Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Realistically assessing Australia's national ambitions

As an ally of the US and a major trading partner of China, we need to be alert to everything that goes on between them, as well as within them.

Australian Parliament House (Photo: Flickr user russellstreet)
Australian Parliament House (Photo: Flickr user russellstreet)
Published 16 Feb 2017 

This post is part of a debate on Australia’s foreign policy White paper 2017. Click here for other debate posts.

The ‘Call for Public Submissions’ for the upcoming Foreign Policy White Paper lists a number of questions to be addressed. The first of these relates to an assessment of our national interests. Possibly prior to making this assessment we should consider what Australia is like, and therefore what our national ambitions can realistically be. It’s common for government spokespeople to refer to Australia as a ‘Top 20’ country, referring to our membership of the G20, our substantial economy and our role as a major world trader. Those things are all correct, but we also need to consider that our population is small (10 million less than Canada, for example ),our continental extent imposes tasks and costs as well as advantages, and our isolated position means that we are not an automatically included member of any established and tight-knit group of countries like ASEAN, the EU (assuming that does indeed hold together!), and the Latin American and African groupings.

To me, these factors mean that we have to be active and imaginative in defending and promoting our national interests. These are of course easy to state in very general terms - national security and prosperity, and the promotion of regional and international orders as compatible as possible with our national values - but they can be difficult to prosecute successfully. The world environment has become turbulent and uncertain, not only because of political events like Brexit and the coming to power of President Trump, but also because of intractable global issues like climate change and mobilising effective action to contain it, Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere, and almost unparalleled mass movements of people. A Japanese academic visiting Sydney recently said that we face 'fragility in every corner of the world'. Globalisation, seen as the engine of universal economic advancement, has come under increasingly widespread criticism as a cause of inequality, while technological change and automation is increasingly seen as a threat to the future availability of work and jobs.

Some of the actions we might take in response to these challenges are essentially domestic. However, in regard to the economy we will of course continue to pursue advantageous trade arrangements. These will likely be increasingly less globalgiven the stalemate at the WTO, but certainly regional agreements - the TPP if it is still alive and the RCEP - and bilateral agreements, such as with India and Indonesia, will continue to be important. (It is of course worth noting that the pursuit of trade agreements almost for their own sake is not necessarily advantageous; recent reviews of the effect of our trade agreement with the US, in the context of Trump-created uncertainty about it, show that it has benefited the US much more than Australia.) Given increasing technological and competitive challenges it will be very important for us to encourage Australian industries that can survive the end of the mining boom.

It’s important to note that that is not getting easier. For years after the end of World War II we had a significant technological advantage over our neighbours, but they have caught up and other factors — like their larger populations and the international mobility of capital — have come into play. One obvious example is the auto industry. Very soon we will not have one, while Indonesia and Thailand will.

For a country with a small population like Australia of course there will always be questions as to what we pay attention to, both economically, politically and in terms of supra-national issues like climate change. For example, for decades Australians with an interest have complained that neither our government nor our business people have paid sufficient attention to Indonesia; large, on the march and full of potential despite the difficulties of doing business there. But in those same decades our economic engagement with China, even larger and more on the march, has increased enormously, absorbing a huge amount of our commercial and governmental energies. (Perhaps the visit to Australia by President Jokowi later this month will focus more attention on Indonesia.)

The above is just one example. In terms of our situation in the world we should pay sustained attention to many kinds of countries and relationships as well as issues. As an ally of the US and a major trading partner of China, we need to be alert to everything that goes on between them, as well as within them. As a neighbour of the countries of East, Southeast and, to some extent, South Asia we need to pay close attention to countries such as Japan, India, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea and work with them to foster regional stability and resilience. With New Zealand, we have to pay close attention to the small island countries of the South Pacific, where we can make a difference to their struggles for social and economic advancement, and, unfortunately, perhaps later assist with the consequences of climate change.

How are we to do all these things, and give all the varied challenges and opportunities their due?  The last question posed in the ’Call for Public Submissions’ addresses this. In my view, those drafting the Paper could do a lot worse than carefully considering the Lowy Institute papers of recent years on the very limited resources available to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in comparison with relevant countries world-wide. For a country like ours, largely on its own apart from New Zealand, exposed to and dependent on the world economy, with a large annual migrant intake, in a strategically critical and demanding part of the world, needs to have a well-staffed and resourced foreign service able to inform the government, deal with international issues and partners, and effectively put Australia’s case to others and in world and regional forums. Such an asset of course comes at a cost, but from the point of view of perspective we should bear in mind its likely relative utility compared with the enormously costly planned Defence acquisitions such as the JSF and replacement submarines.

In my view a country of moderate size and weight such as Australia should put a high priority on multi-lateral diplomacy as a ‘force-multiplier’. We have a lot of achievements to our credit in this field, and have even initiated very successful institutions such as APEC and the Cairns Group. Hopefully future developments in the Asia-Pacific will be moderated for the better in bodies such as the East Asia Summit (which Australia had a major role in seeing expanded to its present inclusive membership).

Mentioning the Asia-Pacific brings me to my last point, but certainly a very major one. One issue which the Australian public will certainly hope to see the White Paper address is the relationship between the US and China, and how Australia might be involved in that. As everyone knows, the US is our major ally, and our two countries are linked in innumerable ways. On the other hand, China is our largest trading partner and other links grow steadily. Developing the China relationship has been a bipartisan Australian policy since the Whitlam/Fraser years, not long after former Australian diplomat Greg Clark wrote his book In Fear of China (he queried the fear). At the same time, we are of course aware of the strategic rivalry between China and the US, and the possibility of some pushing and shoving escalating into armed conflict. We are also aware that years of involvement by our Defence Force with the US Armed Forces have led to such a degree of integration and interoperability that it would not be easy for Australia to ‘pass’ if the US became involved in a clash with China — for example in the South China Sea. This is an important possible downside to set against the undoubted advantages such integration brings.

Such a contingency may of course never arise.  The Sydney Morning Herald's 10 Febuary report on the (surprisingly little-reported) meeting of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Foreign Minister Bishop last week noted that he had said publicly that Australia 'can continue to be an ally of the US, at the same time be a comprehensive strategic partner for China'.  And over the weekend there was news of an exchange between Presidents Xi and Trump which seemed more constructive than earlier American remarks. Americans often refer to us appreciatively as having been with them in all their wars since World War I.  Remarks to that effect were made in the aftermath of the apparently awful Trump-Turnbull telephone conversation. But the outcomes of the more recent of those wars have not been a source of much satisfaction, and many Australians are seeking assurance that there will be no automatic involvement by us in hostilities in the South China Sea in the name of freedom of navigation or 'defending the shared commons'.  The government’s policy so far in regard to this issue has been prudent and sensible, and has recently been endorsed by the respected former Chief of the Defence Force, Sir Angus Houston. Navigation has not been impaired, and it’s not in China’s interests to do so. But any words of assurance that the White Paper can contain on this crucial issue will I am sure be welcomed.

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