Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Defending the liberal order takes more than rhetoric

Julie Bishop’s call for a US strengthening of the liberal order indicates a worrying staleness about policy thinking in Canberra.

Australia's Julie Bishop with other foreign ministers at the UN (Photo: DFAT)
Australia's Julie Bishop with other foreign ministers at the UN (Photo: DFAT)
Published 20 Mar 2017 

Julie Bishop’s recent speech in Singapore was out of date and stale. Her remarks exhibited two major and ongoing flaws in the government’s foreign policy thinking. The first is the persistent lack of substance in the Turnbull government’s response to both China’s challenge to the status quo and uncertainty over US engagement the region, as illustrated by the Foreign Minister's 'strategic holding pattern' metaphor. The second is the lack of understanding of the mixed reception some 'liberal' values and norms receive in the region, and why their invocation can be more divisive than unifying when used carelessly.

Bishop clearly believes US engagement is a necessary condition for the current order’s survival, that the existing order best matches Australia’s interests, and that the regional order is under challenge. Yet Australia, under this and previous governments, has done little more than talk about the merits of the current order and the overarching importance of the US in maintaining it. Australia needs to become much more proactive in demonstrating its commitment; in encouraging continued US support for the regional 'rules based' order by more actively cross-bracing US alliances in the region and building security cooperation with other status quo states.

The 'holding pattern' metaphor describes the behavior of Australia and many, though not all, ASEAN members to date. Bishop’s speech overlooked the fact that at least one of the US’s major allies in East Asia, Japan, has become increasingly proactive in its responses to both Beijing’s territorial ambitions and to the uncertainty over the extent and nature of US-extended deterrence. Concerns about the future character of US support in the Asia-Pacific, moreover, did not arrive with Donald Trump; domestic pressures in the US, both fiscal and political, alongside numerous Democrat and Republican grumbling about allies free riding on alliance commitments have caused concern in Tokyo and Canberra for some time, if not several decades.

The big difference between Canberra and Tokyo, of course, is that the Abe government – despite its still considerable constitutional limitations – has for some time been acting to lessen the US alliance burden, both internally and externally, while also building political support for the status quo – but in less ideologically loaded language than that used by Bishop. Indeed, carping on about democratic and other liberal values, beyond the core and essentially 'liberal lite' principles set out in the UN Charter and customary maritime law/UNCLOS that all states – even China – have long endorsed, is unhelpful, as others have noted, and likely to hinder efforts at mustering active support in ASEAN for the rules and principles guiding the existing order.

The Griffith Asia Institute in partnership with Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan Institute of International Affairs recently assembled Australian, Indian, and Japanese security experts to discuss the meaning, significance and usage of 'rules based order' in their respective countries. This was an attempt to locate areas of common interest and concern from which further trilateral cooperation between the three nations could be built. Although the trilateral meeting preceded Julie Bishop’s speech by two weeks, many of the key points raised during the conference directly address her assessment of the challenges facing the existing order and the importance of the US. Unlike the Foreign Minister’s remarks, however, they also provide some insights on how Australia should be responding. These include:

  1. All three countries, according to the views expressed, definitely want to maintain the existing order, especially in relation to freedom of navigation and trade.
  2. All participants also agreed that continued US primacy, or at least support, is a necessary condition for maintaining the status quo. Given the limits to trilateral cooperation (such as the different balance of threat perceptions, entrapment fears, fears of provoking conflict), continued US leadership of the current order was broadly agreed to be the most compelling, and fundamental, shared interest between the three countries.
  3. The emphasis in discussions, however, was firstly on the need to defend rather than strengthen the current US led order; and second, on the need for the order’s rules to remain compatible with the core interests and concerns of all three (and other) nations if they are to have genuine support, and therefore, also authority.
  4. Trilateral cooperation alone cannot succeed in stabilising the order, which makes keeping the US engaged through trilateral and other mini-lateral initiatives the immediate policy priority. The emphasis in attempting to promote trilateral cooperation, and indeed also its core rationale of maintaining the status quo, should be on keeping the US engaged, not on preparing for its exit!

Julie Bishop’s call for a US strengthening of the liberal order – while paying little attention to the need for US allies, like Australia, to actually play a bigger, and less ambivalent role, in defending it – indicates a worrying staleness about policy thinking in Canberra. Australian policy makers for the most part seem locked in a passive reliance on Washington’s Cold War commitment to deterring great power competition in Asia on the one hand, and misguided post-Cold War assumptions about the universal appeal and inevitability of all liberal values and aspirations (in particular liberal democracy), on the other.

It is time both to get back to the basic principles on which the region’s liberal 'rules-based' order was founded – i.e., the 'liberal lite' rules and norms that characterised it during the Cold War – and for Australia to act more decisively in building regional security cooperation if its commitment to the status quo is to be more than rhetorical.

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