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How the region reported the Foreign Policy White Paper

Uluru at sunset, central Australia. (Photo: Tchami/Flickr)
Uluru at sunset, central Australia. (Photo: Tchami/Flickr)
Published 15 Dec 2017 14:30   0 Comments

Yang Jie, an intern in the East Asia Program, and David Vallance, an intern in the International Security Program, summarise media reports from across the region following the release last month of the Foreign Policy White Paper.


  • People’s Daily, ‘China has serious concerns about Australia’s “irresponsible” remarks on the South China Sea’

    When asked for comments on the White Paper, Lu Kang, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, urged Australia to ‘stop making irresponsible remarks on the South China Sea’. On the rules-based order, Lu stresses that China has always supported an order under the framework of the UN. ‘The order we are talking about is not dictated by any country’, the spokesperson said, indicating that China respects a rule-based order, but the order is not necessarily made by the US or Australia.

    Comment: Lu’s remarks suggest China is annoyed by Australia’s comments on the South China Sea, yet not especially angry with Australia’s suggestion that China is challenging the rules-based order. China considers Australia’s stance on the South China Sea unhelpful in maintaining the stability of the region. Chinese media reports stressed that China and ASEAN countries have made significant progress in dealing with the South China Sea issue, suggesting this progress is disrupted by Australia’s continuous raising of the issue and calls for other countries to counterbalance China.
  • Global Times, ‘Editorial: Australia is biting the hands that feeds it’

    The Global Times adopted a harsher tone on the White Paper. Its Chinese language title literally read ‘Australia eats the meat and then abuses the mother’, suggesting that Australia is not grateful for the benefit it has gained from China.

    ‘Most of western countries have an anxiety about the rise of China, but Australia has the most blinkered approach towards the rise of China,’ the article said. ‘While the US even somehow expresses its welcome to China’s rising, Australia seems to hold a negative attitude itself and [is] steering others to this direction’. Indeed, the Global Times has, for a while, accused Australia of serving as a distant propaganda outpost agitating for neighbours to be wary about China.

    The Global Times writes that ‘Australia is difficult to be reasoned with or be comforted. Fortunately, the country is not that important and China can move its ties with Australia to a back seat and disregard its sensitivities.’

    Comment: The Global Times also featured a surprisingly self-reflection, asking why it is so hard for China to employ soft power and make other countries comfortable with the rise of China.
  • Global Times, (English language edition) ‘Progressive Australian views will win out over parochial Foreign Policy White Paper

    ‘It remains to be seen if Australia's establishment would come to trust China anytime soon to lead our world at a time of an increasingly myopic American leadership that is too self-obsessed with its own identity politics and endemic US socio-economic problems’, the author says. ‘My bet is that the Australian common progressive sense will prevail over provincial loyalties’.
  • Global Times, (English language edition) ‘White Paper reveals Australia’s anxiety

    The article says Australia, now and in the past, has sought ‘to meddle in Asian affairs on behalf of the West’ and concludes by downplaying the importance of Australia to China. It finishes: ‘Australia after all is not part of the Asian continent. China should prepare both a friendly face and a cold shoulder’.


  • Times of India, Growing role for India in Australia’s new foreign policy document’, by Indrani Bagchil

    The ‘Quadrilateral Dialogue’ appears in the first sentence of this article, as an example of the potential increase in Australian engagement with India. However, Bagchil is quick to note that support for the Quad is not uniform in Australia, stating that Labor has still not ‘signed off’ on it. Australian engagement with India will not only involve attempts to resuscitate the Quad, but also participating in naval exercises with the Indian military. The article notes that the coming India strategy paper will complement the conclusions and recommendations drawn from the White Paper.

    Finally, noting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s support for the rules-based international order, Bagchil quotes The Australian columnist Rowan Callick saying that China may increasingly perceive Canberra’s foreign policy as a 21st century version of containment.

New Zealand

  • New Zealand Herald, ‘Australia-NZ relationship central to regional security: White Paper’, by Nicholas Jones

    This brief article emphasises the acknowledgement in the White Paper of the importance of Australia-NZ cooperation in economic, defence, and intelligence matters as ‘Australia’s most comprehensive relationship’. New Zealand’s role as a member of the Five Eyes partnership for intelligence cooperation is emphasised, as is its role in enhancing Australia’s engagement with Pacific island countries.


  • Straits Times, The Great Aussie Dilemma’, by Ravi Velloor

    This article is one of the few substantive pieces of analysis on the White Paper written outside Australia. Velloor begins by praising the way in which Australia’s foreign policy establishment recognises the connection between ‘geopolitics and geo-economics’. The paper, he goes on to say, is a ‘magnificent tour de force’ as a view of how the Indo-Pacific will develop in the coming decades.

    On the economic front, he has no concerns. The White Paper notes that by 2030 the region will produce more than half of global economic output, and consume over half its food and 40% of its energy. It is natural that Australia should seek to engage in growing markets.

    His misgivings are towards the foreign policy part of the White Paper. He poses the question of whether Australia puts too much ‘blind faith’ in the US, and whether solutions put forward to check Chinese aggression are indeed workable. American retrenchment is not the product of the Trump administration alone, he says, and there is no guarantee that subsequent administrations will take a harder line against China in the future. The suggested foreign policy, he says, has whiffs of containment about it, and has a certain nostalgia for the relative simplicity of the bipolar Cold War world order.

    The main ‘dilemma’ he would see resolved is between ‘the US for security, China for prosperity’. One indication of Canberra’s willingness to ‘stay the course’ against Chinese aggression, Velloor says, would be if Canberra decided to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Until then, or until another hard power action occurs, the dilemma will remain unsolved.

Economic diplomacy brief: The business end of the Foreign Policy White Paper

Shanghai, April 2017 (Photo: Julie Lee/Flickr)
Shanghai, April 2017 (Photo: Julie Lee/Flickr)
Published 14 Dec 2017 14:03   0 Comments

The official title of the government's latest Foreign Policy White Paper, Opportunity Security Strength, seems to imply that the business prospects in rising Asia have a greater significance than the geopolitical uncertainties that have dominated much of the post-release debate.

But the economic diplomacy challenges involved in reaping that promised opportunity are highlighted in three quite diverse pieces of analytical work on the business environment, published since the White Paper's launch.

Now, not why, for ASEAN

The second edition of the Austrade publication Why ASEAN and Why Now (renamed ASEAN Now to emphasise greater urgency) argues that Australia is 'well behind' other major economies in trade and investment with Southeast Asia and needs to expand its footprint to remain internationally competitive.

However, the extent of this lag is not quantified. This is unfortunate, since the White Paper has made increased engagement with Southeast Asia a security priority and this ideally requires the mutual vested interest of stronger economic foundations. Next year's ASEAN leaders summit in Sydney, for which this report has been prepared, will have a big focus on deepening business links.

Nevertheless, ASEAN Now makes some striking points about what is happening in the closest part of Asia to Australia: it is the fastest growing internet market in the world; the number of middle class households will quadruple to 161 million by 2030; and it already represented the largest source of goods export revenue for Australian small and medium businesses in 2014-2015.

In a reflection of the education export background of the new Austrade chief executive Stephanie Fahey, this publication seeks to shift the focus from more traditional forms of economic engagement to digital business, noting for example that the ASEAN region has faster ecommerce growth than anywhere except India. This focus has been vindicated by the latest Google-Temasek ASEAN e-commerce report, which suggests the ASEAN internet economy has grown 35% faster than was forecast in the first version of this report last year.

The services economy focus in ASEAN Now is also underlined by the choice of case studies highlighting successful Australian business in the region, from electronic ticketing firm Vix Technology to the tourism training business William Angliss Institute.

Significantly, only seven out of 26 are big public companies. But this only raises a question about whether there is more economic engagement with ASEAN at a private or 'below the radar' level in the services sector than the official statistics and public company data capture. The serial start-ups by Australian-Singaporean entrepreneur Patrick Grove come to mind, as does the evolution of the Australian-Indonesian-Vietnamese technology services company Mitrais over 25 years.

A third leg to the US vs China contest

The Australia International Business Survey now provides the best granular information on how Australian businesses are really operating in the world. The latest edition (from Austrade, the Export Council of Australia, and the University of Technology Sydney) has some interesting input for the geopolitical debate.

For example, after a year of jousting over the relative importance of the US and China as economic partners, 23% of AIBS respondents say China is the most important offshore revenue source and 22% say the US, followed by New Zealand and Britain. And there is also a higher level of dependence on China compared with the US for some businesses, which could be a risk factor in a cooler bilateral relationship.

But despite the less positive assessment of the current business relationship in the ASEAN Now report, the Southeast Asian countries combined turn out to be a more important revenue source than either China or the US, at around 30% depending on the measuring approach taken. The US is the most important revenue source for manufacturing and professional services, but China is most important in agribusiness, education and wholesale trade.

Where does the mooted big new security partner India sit in this commercial hierarchy? About the same as Indonesia or Hong Kong, as a top revenue source for only 7% of respondents.

The AIBS survey also has some mixed findings for a government that regularly touts its success in negotiating free trade agreements and has put considerable resources into promoting such deals to business. China turns out to be the country where businesses are most aware of the benefits of the existing FTA at 40%, followed by South Korea at 32% and Thailand at 31%. Awareness of benefits from the older US agreement is much lower, at 20%.

