the speech (which you can watch in full here or below) than about its location and context. Since the return of the Coalition to government the major emphasis on its Asia policy had been with the region’s major powers with a particular emphasis on Northeast Asia. But in recent months the government appears to have rediscovered Southeast Asia. And this is not just the usual trope about how we need to trade more with Indonesia. There appears to be a concrete effort to focus on the region to our immediate north.
Following Singapore, Bishop travels to Malaysia and the Philippines, while Prime Minister Turnbull has just returned from attending the inaugural IORA Leaders Summit in Jakarta. The Turnbull government secured ASEAN agreement for an Australia-ASEAN summit to be held in Sydney in 2018. Turnbull appears to thrive in ASEAN meetings and has developed an excellent rapport with President Joko Widodo.
Southeast Asia has been neglected or possibly taken for granted by governments in recent years, and ASEAN-centred processes have received insufficient attention and have even been disparaged. The government plainly is of the view that uncertain times in the region warrant a reinvestment in both the countries and institutions of Southeast Asia. This is a sensible move but expectations about what it can and will deliver should not be unrealistic.