In attempting to predict how Scott Morrison will develop as a foreign policy Prime Minister, the obstacles in his way should first be noted. While his potential authority within the party room is considerable, he lacks the foreign policy experience of previous Prime Ministers such as Menzies, Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd.
This weakness is compounded by ministers around him who are less knowledgeable about foreign affairs than any of his predecessors. His bureaucratic support to adapt to change appears equally uncertain, and the divisions within the bureaucracy are unprecedented.
Nevertheless, Morrison presented well at the Osaka G20 summit, particularly in advancing the view that no country benefits from the trade war initiated by Trump against China and which has predictably provoked a tit-for-tat response from Xi Jinping. His advocacy for Asian regional and wider solidarity in support of open trade, against Trump, is also a notable step forward.
Intriguingly, in a foreign policy speech in Australia just prior to the G20, Morrison claimed for Australia the status of “middle power,” promising further steps to consolidate this regional and global positioning. It is a fact that Australia had acquired a commendable reputation for middle power activism on international trade in the past. If it can assemble the human resources to provide intellectual leadership for reshaping the rules-based order, it may be able to firmly establish once and for all its standing as an adroit middle power.
However, we must not forget that attempting to play a middle power role to influence the two contending big powers carries all the risks of being trampled underfoot. Rudd tried it and failed spectacularly. Neither of the big powers’ leaders today offers scope for the kind of independent Australian action that Rudd deployed to try to trap big power dinosaurs blindly lurching towards potentially disastrous confrontations. Such a strategy requires a great deal more intimacy with leaders of both the big powers than Australia presently enjoys.
Nevertheless, Morrison has spoken of common interests and values between China and Australia. This requires bilateral definitions and clarification of these interests and values. And at the end of the day it will require joint acknowledgement of the differences that have emerged acutely over the last eighteen months. Some sensitive diplomacy along these lines could have a salutary effect in thawing the current frosty relations between Beijing and Canberra. Mechanisms for national policy-making and subsequent consultations with China will have to be new, imaginative and daring. The recently published China Matters “Narrative” offers a good starting point.
Pursuing “middle power” foreign policies is demanding. It is not incompatible with being a good ally, building up a reputation for reliability and predictability. But there is nothing good about rushing to war, seemingly to curry favour with our “great and powerful friend” while acting without regard for global opinion and especially the opinions of Australia’s Asia Pacific neighbours. Acting as a middle power requires objectivity, which is the prerequisite to efficiency. It is labour-intensive and so requires selectivity. It demands consistency. It is no good acting as a middle power in one area and as an unimaginatively reflexive stooge in another. It’s an unfortunate fact that the latter is the image Australia now has in Beijing.
Australia would not have a hope in the world of re-establishing objective assessment and status in Beijing if it were to join a war in Iran. Such a catastrophic commitment would have nothing to do with the ANZUS alliance obligations and would require the most sceptical examination if Australia were to claim it was acting in its national interest.
Indeed, Australia has on-going interests and assets in Iran which traditionally could provide a basis for middle power initiatives. Or in this case, an astute Australian Prime Minister could associate Australia with the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in his efforts as mediator. Australia has demonstrated its neutrality by keeping open its embassy in Tehran. It has maintained an uninterrupted trading relationship with Iran, and its objective first-hand assessments have had a wide audience and utility. These are the qualities Australia brought to a successful diplomatic role during Indonesia’s confrontation of Malaysia and to its maintenance and promotion of a working relationship between Cambodia and the US during the Vietnam war, laying a foundation for its later international initiative to bring peace to Cambodia.
It’s time for Australia to develop a genuine middle power foreign policy strategy in order to go forward into the twenty-first century. This means relinquishing its current dependent relationship with the United States by rethinking the ANZUS treaty and demonstrating that this country can provide diplomatic interventions of benefit, not only to the USA and China, but also to other problematic regional and global conflict zones. It’s time for Australia to become a real middle power.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based political scientist. Garry Woodard is a former diplomat and academic.