One result is especially striking. For no bilateral FTA do a majority of businesses operating in that country see clear benefits from the deal – although there is a debate about whether many of these businesses outsource their trade law compliance and so don't really know the answer to this question.

Once again it is notable that ASEAN, where Australia has a regional trade deal as well as some bilateral agreements, is nominated as the most popular FTA market for goods exporters.

India to the rescue?

The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has stepped into this debate about Asian commercial partners with the first report from a bigger research project on the future of both commodity and mining, engineering and technology services (the so-called METS) sales in India and Southeast Asia.

This is fascinating for what it says about what might fill the void from any slowing of Chinese demand for resources. The report takes a more optimistic approach to India's longer-term appetite for Australian mining commodities and services than some other analysts.

Such a development would be a crucial part of the new Indo-Pacific security jigsaw puzzle, as it would provide stronger commercial ballast to a bilateral security relationship between India and Australia akin to that developed over decades with Japan.

The MCA report, written by former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade economists, hints at latent bureaucratic differences over the priority that should be given to Australia's older commercial relationship with Asia as a resources supplier versus the newer focus on e-commerce and services.

Indeed, it says the resources and METS opportunities in Asia are being ignored by politicians in favour of greater support for industries such as financial services and education. It points out that Indonesia is the first or second biggest market for METS exports, which contrasts with the ASEAN Now concern about missing opportunities in that country.

Free from the diplomatic sensitivities of being a government report, the MCA publication strongly backs the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The report is much more frank about the difficult operating conditions in India and Southeast Asia for Australian businesses, which possibly explain the relatively low level of engagement identified in ASEAN Now.

But it argues that the role Australian resources have played in the historic economic transformation of modern Asia has given Australian economic diplomacy an underappreciated foundation. This allows Australia to press ahead and pursue trade and investment reforms through the aid program, in trade negotiations and through regional institutions.

No zero-sum game in greater Pacific ties

(Photo: Laura Bell/Flickr)
(Photo: Laura Bell/Flickr)
Published 8 Dec 2017 11:38   0 Comments

For many commentators with an interest in the Pacific, the emphasis on the region in the Foreign Policy White Paper has been welcomed as long overdue. Yet it has also raised some questions about the manner in which Australia engages in the region. James Batley has questioned whether Australia has ‘the wherewithal – the resources, the attention span and the diplomatic and political capital’ to really achieve our ambitions in the region. Nic Maclellan has gone further, writing: ‘It is folly to believe that citizens in neighbouring Pacific countries will allow Australian governments to set the agenda’.

I happen to disagree with Nic. I not only believe that Australia can play a major role in setting the agenda, but that it must if it is to achieve its own foreign policy and security aims. However, that does not mean Canberra will be able to ride roughshod over our regional partners, and nor should it. Instead, Australia is going to have to take a blunt and honest look at how to achieve its aims in the Pacific, and the relationships it wishes to have with its regional partners. Greater ties with Pacific nations is not a zero-sum game.

The unavoidable truth of self-interest

International relations may be shaped by the culture, history, geography and religion of the nations involved, but ultimately it is a human activity. Politicians, diplomats and policy makers seek to forge agreements with other nations that, in the end, will benefit their nation. To do this, they must decide on those matters that are so important to them that they are not willing to compromise, the issues they are willing to negotiate on, and decide what they are able to concede to the other nation in return for the benefits they seek. As the Indian political thinker Chanakya wrote in circa 300BC: 'There is some self-interest behind every friendship. There is no friendship without self-interests. This is the bitter truth.'

In that vein, I believe that Australia should consider the following when engaging in the Pacific.

The immutable

Australia’s overarching aims in the Pacific are outlined in two key policy documents. The 2016 Defence White Paper states that Australia’s strategic defence interests include a ‘secure nearer region’. To do this it will ‘support the security of maritime Southeast Asia and support the governments of Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and of Pacific Island countries to build and strengthen their security’.

Likewise, the Foreign Policy White Paper states that ‘Security in Papua New Guinea, the wider Pacific and vital to our ability to defend Australia’s northern approaches, secure our borders and protect our exclusive economic zone’.

This is not surprising. As an island nation, Australia relies on maritime trade routes, many of which bisect the region. Thus, Australia has identified that underpinning regional security, and remaining the partner of choice for Pacific Island countries, is critical to Australia’s national security interests. This includes ‘working to limit the influence of any actor from outside the region within interests inimical to our own’.

The concedable

If greater security is Australia’s immutable objective in the Pacific, then Canberra must acknowledge that every Pacific Island nation will have its own non-negotiable aims. While commentators need to be cautious about apportioning generalised aims across a complex region of sovereign states, most would agree the existential threat posed by climate change is the one issue of primary importance to Pacific Island nations.

As I have written here and elsewhere, Australia’s position as the world’s largest coal exporter, and its domestic policies on climate change, undermine its relationship in the region. If Australia is to be able to influence the regional agenda then it must address this issue with urgency.

Australia’s response should be three-fold. First, Canberra needs to be seen to lead the way in delivering climate resilience measures in the region, including in the area of climate insurance. Second, Australia needs to join Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the 16 other countries that comprise the Powering Past Coal Alliance and commit to ending coal use in electricity generation by 2025. Finally, Australia should support a worldwide move away from coal by setting itself the target of becomig a world leading exporter of renewable energy technologies. This would energise the renewables industry and generate an important export market.

Together these policy goals would prove Wesley Morgan’s argument that Australia needs to demonstrate to Pacific Island nations it is ready to move away from coal.

The negotiable

Everything outside of these two areas lies along a spectrum of negotiability, where talks conducted between Australia and the sovereign nations in the Pacific will determine the level of compromise: labour mobility, access to markets, visa waiver requirements, and diversification of development assistance to address human security issues should all form part of the bilateral agreements required for regional cooperation.

A potential solution

Last month I wrote that Australia could seek to achieve its security aims in the region through the establishment of a Compact of Free Association with Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati, in much the same way as Palau, Federation States of Micronesia and Republic of the Marshall Islands has a compact with the US, and the Cook Island and Nuie are self-governing states in free association with New Zealand. Nic Maclellan has argued that this idea ‘fails the pub test’ and that Pacific Island nations would not be willing to cede foreign policy control to Canberra.

The implication that these countries would lose their sovereignty or ability to conduct foreign affairs is misleading. In the Compact of Free Association between Palau and the US, Section 127 explicitly states: ‘The Government of the United States may assist or act on behalf of the Government of Palau in the area of foreign affairs as may be requested and mutually agreed from time to time’ (my emphasis). Palau is a sovereign nation and recognised as such by the US.

Where there is a restriction under the compact, it is contained within Section 311, which states: ‘The territorial jurisdiction of the Republic of Palau shall be completely foreclosed to the military forces and personnel or for the military purposes of any nation except the United States of America’. In return, the US accepts responsibility for the defence of Palau and delivers a host of government services.

A similar Compact of Free Association with Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru would not impinge the sovereignty of these Pacific Island nations. To the contrary, in return for agreement to grant exclusive military access to Australia, and thus restrict the ability of potentially hostile powers to establish a presence in the region, the three countries would be able to negotiate a significantly better deal with Australia across a range of areas than they currently enjoy. Far from restricting them, compact negotiations would empower them.

In fact, resistance to this proposed solution is more likely to come from Australia, baulking at the commitment as too expensive. While relationships between Australian and Pacific Island nations should not be viewed as a zero-sum game, it is Canberra that might believe the price is too high.

Dodging the hard questions in the Pacific

Opening the 2017 Pacific Island Forum Leaders Meeting, Apia, Samoa (Photo: US Embassy, Wellington/Flickr)
Opening the 2017 Pacific Island Forum Leaders Meeting, Apia, Samoa (Photo: US Embassy, Wellington/Flickr)
Published 5 Dec 2017 16:29   0 Comments

The Foreign Policy White Paper calls for enhanced engagement with the Pacific islands, a welcome priority that was echoed in Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles' recent speech to the Lowy Institute. But the framing of this engagement as a policy of strategic denial avoids some of the complex issues facing the region that will continue to undermine Australia's standing.

According to the White Paper, Australia's approach to the region will focus on 'helping to integrate Pacific countries in the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions'. But integration on whose terms? Whose security are we talking about? It is folly to believe that citizens in neighbouring Pacific countries will allow Australian governments to set the agenda. That horse has long bolted.

In recent years, a number of bipartisan policies from the Coalition and Labor have arguably damaged Australia's standing in the region. These include the commitment to fossil fuel exports, the expensive and unresolved warehousing of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and Nauru, and the gutting of the overseas aid program, slashed to the lowest ratio of national income ever recorded. Over the last two decades, trade policy has been a central pillar of regional engagement, but years of negotiations on PACER-Plus ended with an agreement that the two largest island economies have refused to sign (the treaty isn't mentioned in the White Paper chapter on the Pacific).

Recent speeches from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Labor show an important recognition that more can be done. But we should discuss the hard question: what happens if Pacific island citizens reject the underlying premise of our renewed engagement – that Australia's regional leadership is in their best interest?

Five questions should be explored further as Australians look to an enhanced role in the islands.

What sort of security are we looking for?

The first 'cornerstone' for Pacific engagement promoted by Marles 'is a far more extensive and deeper defence relationship with those countries which have a defence force'. He goes further, arguing 'it would benefit us to see the capability of the Pacific Island Countries' defence forces grow.'

