Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The Turnbull era: Eight ideas for fine-tuning Australian foreign policy

The Turnbull era: Eight ideas for fine-tuning Australian foreign policy

In his recent Boyer Lectures, the Lowy Institute's Michael Fullilove notes that the old world had gone, and that the rise of China calls for a serious re-examination of Australian foreign policy. This is true. Michael also called for a more ambitious Australian foreign policy and stressed the need for big thinking and a 'larger Australia'.

Australia must respond to the greatly changed world of this century. We must update foreign and security policies, especially those still rooted in the past, or we shall find ourselves left behind in an increasingly complex and competitive world.

This can be an exciting time for Australia because this need for long overdue foreign policy adjustments coincides with the appointment of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister. Turnbull has said he intends to be a forward-looking prime minister for the 21st century.

Understandably, the pressures on the new prime minister will be mainly domestic. Foreign and security policies are naturally less immediate although evolving situations (including. Syria, ISIS, Russia, and an overhyped TPP, which has yet to be adopted by the US and does not include such major economies as China, India and Indonesia) call for prompt reactions.

I consider there are eight policy issues which Prime Minister Turnbull could review and update this year, or early in 2016. [fold]

1. Look to Asia

In what is now generally called the Asian Century, we need to refocus on the important interests in our own region: South East Asia, North Asia and the south-west Pacific. Former Indonesian Ambassador to Australia  Sabam Siagian wrote earlier this year that 'Australia is still stuck in the 20th Century mode. It is a monarchy, with a Head of State in London, and its security arrangements are largely Cold War relics...Australia is out of sync with the emerging geopolitical environment of Asia today'.

Australia needs a fundamental change of our national psyche focused more on Asia than on our traditional links with the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Europe. We need a much more sustained conversation with our neighbouring countries in Asia and the south-west Pacific.

We should work discreetly towards the evolution of an Asia Pacific community, of which ASEAN would be a major part. Meanwhile we should use existing organisations that meet at head of government level, such as the G20,  APEC (although it does not include India), the East Asian Summit (which now includes both the US and Russia), the UN Leader's Week in New York , and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (a relic of British colonialism, but some Asian leaders attend and can discuss regional issues) that will take place in Malta on 28-29 November.

Another prospect in the longer term would be to reconsider joining ASEAN, although we would need ASEAN to welcome this. Mr Turnbull could consider private consultations at the head of government, foreign minister, defence and trade ministerial levels regarding possible membership of ASEAN. If New Zealand did likewise it would be mutually reinforcing.

This will not be easy. It is 41 years since Australia became ASEAN's first dialogue partner and I hosted the first meeting overseas of the then five ASEAN secretaries-general in Canberra. One course might be to start with seeking observer status as Indonesia's other close neighbours, PNG and Timor Leste, have had since 1976 and 2002 respectively. This would be a logical evolution of Australia's long-standing engagement with Asia. As early as 1970 I considered this and, as secretary of DFAT, discussed it with then Foreign Minister Gareth Evans in 1990. Paul Keating had also suggested we should seek to join ASEAN. Unfortunately, the idea lapsed, partly because of other issues and following my retirement in 1992.

2. Clarify our approach to the US-China relationship

We need to establish an updated and more balanced approach to the vital relationship between the US and China. There is a danger that adversarial attitudes towards China could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The present debate on China mainly assumes that Australia has no choice but to support American primacy in Asia against what is perceived as a rising Chinese hegemony. This is a simplistic approach which has been challenged by Hawke, Keating, Fraser, most former ambassadors to China and a numbers of academics. While China can be expected to resist American 'hegemony' in the Asian region, it accepts a constructive and cooperative US role in Asia. Australia should not takes sides on China-Japan disputes, or on rival territorial water claims. Our focus should be on unimpeded passage through international waters and trade routes.

3. Reconsider our involvement in the Middle East

We should withdraw our forces from Iraq and Syria. Our presence in the Middle East will not contribute seriously to defeating ISIS or to securing stable, democratic, corruption-free governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our involvement was in support of the American alliance, although US policies are demonstrably failing. The reality is, our participation is essentially peripheral and symbolic. We should move out of this very complex changing kaleidoscope of warring factions and cease pretending to ourselves and others that we can influence the outcomes. The considerable financial savings could be much better used in shaping the next budget.

There were reasons for joining the US-led Afghanistan invasion in 2002, but 14 years later, with 40 Australians killed, over $500 billion spent, and more than 13,000 Afghan civilians dead, objectives once deemed to be indispensable (such as nation-building and effective counter-insurgency) have been downgraded or abandoned because there are no longer adequate resources, time, or the US will to achieve them. The US public is now opposed to US ground forces becoming involved in further conflicts.

4. Talk extremism with our neighbours

While cooperation between the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian Police has been good, it is strange that we have been consulting the US and the UK about dealing with ISIS and other forms of Islamic extremism but not, until very recently, with Indonesia, the largest and most moderate Muslim country in the world. Nor have we consulted closely with regional countries like Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, which have substantial Muslim communities.

5. Prioritise Indonesia

In the long term, no bilateral relationship will be more important to Australia than that with Indonesia. The stability, unity and economic growth of a peaceful, predominantly (81%) moderate-Muslim nation of 250 million stretching across our north, a distance similar from Broome to Christchurch in New Zealand, is vital to Australia. Despite government spin to the contrary, the overall relationship is not good and needs nurturing, especially at the head of government level. The empathy towards Australia evident in the 1980s and early 90s has gone and needs to be rebuilt.

As a new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull will have a number of opportunities to develop a personal relationship with the relatively new Indonesian president Joko Widodo at head of government meetings later this year. It will be an important step forward for Turnbull and Australia if he can establish close personal contact.

6. Get closer to New Zealand

Following his recent visit, his first overseas trip as prime minister, Turnbull emphasised the major importance he attaches to strengthening relations with New Zealand. He suggested that we should in future work even more closely with New Zealand on a range of regional issues.

7. Make our own way as a republic

In the years ahead Mr Turnbull will have an important opportunity to address the international standing of Australia as a more independent nation with a foreign and security policy based not largely on compliance with American policy or fear of China, but on its own genuine national interests. For instance, he will have the opportunity to adopt a more balanced position on Israel-Palestine issues, and to develop a sound position on climate change for the high-level international conference to be held in Paris in December.

Continuing foreign perceptions of Australia as a constitutional monarchy whose head of state is the Queen of England (quaintly called here the Queen of Australia), and whose flag is dominated by the Union Jack, are sad anachronisms in the 21st century. The establishment of the Republic of Australia will be, like Federation, a defining moment in the history of our country. This is not only a symbolic issue. It lies at the core of our national and international identity.

8. Sign on to the Open Government Partnership

Another positive change which Prime Minister Turnbull could make as soon as possible would be to sign up to the Open Government Partnership. Nearly 70 countries, including Indonesia, New Zealand, the Philippines, the US and the UK have already done so. Mr Turnbull has said he wants to have a more transparent and open government. Joining would reinforce his comments.


Finally, if Australia is to progress its involvement with the Asian region, the Turnbull Government needs to give more thought to our style. We need to demonstrate a greater degree of cultural sensitivity. We should also show we are prepared to listen more and lecture less. This is essentially a question of presentation and diplomacy.

Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images.

You may also be interested in