Have we learnt nothing from our role in supporting the Papua New Guinea Defence Force during the war on Bougainville? Have we not been listening to Fijian citizens who look beyond the military for security? As the Forum launches a regional dialogue on a new 'Biketawa-Plus' security framework, we should prioritise support for actors beyond the defence forces.

Former diplomat James Batley notes the White Paper 'sees the region as both as a potential source of, and as a vector for, threats against Australia.' But no justice, no peace. Many Pacific citizens will reject Canberra's call for 'stability' if it means reinforcing an unjust status quo. Just ask people living in peri-urban squatter settlements, angry at the growing inequality in their societies, or independence movements seeking a new political status and cultural independence.

Our Pacific neighbours have been debating regional security without putting defence of Australia at the heart of the discussion. We need more work on 'human security' rather than realpolitik 'national security'; yet Australian governments prioritise the latter in funding and technical assistance. As an example, 83% of the $2.6 billion spent on RAMSI went on policing, law and justice programs, despite a call from many Solomon Islanders for greater resources to be allocated to community development initiatives in agriculture, community employment, and women's empowerment.

What can we offer to self-determination movements?

The White Paper dodges the complex and challenging debate around self-determination in Pacific territories administered by France, the US and New Zealand, as well as in neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and PNG. There is just one paragraph on Bougainville and no mention of New Caledonia or West Papua.

Given the White Paper's stated commitment to human rights and a global 'rules-based order', this silence on the right to self-determination is striking.

Debates around autonomy or independence will be a central feature of regional politics in coming years. Successive governments in Canberra have already chosen sides in these debates, wary of new nation states being created across Melanesia. But popular support for self-determination will inevitably complicate bilateral relationships with Port Moresby, Jakarta and Paris, as well as Australia's role in the Pacific Islands Forum.

The 2016 decision to extend full Forum membership to New Caledonia and French Polynesia amplifies the capacity of the French Republic to intervene in this regional debate. Because the French state controls key legal powers over defence, policing and the military in its Pacific dependencies, Paris rather than Noumea or Papeete will drive policy in the Forum Regional Security Committee and South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting. This has concerned many Pacific opinion makers already critical of the disproportionate influence by Australia and New Zealand over Forum policy.

Do island states really want Canberra calling the shots?

In his commentary on the White Paper, Greg Colton suggests that Australia should promote 'the establishment of a Compact of Free Association with Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati as a foreign policy priority for the Pacific'.

The idea fails the pub test. Would Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati would allow Canberra to direct their foreign policy, a core element of any Compact relationship? Pacific countries in Free Association with the US or New Zealand have never taken up this status after being an independent and sovereign state. The US Compact States also bridle at the restrictions of their status, demonstrated by expanding engagement with China, or Marshall Islands' diplomacy on nuclear disarmament.

There is obviously scope for an improved relationship with the Smaller Island States (SIS). There have been positive initiatives in recent times, such as the Pacific Labour Scheme that provides greater access to the Australian labour market. But this is a long way short of a trade-off for these countries to give greater control over foreign policy to Canberra.

In recent years, Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati have used the Pacific Small Island Developing States caucus at the UN to advance policies in direct opposition to those of Australia. Even Nauru, reliant on Australian funding from the refugee detention centres, has supported the re-inscription of French Polynesia on the UN list of non-self-governing territories, lobbied for the West Papuan nationalist movement and signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Where's the money?

Budget cuts have hollowed out institutions that are vital for our engagement with the region, from volunteer programs to Radio Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology. This is particularly evident with the overseas aid program and climate finance. As Annmaree O'Keefe argued, the failure of the White Paper to seriously address the role of overseas development assistance is a crucial weakness.

By 2020, Australian governments must ramp up public climate financing to meet our fair share of global targets, requiring a fivefold increase beyond existing commitments. Neither major party has said where this money could come from, at a time budget papers predict overseas aid will sink to 0.2% of gross national income by 2020. Since the 2009 Copenhagen summit, Australia's climate finance has been drawn completely from the aid budget, so other options are needed.

In contrast to larger Asian nations, which benefit from private capital flows, smaller island states will always need public investment. Countries such as France are addressing this challenge, through studies into new and innovative sources of development and climate funding. If Australia is serious about engagement with the Pacific, it must do the same, in order to guarantee ongoing and predictable public financing.

What happens when we are not in the room?

Marles is correct to say Australia can do more in the region, but he poses a false dichotomy: 'Often I feel there is an instinct not to act in the manner of an overbearing colonial power; to proceed on the basis of a light touch. This sentiment is well motivated, but it is wrong.'

But new ways of working will involve addressing the contradiction between our global and regional priorities. The White Paper wants to increase 'our exports of high-quality coal and LNG' to Asia but also lead the Pacific debate on climate policy. We can't do both. Marles argues 'the countries of the Pacific expect us to lead.' I'd suggest that in some cases, people in the Pacific want Australia to get out of the way.

In global summits, DFAT diplomats often oppose Pacific island policies on loss and damage, greenhouse emission targets, nuclear disarmament or alternatives to neoliberal economics. In response, many innovative policies are being formulated and promoted through institutions where Australia is not in the room, such as the Pacific Small Island Developing States, the Alliance of Small Island States, or sub-regional organisations such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group and Polynesian Leaders Group.

This new Pacific diplomacy has paid off. Over the last year, Fiji has served as President of the UN General Assembly, co-chaired the global oceans conference and was appointed to the presidency of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP23). Canberra has provided valuable financial support to these initiatives, which has been welcomed by Pacific citizens and governments. But fundamental policy differences over climate change, trade and decolonisation will continue to complicate regional relations.

There will be new calls to transform the regional architecture, as these differences reinforce the growing sentiment that Australia and New Zealand should play a different role within the Forum. Unless we talk honestly about why people are looking to partners beyond Australia, it will be increasingly difficult to paper over contested visions for the future.

An opportunity missed for a feminist foreign policy

Open debate in the UN Security Council in 2015 on women, peace and security (Photo: UN/Flickr)
Open debate in the UN Security Council in 2015 on women, peace and security (Photo: UN/Flickr)
Published 30 Nov 2017 15:40   0 Comments

On joining AusAID's Gender Equality Section in 2008, I kept a copy of the 2003 Howard-era foreign policy white paper on my shelf. Containing no references to women, women's rights, gender equality or human security, it served both as a stark reminder of a conservative past, and as a symbol of the possibilities that lay ahead as Kevin Rudd promised an expanded aid program and multilateral engagement.

I had been recruited to progress Australia's implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and these early days of Australia's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council were a boon for working on gender equality.

Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, had acknowledged for the first time that women's participation and a gender perspective was essential to the maintenance of international peace and security. In 2004, the UN Secretary-General had requested Member States to develop National Action Plans (NAPs) to speed up progress of its implementation (as of August this year, 74 countries had developed such plans).

The inclusion of Women, Peace and Security in Australia's Security Council bid helped shine a light on the aid program's existing support to women peacebuilders in the Asia Pacific region and the work underway to develop a plan that had been rumbling around AusAID. While slow off the mark, Australia finally released its own whole of government National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security in March 2012. The plan guides the government's work to implement eight Security Council resolutions, setting out how Australia will integrate a gender perspective into all areas of peace and security policymaking and operations. Through its creation, the government ensured it wasn't left behind by international progress in this policy area and gained a useful foreign policy tool.

The latest Foreign Policy White Paper, however, demonstrates there is still work to be done. Policy expertise and understanding of the women in peace and security agenda needs to be expanded from the aid portfolio to the centre of the government's national security paradigm. The same can also be said to build understanding about the contribution that gender and human security make in a more comprehensive approach to security in our region. To do so, the government has a large and growing evidence base to draw from – some of which it has funded – that confirms the importance of women's rights as central to foreign policy and critical to national security, including in preventing violent extremism.

Including a section on gender equality in the White Paper was welcome. But framing of gender equality as a development issue, rather than a strategic foreign policy issue, was disappointing. Indeed, DFAT's Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Strategy (2016) goes much further in this direction. Even the 2016 Defence White Paper details its commitments to implement 17 of the 24 actions in the National Action Plan, and emphasises that resolution 1325 'recognises that security, stability and peace can only be achieved through a gender inclusive approach to conflict resolution and peacebuilding'.

The analysis in the Foreign Policy White Paper appears on just one line on page 93: 'gender inequality undermines global prosperity, stability and security. It contributes to and often exacerbates a range of challenges, including poverty, weak governance and conflict and violent extremism.' The White Paper missed an opportunity to demonstrate a depth of understanding on how gender intersects with sustainable development, human rights, peace, security and regional stability.

In eschewing reference to the National Action Plan or substantive gender analysis, the White Paper also missed a golden opportunity to inspire a vision that at least matched and advanced the government's current policy directions. For instance, work is well underway across government and civil society to prepare for the second National Action Plan (the first expires in 2018). The Turnbull government also recently reconfirmed its commitment in April 2017 when tabling the 2016 NAP Progress Report in parliament.

The omission was also surprising, given the opportunity it provided to showcase Australia's work at the UN Security Council (featured in Chapter 6: Global Cooperation). During Australia's 2013-14 stint on the Security Council, the government identified Women, Peace and Security as a priority and as a key achievement of its term.

Achieving an Australian foreign policy guided by feminist principles and practice will require a long-term vision and concerted effort across government. Continuing to resource the Ambassador for Women and Girls' role to advance gender equality through foreign policy will be critical. Constructively engaging and resourcing civil society will also help develop and support the credibility of Australia's second National Action Plan. The nuanced analysis within the civil society submissions to the White Paper will also help to expand the use of 'human security' in the government's lexicon.

The government has boasted that 'Australia is one of the leading nations in this (policy) space', yet exclusion of the NAP in the White Paper proves that Australia still stands apart from its more progressive partners. Canada, Norway and Finland have all articulated feminist foreign policies and feminist international development programs. This follows a declaration by Sweden, which, in a feminist foreign policy platform in 2016, declared:

Equality between women and men is a fundamental aim of Swedish foreign policy. Ensuring that women and girls can enjoy their fundamental human rights is both an obligation within the framework of our international commitments, and a prerequisite for reaching Sweden's broader foreign policy goals on peace, and security and sustainable development.

Gender equality is not only an obligation but a prerequisite for achieving foreign policy goals. Australia still has an opportunity to advance a human rights-based and feminist informed approach to foreign policy, international development and humanitarian assistance. It is just going to take a little longer to catch up to our more progressive friends.

Understanding a rules-based White Paper

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne in talks with US counterparts (Photo: US State department/Flickr)
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne in talks with US counterparts (Photo: US State department/Flickr)
Published 30 Nov 2017 06:17   0 Comments

The Foreign Policy White Paper has much to commend it, not least its analysis of the changing and challenging global and regional environment and its embrace of a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to Australia’s international interests. But if there are few questions to be asked in these areas, there is a need to explore the weight which the Paper attaches to international rules, rules based orders and indeed ‘values’.

Neither as a matter of principle nor in terms of Australia’s interests can this emphasis be questioned. Rather, the question is about why the ‘rules-based order’ concept has become so prominent in the argot of Australian policy. It’s a question which pre-dates last week’s Foreign Policy White Paper. Kevin Rudd used the term when he was prime minister, and then very frequently as foreign minister. Bob Carr eschewed it, but his successor, Julie Bishop, has used it increasingly since 2014.

‘Rules-based order’ was not used at all in Foreign Policy or Defence White Papers prior to 2009. The Defence White Papers of 2009 and 2013 included eleven references to the term, then the 2016 Defence White Paper, in identifying the ‘rules-based order’ as one of Australia’s three core strategic interests and linking the concept to Australia’s alliance with the United States, referenced it no less than 56 times.

Last week’s Foreign Policy White Paper, while adopting a less expansive view of the ‘rules-based order’ than its 2016 Defence counterpart and, on a quick count, offering only 12 specific references to the ‘rules-based order’, nevertheless refers to ‘rules’ on at least 42 other occasions, to ‘international law’ 22 times and to ‘values’ 17 times – all in addition to numerous references to ‘principles’, ‘norms’ and ‘standards’.

It’s not that conceptually the ‘rules-based order’, in whatever words, is new to Australian policy. The White Paper refers to Australia’s 'long record of helping to develop the rules-based component of the global order', citing our role in establishing the United Nations in 1945 and our 'leading role in setting new rules and norms' in a number of areas since. This is a significant acknowledgement given that, historically, Labor governments have been more associated with this kind of internationalism while Coalition governments, though never disowning it, have been more sceptical and more bilaterally focussed – think Tony Abbott’s 'less Geneva more Jakarta'.

Nor is the ‘rules-based order’ emphasis unique to Australian policy rhetoric – the term has been used increasingly among some Europeans, and by American liberals, and has also been employed by Japanese spokesmen and at times by Indians and Singaporeans. But for others in the region the term is treated warily, and many cases never used, at least in their native languages.

How then to account for the heavy focus by a Coalition government on the ‘international rules-based order’ and its associated values? Is it simply that matters so critical to Australia are at now at risk and so require renewed advocacy? Or is it, as some of Canberra’s cynics would have it, a matter of clinging to a fading past?

Or is it intended as implicit criticism of other players on the global stage? Thus, reference to ‘rules-based order’ in this region might be aimed at China in relation to the South China Sea, while use of the term in Europe alludes to Russia and its behaviour in Ukraine, and among liberals more generally – and especially economists of the globalist school, and environmentalists – it’s President Donald Trump, with his America-first neo-protectionist focus, who is the villain.

For explanation, perhaps we need look no further than one subtle but loaded sentence in the White Paper itself: 'Strong rules … are becoming more important to Australia as the distribution of power changes in the international system.'

A well-worn cliché has it that most countries adhere to most of the rules most of the time while all of us, the bigger powers especially, disregard them when national interest requires it. It would indeed be unusual for any country to deny the value of international rules. China, for one, has benefitted enormously from the ‘rules- based order’ since 1979, and knows it; it has begun trying to position itself as a champion of the order in selected areas, and even presents its South China Seas claims within a legal framework, albeit one that is alien to UNCLOS. Where Beijing, like others in the region, is most sensitive is when the adjective ‘liberal’ precedes ‘rules-based’, thus seeming to question the legitimacy of their regime.

As it happens, neither the Defence nor Foreign Policy White Papers use the term ‘liberal rules-based order’ (though the Foreign Minister has on other occasions). That nuance may not however be sufficient to allay the perception that the emphasis in last week's White Paper on rules, values and norms, and its references to the rule of law domestically, tends to differentiate Australia unduly from much of the region to which, as it makes clear elsewhere, our interests are so closely tied.

Those who are concerned by this might nevertheless contemplate these tantalising lines from the White Paper: 'We do not seek to impose values on others … (T)he Government recognises that the way states interact has never been and never will be static. Institutions, rules and forms of cooperation can and do evolve. Australia believes the institutions that support global cooperation must accommodate the greater weight of emerging powers … Australia will therefore contribute constructively to the reform of international institutions. We will remain open to proposals that might address gaps in the institutional architecture.'

Research for this article was assisted by AusCSCAP.

Does the White Paper underestimate the pace of economic change?

Published 29 Nov 2017 06:22   0 Comments

The major themes tackled in the Foreign Policy White Paper - particularly China’s ability to challenge the US-led international order but also the rising importance of India and Southeast Asian nations - are underpinned by the shift in global economic weight towards Asia.

As the White Paper notes, these trends are set to continue. Today, China’s economy is 15% larger than the US in purchasing power parity terms, the relevant basis of comparison for most purposes. By 2022, the IMF reckons it will be 50% larger. By 2030, the White Paper’s figures suggest China’s economy will be 80% larger. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly how much bigger the US economy was than China’s back in 2006.

In thinking about China’s challenge to the US-led international order, and the White Paper’s desire to see that order preserved, this relative economic trajectory must be kept front of mind. China’s ability to reshape things took many by surprise just a few years ago and was then put into even more stark relief with the arrival of a nativist Donald Trump. China looks confident and ascendant, and Trump’s America recalcitrant.

But the economics that created this situation did not occur overnight. As we look to the future there is a risk of again failing to fully grasp how quickly changes in relative economic weight might translate into changes in the balance of power, particularly if compounded by other difficult to predict factors. One has to wonder whether the White Paper takes this sufficiently into account, or whether a decade from now it will seem obvious that China’s ability to reshape things was far greater than appreciated today.

The White Paper stakes a lot on the expectation that other Asian countries, notably India and Indonesia, will rise at the same time as China. The argument then goes that this gives Australia an opportunity to hedge and counter-balance a more assertive China, as well as creating economic openings. The White Paper eyes strong growth in these economies driven by their favourable demographics and the emergence of millions of middle-class consumers.  

Yet as the White Paper itself acknowledges (though only in passing), these countries will need deep and difficult structural reforms if they are to capitalise on this growth potential while rising automation threatens to undermine that same potential. So as much as they present an opportunity for Australia, these countries could also pose a risk.

Demographics mean countries such as India, Indonesia, and Philippines face the urgent task of creating enough good quality jobs to absorb millions of new workers every year without relegating them to the informal sector where they will not only be far less productive but risk becoming disenfranchised and a potential source of instability. Similarly, a rapidly expanding middle class can help drive growth but will also be accompanied by high expectations for better quality jobs, public services, social security, and cleaner government. Avoiding a crisis of expectations will be a critical challenge.

Will governments and politics in these countries be up to the task? So far, it’s not clear that they are. If these economies eventually falter or become a cause of domestic discontent, they will struggle to help shape the region and instead may become more amenable to Chinese influence and the economic largesse that comes with it.

Finally, it would be remiss not to discuss Trump and the rise in populism of which he is a part. The White Paper does a good job of calling Trump out on his protectionism and undermining of the global trading system, without using his name of course. It reiterates Australia’s strong commitment to economic openness and the value of the World Trade Organization and its dispute resolution mechanism, which Trump is seeking to undermine. The ‘generational’ goal of knitting together a regional trade and investment agreement that includes both the US and China is the right kind of ambition.

But in placing so much emphasis on the US-led order, the White Paper in essence assumes that we can look through Trump and his America First nativism as an aberration with little permanency. Hopefully so. But the structural factors that are driving populism in the US and around the world, including widening inequality, technological disruption, and the role of social media in particular, show no signs of abating.

Photo by Flickr user RedBird XZY.

Foreign Policy White Paper: the UN on the periphery

The observers’ gallery in the UN Security Council chamber (Photo: UN photos/Flickr)
The observers’ gallery in the UN Security Council chamber (Photo: UN photos/Flickr)
Published 28 Nov 2017 13:43   0 Comments

The Foreign Policy White Paper offers a compelling assessment of the challenging geopolitical environment that Australia faces. It clearly advocates Australia’s priority of engagement in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, deftly manages the US-China contest and the inherent awkwardness of our trade and security interests, hedges with its proposed heightened engagement with regional democracies (Japan, India, Indonesia and South Korea) and identifies scope for broader cooperation with other likeminded countries.

But what is striking is how the White Paper overlooks and undervalues the benefits of Australia’s strategic engagement with the UN. The paper fails to specify what contributions Australia could offer to the UN’s program of work to support Australia’s interests and facilitate Australia’s agenda for what is branded in the title as ‘opportunity, security and strength’.

The UN matters. As part of its core work, it performs essential services including peacekeeping in 15 operations across four continents; feeding 80 million people in humanitarian crises; assisting over 65.3 million refugees fleeing conflict, famine or persecution; saving 3 million lives a year through vaccinating 45% of the world’s children; and protecting human rights on the ground and through some 80 treaties/declarations.

The UN Security Council is also the paramount forum for multilateral crisis management, conferring unique legitimacy in its decision making. The UN is the primary forum for tackling the most pressing global challenges, including providing a framework for collective action on climate change and implementing the internationally agreed sustainable development goals (SDGs) to ensure economic development, environmental preservation and social advancement in all countries.

This work is essential to Australia’s emphasis on 'a rules-based international order' by which norms are set to regulate states conduct. A commitment to a rules-based order and cooperation is the pervasive theme of the White Paper and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appeared to affirm the government’s faith in the UN as a vehicle for prosecuting Australian foreign policy in a speech ahead of the release.

Bishop pledged: “One of the key messages [of the White Paper] … is that, in an increasingly contested world, the rules-based international order is vital for the pursuit of every nation’s legitimate international interests. The United Nations, with all its successes, and all its imperfections, sits at the heart of this international order… We will continue to support the institution of the UN to strengthen the rules-based order, project our values and interests, and solve problems that require the UN’s unique legitimacy.”

Curiously, this endorsement of the UN is not properly reflected in the White Paper. The government identifies the promotion and protection of international rules that support stability and prosperity and enables cooperation to tackle global challenges as one of its five objectives of fundamental importance. Yet the paper fails to make the obvious declaration that identifies the UN as the primary forum for promoting the rules based order.

Arguably, this is done by inference. Australian engagement with UN activities is identified throughout the paper. This includes the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to fight transnational crime and corruption (page 73); binding Security Council resolutions that underpin collective responses to terrorism and North Korea’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including sanctions (page 82); the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (page 85); working to achieve the SDGs (page 88); support for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and membership of the Human Rights Council (page 89); and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to pursue security in space (page 97). The Paper also identifies means by which Australia helps protect and strengthen international rules and norms, including by supporting international accountability and adjudicatory mechanisms, such as the UN’s International Court of Justice (page 83).

But despite this substantial level of engagement, the dedicated passage on the United Nations appears as one of a number of subsets to Chapter 6 on global cooperation and is notable for its brevity (five paragraphs) and seeming ambivalence to the UN.  There is no substantive and coherent strategy offered on engagement with the UN, and how Australia could pursue its national interests in the forum. Nor is there any meaningful examination of how the UN has supported Australian interests. Just five paragraphs that include a flat statement recalling Australia’s candidacy for election to the Security Council for the 2029-2030 term and a somewhat negative characterisation of the UN through the emphasis on Australia’s interest in its reform.

There is no doubt the UN is an imperfect organisation – how could it not be when it is the reflection of efforts to reconcile the often disparate interests of its 193 members? Many elements of its operation would benefit from reform to better position the UN to manage global crises, as has been recently proposed by Secretary General Antonio Guterres. But the UN remains a critically important multilateral institution and assists Australia by both promoting the rules-based order and offering a forum to secure outcomes in Australia’s direct national interest and project influence.

The cursory treatment of the UN in the White Paper marginalises an institution that is an obvious partner in support of the government’s key objectives in international engagement and deserved more recognition.

Haircuts, taxis and Big Macs: Comparing economies using purchasing power parity

(Photo: Martin Lewison/Flickr)
(Photo: Martin Lewison/Flickr)
Published 28 Nov 2017 11:26   0 Comments

In the new Foreign Affairs White paper, the graph that seems to have attracted most attention is this one:

GDP Forecasts to 2030

The message: China’s GDP has already comfortably overtaken America’s, and in just over twenty years will be nearly twice the size. Other interesting comparisons are India (growing faster than China, and nearly as big as America by 2030). Indonesia will be nearly as big as Japan. And Australia looks pretty small.

But before we make too much of this, read the footnote on page 24:

In this White Paper, economic calculations are based on purchasing power parity (see glossary). Using market exchange rates, the US economy accounted for 65.4 per cent of the global economy in 1950 and 24.7 per cent in 2016. Over a similar timeframe, China accounted for 4.5 per cent of the global economy in 1952 and 14.9 per cent in 2016.

So is China’s GDP a lot smaller than America after all? As is often the case in economics, the answer is: ‘it depends’.

If we want to compare the size of different economies or add up different countries’ growth rates, we have to get the GDP figures into a common currency. The easy way is to use the market exchange rate as quoted on the news each night. But exchange rates reflect the supply/demand balance for exports, imports and capital flows. They don’t reflect the larger part of an economy which is not traded internationally.

Exchange rates are also quite volatile, reflecting swings of confidence, ephemeral news and market sentiment. Growth rates calculated using market exchange rates would be much more volatile than underlying GDP production. They would also misstate relative size of GDP, because prices tend to be much cheaper in developing and emerging economies. This is especially true of services such as haircuts or taxis (largely because the cost of labour is so much cheaper). A US dollar, exchanged for renminbi, buys a lot more in China than it does in America. Thus using market exchange rates to compare countries would understate what you can buy, and the size of GDP, in emerging economies such as China.

Using purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates attempts to address this problem. The usual way of explaining is by reference to the well-known Big-Mac index from The Economist. What would the dollar/renminbi exchange rate have to be in order to equalise the price of a Big Mac hamburger in America and in China? That’s easy: divide the renminbi price in China by the US dollar price in America.  The Big Mac PPP exchange rate is around 3.6 renminbi per dollar, compared with the current market exchange rate of around 6.6 renminbi per dollar.

If GDP in the two countries comprised only Big Macs (and the hamburger was identical in both countries), using this PPP exchange rate to compare the two GDPs would give exactly the right answer. It would give an accurate measure of China’s total production against America’s, and over time would correctly reflect real growth rates (how many more Big Macs were produced) in the two countries.

In practice, of course, the two countries produce quite a different mix of goods and services. If the statistician tried to compare the price of a representative basket of American production with a representative basket of Chinese production, it would be comparison of beef and bread in America compared with rice and noodles in China. As well, how to allow for subtle (and not so subtle) quality differences? A train ticket in America will provide a different experience from one in China. Are the services provided by a doctor or a public servant the same in both countries? Where labour is cheap, lot more services (such as home-help) will be in the basket. The statistician has to wrestle with these problems, and the process is not tidy. There is inevitably a serious compromise between comparability (are they the same goods?) and representativeness (do they reflect the actual output of the individual country?).

Is there a big difference between comparisons based on market exchange rate and PPP? The answer is in the White Paper footnote above. Yes, the differences are big, and they are bigger between countries at different stages of development, such as China and America. American GDP is currently two-thirds bigger than China by market exchange rate but smaller on PPP-basis. This dramatic difference is typical: for developing and emerging economies, the difference between the market exchange rate and the PPP rate is a factor of between two and four.

Which method is used also makes a lot of difference to growth rates: the IMF’s World Economic Outlook is largely PPP-based, but market-exchange-rate growth rates are also shown (see WEO Table 1.1). This version of global growth is consistently much lower than the PPP figures show, because fast-growing countries such as China and India have a smaller weight in the market-exchange-rate growth calculations.

If you want to compare trade volumes or capital flows between countries, you should use market exchange rates. For most other purposes, PPP is better. But PPP comparisons come with many caveats and provisos. To start with, the figures are only as good as the basic GDP data that go in. This leaves plenty of room for disagreement (recall all the arguments about China’s perhaps-overstated GDP). The OECD provides some guidance on when PPP should and should not be used.

OECD guidance on when to use PPP

If the White Paper wants to make a general point about relative economic size, this is about as good as can be done. But care is needed in drawing conclusions. If the intention is to compare economic weight, GDP (a flow of goods and services produced) needs to be supplemented by a measure of the capital stock of a country (the accumulated assets that support its capacity), including intellectual assets. China’s physical capital stock is a small fraction of America’s.

Other issues might be grounds for greater dispute, such as the heroic assumptions that go into twenty-year-plus forecasts of growth rates. For example, do demographic differences justify giving India a higher growth rate than China?

If this wasn’t enough obsession with a simple graph, there is also a vexed issue of presentation. The graph from the White Paper asks the reader to visually compare different circles in order to understand relative size of economies. Does our eye compare the height of the circles (i.e. the diameter) or the area? To help us here (and to acknowledge the problem), the Paper gives us the actual numbers as well, so we know that we should be comparing the areas. But why not use the simple, clearer presentation of a bar graph? Bureaucrats interested in the graphical presentation of data should spend some time with Edward Tufte’s masterpiece, or even take a look at this timeless piece

Foreign Policy White Paper sees a new Asia but pleads for the old

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the Foreign Policy White Paper launch. (DFAT)
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the Foreign Policy White Paper launch. (DFAT)
Published 27 Nov 2017 14:21   0 Comments

There is much to be said for the analysis in the government’s new Foreign Policy White Paper. It wrestles with all the general questions that should be exercising the minds of Australia’s policy-makers in this era: America’s troubles, China’s rise, the kind of regional order Canberra seeks, the forces of protectionism and nationalism that are upending politics in Europe and the US, and the strain these factors are placing on the international system. The White Paper realises the limits of Australia’s power but is confident about the nation’s underlying strengths as it tackles a rapidly changing environment.

For all the repetition of ‘uncertainty’ in this document – the word itself appears no less than 11 times in the first 30 pages – Australia has dealt with periods of ‘uncertainty’ before. In the wake of the Second World War, when Australia expected the European empires to flood back into the region, it had instead to deal with the rise of Asian nationalism and the decolonising wave; in the late 1960s, having clung tightly to the embrace of its ‘great and powerful’ friends, it had to face the sudden collapse of its Cold War policy designed to keep the Americans and the British engaged in Southeast Asia. Look back at the speeches and statements of Australian leaders in those two periods and the same mantra of ‘complexity’ and ‘uncertainty’ populates their rhetoric, too.

These periods were deeply unsettling but Australia found a way through. And yet it is impossible not to face squarely the novelty of the current circumstances: a US in relative decline and an ascendant China that looks, ultimately, to set the rules in the region. The White Paper wants the US to rediscover its exceptionalist impulse – the government is almost willing it to happen – but realises at the same time that America's ‘long dominance’ is under challenge and further that China ‘may exceed’ American power and influence in the Indo-Pacific. The key line is that ‘as China’s power grows, our region is changing in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history’.

The paper necessarily carries the stamp of its minister. And herein lies the essential contradiction at its heart. Bishop’s speeches have been positively littered with the theme of ‘uncertainty’ – it is her watchword - yet she is resolute and absolute about the endurance of American regional leadership. The Trump phenomenon is a prime cause of this turbulence – by no means the only one - yet Bishop believes it will pass and that the status quo ante will somehow be re-established. It is difficult to know why the Minister has allowed hope to dictate to judgment.

Sure, neither a speech nor a White Paper are the place to berate Trump or indeed labour America’s travails. The US may well recover; the question is how long that might take, to what level and how much further damage might be done to its credibility and prestige in the meantime. But it is a fair bet that Bishop’s blithe assurances that the US will recapture its global and regional leadership role are not necessarily shared among all the serious thinkers in the Canberra policy and intelligence community. Both Bishop and the Prime Minister are yet again appealing for the return of a Cold War America. Indeed the Minister’s public pronouncements – especially in the wake of this paper’s release – are starting to resemble the pleas that Harold Holt made to the British government in 1967 following the announcement of its intention to military withdrawal from East of Suez.

Holt too made a point of appealing to British pride in its world role. Remaining in Asia, he said, was ‘in Britain’s own interest’. But no one in London was listening, mainly because the economic sands had shifted so quickly beneath Britain’s imperial footprint. The point here is not to mindlessly equate the British position then to the American one now; the US is not retreating from Asia. But Washington has been unable to change the unilateral facts on the water in the South China Sea; has a Pacific navy that is tired and accident-prone; and is now failing to drive the broader regional economic agenda. It is surely not a matter of simple coincidence that the White Paper’s glossy cover does not feature any part of the map of the continental United States.

US officials will like some of the tougher language in the paper on China but they will surely note the view that military modernisation in the region is not seen as a threat to Australia. Some US observers may also tire of Canberra’s continued reluctance to conduct its own freedom of navigation operations through the 12 nautical mile zone of disputed territory. As one of Obama’s White House policy staff told me recently, ‘Australia is a great ally of the US everywhere in the world, except in Asia’.

In a mark of continuity with the Howard era, the White Paper also assumes that Australia can continue to ride both the US and China horses simultaneously. That framework still works, in essence, but it is going to get much harder for Australia to be able to pull this off over the next decade. Trump will complicate it, as will his likely successors, from either party.

Accordingly, the White Paper does not put all the eggs into the American basket and recognises the need for Australia to pursue deeper relationships with the region's democracies. That’s a virtual green light for more meetings of the much-vaunted 'Quadrilateral Security Dialogue'. The Quad’s more nuanced proponents speak of it as nothing more than a harmless chat among like-minded friends with a suite of limited cooperative endeavours – nothing harmful in that. Its more vigorous advocates hail it as a strategic alliance in the making, aimed squarely at China.

This White Paper is, as it ought to be, full of tension between the pull of history and the imperatives of geography, between the world as it is and the world Australia would like to see. The authors know, however, that history has surprises up its sleeve. They acknowledge that the forces buffeting global politics may have consequences that are both unforeseen and uncomfortable for Australia. So for all its occasional caution, this document contains some stark messages that should deliver a necessary jolt to the national imagination.

Keep Calm and Step Up: The White Paper's message on the Pacific

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in 2015 at a Pacific roundtable (Photo: @JulieBishopMP/Twitter)
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in 2015 at a Pacific roundtable (Photo: @JulieBishopMP/Twitter)
Published 27 Nov 2017 11:06   0 Comments

The White Paper describes stepping up ‘support for a more resilient Pacific and Timor-Leste’ as one of only five ‘objectives of fundamental importance to Australia’s security and prosperity’. This gives the Pacific unusual prominence in a document of this nature. Even so, the rationale for the Pacific’s inclusion in this list of five top priorities is never made entirely explicit.

The closest the White Paper comes to giving an explanation is in Chapter 7, which is devoted to the Pacific. The language in that chapter sits comfortably within a long tradition of Australian thinking about the immediate neighbourhood, one that sees the region as both as a potential source of, and as a vector for, threats against Australia. Put another way, the argument is that Australia’s national security (and to some degree our prosperity) depends both on stability within regional states, and on our ability to prevent external players from influencing or using regional states in ways that damage our interests.

The White Paper contains strong declaratory language committing Australia to engage with the region ‘with greater intensity and ambition’. It also explicitly singles out the importance of the bilateral relationship with Papua New Guinea (something that has already been noted in Port Moresby). Much of the detail of the chapter has already been flagged in public statements, including in Julie Bishop’s important speech in Suva in August. The government’s self-described ‘step-up’ in Australia’s approach towards the Pacific (DFAT has deliberately avoided using the word ‘Strategy’) is envisaged to take place across three domains: economic/trade; security; and people-to-people links.

This isn’t a bad agenda and there would have been no point in the White Paper reinventing policy on any of this. Even so, it is worth noting that the White Paper endorses significant ideas such as the extension of selected Australian government services into the Pacific, and access for Pacific islanders to the Australian labour market. While these ideas aren’t necessarily entirely new, including them in the White Paper gives them a status that they have not previously enjoyed.

Perhaps the most striking statement about the Pacific in the White Paper is the assertion that Australia’s approach to the region will henceforth include ‘helping to integrate Pacific countries in the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions’. While some aspects of earlier or existing Australian policy towards the region may have been directed towards these ends, the reference to integration as an explicit policy objective marks an important inflection point in Australian policy towards the region.

The announcement contained in the White Paper that an Australia Pacific Security College is to be established is one of the few elements of the ‘step-up’ that had not already been flagged. This can be seen as something of a down payment on a commitment to much closer integration in the security sphere. We await details of the new college.

The tone of Chapter 7 on the Pacific is notably flat: this is presumably deliberate. The language in this chapter studiously avoids any sense of alarm about the region’s development trends, about the risks of fragmentation of the Pacific’s diplomatic architecture or about the geostrategic risks posed by China, something that is given prominence elsewhere in the White Paper. Indeed, China is mentioned only indirectly in this chapter, in references to ‘other sources’ [of aid and loans] and to the Pacific’s ‘outside partners’. This seems remarkably coy when set against the language used in other parts of the White Paper and reads like an attempt to quarantine the Pacific from the broader geostrategic trends and risks described elsewhere in the White Paper, or at least to downplay their significance and relevance in the Pacific.

While Chapter 7 does acknowledge ‘increasing competition for influence and economic opportunities’ in the region, it simply promises that Australia will engage with the Pacific’s ‘outside partners to encourage them to work in a manner that strengthens cooperation, builds more sustainable and resilient economies and maintain stability’. What Chapter 7 doesn’t address directly is the risk that ‘outside partners’ (ie, China) might in fact work in ways that are contrary to our interests, and might not be interested in listening to us – and what we might do in those circumstances. We are some distance here, rhetorically at least, from the forward-leaning language of the 2016 Defence White Paper which commits Australia to work ‘to limit the influence of any actor from outside the [Pacific] region with interests inimical to our own.’

What seems to be going on is an attempt to balance a couple of key imperatives: on the one hand, the wish to project a sense of national self-confidence about our ability to exercise leadership and to set the agenda in the Pacific; on the other hand, the desire to stress that our leadership will be benign and undertaken ‘in partnership’ with Pacific island countries (and Timor-Leste) on the basis of ‘shared interests’. This is of a piece with the government's avoidance of the word 'Strategy' in describing its approach. The focus is on what we can do to enhance our own efforts, not what we can do, or might have to do, to counter the efforts of others.

Interestingly, that is not a million miles from the sort of approach towards the Pacific that was advocated by the Labor’s Richard Marles only last week. It is certainly gratifying to see bipartisan support for a stronger focus on the Pacific region. Against this background, the Foreign Policy White Paper talks a good game on the Pacific and should be welcomed by those with an interest in Australia’s immediate region.

And yet ... We are left with a question: do we have the wherewithal – the resources, the attention span, and the diplomatic and political capital – to fulfil the promise of bringing ‘greater intensity and ambition’ to our approach in the Pacific? On the first of these elements, the answer is (probably) yes; on the second, history cautions that there might be room for doubt, at both the political and institutional levels; on the third, we must acknowledge that this is not entirely in our hands, that notwithstanding our indispensability in the region, there are forces are at work in the Pacific that we do not control and will find difficulty in influencing. The government has set itself a high bar.

A footnote: consistent with the steady-as-she-goes tone of Chapter 7, the White Paper commits Australia ‘to continue to support the Papua New Guinea and autonomous Bougainville governments to implement the 2001 Peace Agreement, which underpins peace and stability in Bougainville.’ This has been stated policy since 2001 and it has served Australia well. Even so, given the increasing risk of the Peace Agreement breaking down as the deadline for a referendum on Bougainville approaches, there would seem to be an increasingly strong element of wishful thinking in this formulation.

What the White Paper misses on China

US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the APEC summit, November 2017 (Photo: The White House/Flickr)
US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the APEC summit, November 2017 (Photo: The White House/Flickr)
Published 24 Nov 2017 15:37   0 Comments

The Foreign Policy White Paper paints a picture of an uncertain world and troubling times. With this understanding as its foundation, the White Paper outlines what approaches Australia should take to protect its national interests. While some elements are new, these approaches are still a means to preserving the status quo.

What the White Paper does not do is accept that there are some big and important phenomena we cannot control, and that Australia needs to prepare for them.

Uncertainty, risk, and even danger, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull notes in the White Paper's introduction, characterise our current circumstances. The values and norms of the order on which our prosperity is based are being challenged by a US withdrawal from and China's increasing interest in global affairs. These are not the only risks to Australia, but concern about this dynamic is central to the White Paper.

In response, the White Paper advocates that the US should review its position and maintain its commitment. It also seeks to encourage China to 'share responsibility for supporting regional and global security'; that is, to play by the existing rules. At the same time, it sets out how Australia will take a new and more active approach in hedging against and balancing China by building stronger networks among like-minded democracies in the region.

There is nothing wrong in working to mitigate the challenge as it is defined. While the White Paper notes that we must prepare for the long term and understand that a peaceful region is 'not assured', it does not identify or address the challenges and implications except in rather vague terms. In particular, we must accept the reality of China as it sees itself, not as how we see it. We need not agree, but it is naïve to ignore the fact that China sees itself very differently.

For example, the White Paper asserts that the US-China relationship remains centrally important to the region's stability and Australia's national interests. If these two powerful countries, arguably the most important to Australia's wellbeing, do not have a positive relationship, the implications are profound. However, it is not sufficient to note this and suggest Australia could perhaps play an honest broker role to ameliorate tensions.

To oversimplify, the US sees itself as the natural and legitimate global hegemon (with the caveat that the current president may not share this mindset, which may not actually matter to policymaking overall). Australia agrees. But China doesn't, particularly when it comes to the Asian region. While conflict is by no means inevitable, unless someone gives a little, all discussions will continue to be at cross-purposes and serve to entrench existing (mis-)perceptions each has of the other.

Similarly, the assumption that China can be encouraged to take on a 'more responsible role' is ill-founded:

We encourage China to exercise its power in a way that enhances stability, reinforces international law and respects the interests of smaller countries.

For one thing, China argues and largely believes that it is a responsible actor. We may not agree, but every time we criticise China for it, we alienate Beijing further. For the last decade or so China has been increasingly determined to chart its own course domestically, and, by extension, increasingly willing to try to reshape the aspects of the international system it believes don't support Chinese interests, or those of other non-industrialised, non-Western countries. It is worth noting this is not only a Chinese concern. The 2016 Defence White Paper defines the 'rules-based order' as 'a shared commitment by all countries' to 'agreed rules which evolve over time'. While this Foreign Policy White Paper acknowledges 'an evolving international order', overall it presents Australia as being resistant to change and surprised that the world as it has been may not be the world of the future.

A third example is the conundrum of Australia's security and economic eggs being in different baskets. The debate has long been whether we must choose between the US and China. The larger question is how long we'll be able to have a choice. The White Paper acknowledges that our economic strength is an important aspect of our weight in the world. It says we should use that weight to protect the regional order and the liberal norms and values we hold dear. It also notes that our prosperity is largely linked with China's rise. Those things are connected. It is naïve to assume that China will be indefinitely willing to fund our ability to criticise it and attempts to change it. As the Global Times noted, the White Paper says to China that Australia wants to have its cake and eat it too.

The answers to these challenges are by no means simple. But we must at least be asking the questions. How else can we genuinely respond to the challenges of the times? The White Paper has missed the opportunity to steer Australia effectively through these uncharted waters. In its narrow view of what is good and right, the White Paper has overemphasised mitigation and shoring up the status quo at the cost of allowing space to discuss strategies for adaptation.

The fall and fall of Australia’s aid program

Photo: Department of Defence/Commonwealth of Australia
Photo: Department of Defence/Commonwealth of Australia
Published 24 Nov 2017 12:38   0 Comments

Diminished and marginalised sums up the way Australia's development assistance program is treated in the Foreign Policy White Paper.

The program represents by far the biggest proportion of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's budget (DFAT's total budget in 2017/2018 is $5.8 billion, of which official development assistance is $3.6 billion) and its work should be recognised for the key role it plays in Australia's relations across Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. But reference to development assistance in the White Paper is largely limited to one-liners buried within the paper's thematic chapters. 'Global Cooperation', the chapter where the program might have been given its due place in the sun, presents a simplistic narrative that blurs a wide a range of issues, including domestic challenges such as the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

Why is this so? It is revealing to see how far Australia's aid program has fallen in the hierarchy of Australian foreign policy relevance since the Howard government released the first and so far only white paper on Australia's development assistance program in 2006: Australian Aid: Promoting Growth and Stability.

Much has happened to Australia's aid program since that white paper was produced. It suffered from the unsettling administrative upheaval that came with unfulfilled promises of massive budget expansion under the Rudd government; it lost its own administrative base with the demise of AusAID under the Abbott government; it lost a critical mass of internal skills and knowledge with the absorption of the program into the DFAT; and it has had its budget massively eroded.

But most importantly, it has lost the intellectual clarity of its contribution to Australia's broader foreign policy and national interests. The transparency of its activities and achievements is now buried under broad statements of intent and a portfolio budget document that requires a solid understanding of accountancy to interpret.

The 2017 White Paper indicates a determination from the government to keep the aid program in the shadows and a reluctance to make clear the role and value of Australia's aid program, not only as an important element of the broader foreign policy agenda but as a prominent aspect of how Australia approaches its responsibilities as a developed nation. When the document does finally allot some space to the aid program in Chapter Six, it does not provide any analytical basis or framework for a program that has a budget of just under $4 billion of taxpayer money.

Yet the prevailing need for Australia's aid program to support the national interest and address our region's challenges has remained constant since 2006. An appallingly broad and arguably incorrect statement in the paper attributes the reduction in global poverty to globalisation. Having delivered that assertion as fact, there is no substantial discussion about what is happening to poverty, despite the reduction of poverty still being a core goal of the government's development assistance policy.

There is little reference to the fact that despite Asia's success in reducing poverty (largely through China's own social and economic reforms), extreme poverty is still a grim reality for almost half of the region's population. And while the paper celebrates the rise of Asia's middle classes, it is silent about the rise of inequality and the changing boundaries of poverty, with more than 70% of the world's poor now living in middle-income countries. The size and purchasing power of Asia's middle class has grown in the past two decades, but their share of overall income has fallen as that of the richest quintile has increased. The paper is also silent on the development dilemma that the drivers of inequality are the same forces supporting stronger economies: technological progress, globalisation and market-oriented reform.

Even in the chapter dedicated to working with the developing Pacific countries, the role of aid and Australia's very significant development program is treated more as a leitmotif than as a major component of the relationships. Perhaps one should take this as a positive recognition of the need for Australia to look beyond the aid program as the defining element of its relationships with these countries.

But the White Paper's overall treatment of aid and development suggests that even in this region where Australia remains the leading donor, the prevailing preference is to diminish and stifle Australia's international development story. Why is this so?

Time for Australia to forge free compact agreements in the Pacific

Signposts in Tuvalu (Photo: Michael Coghlan/Flickr)
Signposts in Tuvalu (Photo: Michael Coghlan/Flickr)
Published 24 Nov 2017 10:00   0 Comments

What a difference 14 years make. The launch of the Foreign Policy White Paper on Thursday, the first since 2003, marks the strongest commitment by Australia to the Pacific region in recent memory. The last white paper had a section heading ‘What Australia can and cannot do to help’ in relation to the Pacific. No such caveats in the new document, which places supporting the development of Pacific island nations as a key foreign policy aim.

Yet while an emphasis on an enduring partnership with Papua New Guinea and supporting Timor-Leste was expected, the multiple references to the Pacific island states of Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu was more surprising. These are small nations, yet Nauru is mentioned more times than France and Tuvalu more times than Iran. All three are identified as a priority focus for a new Pacific Labour Scheme, while Australia has concluded security memoranda with Nauru and Tuvalu.

Is this White Paper setting the scene for the formal establishment of free compact state agreements with these Pacific island nations?

There are already a number of independent Pacific island states that are in free compacts, or free associations, with larger metropole countries. In Micronesia, the three nations of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands - known collectively as the free compact states – have a Compact of Free Association with the United States. In essence, this means that the governments of these nations consult with the US on foreign affairs issues. Washington also has ‘full authority and responsibility for security and defence matters’ in return for US government services, the opportunity for Pacific Islanders to work in the US, and annual grants. Likewise, the Cook Islands and Niue are self-governing states in free association with New Zealand, which discharges foreign and defence responsibilities on their behalf.

So, is Australia edging closer to free compact agreements with Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati and, if so, why? The Foreign Policy White Paper provides clues to answer both questions.

Firstly, the bilateral security agreements with Nauru and Tuvalu are specifically aimed at targeting transnational organised crime, to build border security capacity and combat health threats. The first two will require close cooperation with the Department of Defence and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Less explicit, but almost certainly linked, is the statement that Australia will ‘assist some countries to develop national security strategies’. These policies support the strategic defence objective in last year’s Defence White Paper of a ‘secure nearer region, encompassing maritime South East Asia and the South Pacific’.

Second, the expansion of government services to these three countries fit the free association model. Australia will provide testing services to improve the quality and reliability of pharmaceuticals in Nauru and Tuvalu, while the White Paper explicitly states that Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati will be prioritised in an expanded labour mobility program.

Alone these announcements do not answer why Australia would want to enter into a compact of free association with these countries. That is found elsewhere in the White Paper.

The language regarding China’s rise is bolder than Australia has previously used. The White Paper specifically states that ‘[i]n parts of the Indo-Pacific… China’s power and influence are growing to match, and in some cases exceed, that of the United States’. It is noted that China will seek to influence the region to suit its own interests and that economic power is being used for strategic ends. As a result, the White Paper encourages China to ‘exercise its power in a way that enhances stability, reinforces international law and respects the interests of smaller countries’. Yet the underlying message throughout the paper is this cannot be taken for granted.

If Australia were to incorporate Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati into a compact of free association, it would deny China the ability to become the dominant external influence in these three countries. Looked at on a global map, this would in effect extend and deepen the second island chain formed by the US Free Compact States and enhance Australia’s alliance with the US. It would also give the citizens of Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati the right to work in Australia, and would provide government services to the governments of those island nations in return for Australian consultation on foreign policy issues and exclusive military use of the islands.

The overall message of the Foreign Policy White Paper is that nothing can be taken for granted in the future, and as a result Australia needs to ‘engage with the Pacific with greater intensity and ambition’ and make ‘substantial long-term investments in the region’s development’.

It is time to be truly innovative and match policy to ambition. Australia should set the establishment of a Compact of Free Association with Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati as a foreign policy priority for the Pacific. It would not only benefit the three Pacific island nations, but would form a key part of providing maritime security in the region and, as such, would support Australia’s national strategic defence objectives.

Foreign Policy White Paper: Turnbull addresses the China problem

Published 23 Nov 2017 16:00   0 Comments

Some part of the media describe the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, released this morning, as striking a hawkish tone; by contrast, a few of my contacts who have read the document closely conclude that it's a bit anodyne. I'll make my own judgments after a more careful reading, but what I can say is that the Prime Minister's speech at the launch, and to a lesser extent Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's remarks, were anything but bland and innocuous.

Back in February I wrote that the White Paper needed to confront the tension in our foreign policy between the clashing interests of the US, our major strategic partner, and China, our primary economic partner. Well, the PM certainly confronted it this morning. Turnbull had strong language for China about its behaviour in the South China Sea, and said Australia would defend itself against interference and coercion in our domestic affairs and democratic processes. The PM was also blunt about the region's future:

We are navigating a rapidly changing multi-polar world in which each of the major players are testing their relationships with each other...power is shifting and the rules and institutions are under challenge. We are experiencing unprecedented prosperity and opportunity, but the liberal rules-based order that underpins it all, is under greater stress than at any time since its creation in the 1940s.

So it's a multipolar world in which power is shifting and the rules-based order is coming under stress, mostly from China. That's true and it's important for our head of government to say these things as plainly as he can without being egregiously insulting to our key trading partner. The problem comes in Turnbull and Bishop's insistence that this shift to multipolarity should happen within the existing rules-based order. 'The rules-based order protects us all...It is manifestly in our national interest to advance it and defend it', Turnbull said.

What is this rules-based order? In case there was any ambiguity on that point, both Bishop and Turnbull went out of their way to say that the order they had in mind was the one created by the major powers after the Second World War and led thereafter by the US. In fact, in earlier speeches the PM has referred to the 'US-anchored rules based order', and in an interview yesterday Julie Bishop said 'The global order will continue to flow from power and US hard power will remain an essential underpinning of the rules-based order.'

But as favourable as this order has been to Australia's interests, it seems too much to hope that China, as the next leading power in the region, will want to preserve it in its entirety. It doesn't even do much good to point out, as both Turnbull and Bishop did today, that China has benefitted enormously from this order. That's true, and China is doubtless aware of it. But now that Beijing has a bigger stake, it will want a bigger say. After all, as Beijing endlessly points out, it had no say in the creation of the post-war rules-based order, and it doesn't like the fact that the order is underpinned by US military forces. Moreover, the liberal character of the US-led rules-based order respresents a direct threat to the Chinese Communist Party's leadership.

So in the PM's remarks, at least, there is a tension between, on the one hand, his acknowledgement of China's rise and regional multipolarity, and on the other his insistence that the US-led rules-based order should remain untouched.

It might be that the answer to that tension is for the government to reinforce its commitment to the US alliance as a way to counteract China's rise. The White Paper talks of broadening and deepening the US alliance, 'including through the United States Force Posture Initiatives'. This is a reference to the US Marines rotation through Darwin, and this could be read as evidence that Australia is bent on putting steel in the American spine so that it maintains its long-term presence in our region. But that argument only works if the US is introducing new capability to the region via Darwin. If it is merely moving forces it previously had in North Asia, it makes the opposite case.

Or perhaps Canberra could counteract China's influence through greater involvement in our immediate neighbourhood. The PM listed five new commitments arising from the White Paper; one was that Australia would be 'elevating South-East Asia into a top priority for Australia.' What that means in resource terms was left unaddressed. Turnbull also promised to match that new commitment to Southeast Asia by doing more in the Pacific. But again, there was no sense of what that would cost or entail.

Photo by Flickr user Sarah Schrauwen.

Foreign Policy White Paper: Australia faces an uncertain world

The R G Casey Building, which houses the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Photo: Bentley Smith/Flickr)
The R G Casey Building, which houses the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Photo: Bentley Smith/Flickr)
Published 23 Nov 2017 11:00   0 Comments

Australia has bet the farm on Donald Trump.

That’s the obvious headline to describe this Foreign Policy White Paper, although the gamble isn’t on Trump personally, but rather as a show of faith in the broader character of the US system of government.

The key sentence stands out on page 26:

The Australian Government judges that the United States’ long-term interests will anchor its economic and security engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

All the words in this document will have been carefully scrutinised to ensure they convey the intended meaning. The usual boilerplate is evident, but this phrase struck me as a very deliberate formula, founded on a belief that US prestige and power will withstand any crazy reflex of the Trump White House.

And then comes China.

China is challenging America’s position.

This appears on page 1. And while it’s a statement of the obvious, the language feels more direct than previous official documents, which preferred to use soothing terms such as 'rising powers' to describe strategic rivalry. Later, the White Paper declares 'China’s power and influences are growing to match, and in some cases exceed, that of the US' (my emphasis).

This ensures the US-China challenge will dominate the early public debate around the White Paper. But these are just words. Pronouncements won’t settle the issue. Instead, what matters is what countries choose to do. The White Paper acknowledges the need to be 'agile'. It is an implicit recognition that now the document is printed, the issues that dominate today will be overtaken by what follows tomorrow.

For this reason, the obvious headline on China and US rivalry only masks a deeper unease captured by the White Paper, and should really be the focus of debate. This bigger problem is described as 'converging' – the way a series of major challenges are joining together as 'powerful drivers of change'.

This is the backlash against globalisation, wrongly dismissed in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a kind of flat-earth regression rather than a genuine concern about labour conditions and sovereign control, only to fester since. This has piled stress on trade negotiations, regional economic blocs and the conduct of politics.

Then add the challenge of non-state actors. Not just terrorist organisations but peaceful challenges to state power, such as the ability of activists to exploit communications technology and organise potent international campaigns (the White Paper’s faith in Asia’s demand for Australian coal, for example, is an assumption under sustained challenge by environmental groups).

There is the danger of climate change. There is demography, and more.

To me, the key message reading the White Paper is the call to 'work harder to maximise our international influence'. That’s the next step. Australia has spent a long time arguing over the shape of the future. It’s past time to stop talking and actually get something done.