The White Paper provides a long overdue but commendable assessment of the extensive challenges and opportunities for Australian foreign policy. It should have formed the basis for considered parliamentary debate. Unfortunately, while acknowledging for the first time the extent and pace of change, it offers few new or fresh ideas on how it should be managed and is preoccupied with maintaining what it can of the status quo.
The 2017 White Paper provides a comprehensive assessment of the challenges for Australian foreign policy into the future. But it is indicative that it has taken 14 years since a government has produced such a paper – during which time there have been major policy decisions and budgetary commitments in Defence which logically should have drawn on an updated Foreign Policy White Paper. That this White Paper has been issued by the Prime Minister also underlines its whole-of- government importance. What a pity that it was not announced in Parliament and followed by the formerly long tradition of regular debate based on thoughtful policy statements by government and opposition rather than through all too often media conferences, doorstops or leaks. This would contribute significantly to a much better informed Parliament and public.
While the White Paper is a commendably extensive inventory of challenges and opportunities it is deficient in details of policy recommendations. Its acknowledgement of the extent of change is to be welcomed. But it lacks a coherent vision of what Australia needs to do to manage the change.
The extraordinary change in our strategic environment is far from a new phenomenon though in keeping with the global scene its pace has certainly picked up. The White Paper repeatedly characterises the post WW11 history in the region as being stable thanks to the US presence but fails to understand that the countervailing picture has been one of enormous decolonisation and growing independence – with the last vestiges being those of the US in the Philippines up until the closure of the US bases. Our own perceptions of South East Asia have not adequately appreciated these changes. With few exceptions, gone are the days when aid was a major feature of our bilateral relations – with the intellectual baggage that role carried. Today they are of a more complex character and generally our clout in them is less – take Indonesia for example , as the White Paper correctly asserts. The rate of change can only be expected to be exponential and we should be devoting far more resources to enmeshing ourselves into that particular region. The inappropriately named New Colombo Plan is but a small part of that effort.
The main theme running through the White Paper is that of how to balance “change” and “stability”. It is extraordinary that the White Paper appears to have not drawn on the huge volume of books, research papers and the like which recognise that this dilemma is fundamental across the spectrum of the modern world from management to education to medicine and so on. What much of this informs us is that the two words are inherently contradictory and that if defensively you place too much emphasis on “stability” or “sameness” you will not be able to maximise the benefits of the opportunities offered by “change”. It is here that the heavy hand of the “ defence/security” interests lobby is most obvious in the White Paper – often to a point almost of holding on to some Cold War concepts. The professional advice to approach this dilemma is to go on the front foot through sensitive “change management” which takes account of a variety of legitimate interests rather than being diverted into a defensive posture of protecting the status quo ante. In the end the the degree and pace of change requires new and fresh policy initiatives with commensurate resources to pursue them – especially for DFAT which has been successively emasculated in recent years in terms of resources and influence.
The use of the term “Indo-Pacific” also merits some comment. The Foreign Minister has long argued logically for the term but it involves more than just a name change. As always (in APEC for example) geography is not always without its issues. There can be few doubts about the need to elevate India in the scale of our priorities but the focus map used on the cover page of the White Paper ends on the Indo-Pakistani border. Is this meant to indicate that our interest somehow will taper off there – still one of the world’s most volatile areas? Or is it because it conveniently equates to the reach of the US Pacific Command (PACOM) ? And if Pakistan were to be included how could Afghanistan be excluded; the almost insoluble Rohingya crisis then becomes elevated to a high priority for us. More importantly , with all the chatter about the quadrilateral “arrangements” with Japan, US and India does this mean that we will be forced to take positions on the extensive territorial claims between India and China?
To use one of its own phrases, the “fault line” in the White Paper on the US is instructive :
“Our alliance with the United States is central to Australia’s approach to the Indo–Pacific. Without strong US political, economic and security engagement, power is likely to shift more quickly in the region and it will be more difficult for Australia to achieve the levels of security and stability we seek. To support our objectives in the region, the Government will broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation, including through the United States Force Posture Initiatives.”
there is not much Australia can do to cope with the changes so we must make deeper commitments to the US – especially in the US Force Posture Initiatives – to get them to stop the rot for us !
That statement in a major government document like the White Paper is nothing short of a damning assessment for Australian Foreign Policy. And all the more when the Pandora’s Box it opens (not detailed ) is understood. The Force Posture Initiatives is a long running saga well back into the Obama presidency stemming from the Pentagon which, among other initiatives, sought to :
- initiate revolving US Marine training in the NT expanding over time to regular US Marine Task Forces (including ships and aircraft) visits to Darwin (port now leased to a Chinese company)
- obtain more active visits and transits by US heavy bombers and combat aircraft in NT
- use Cocos Island as a base for US drone operations into the Middle East
- homeport a US nuclear aircraft carrier in WA.
This list probably includes by now the proposal by some senior US military of the establishment of a Joint Expeditionary Force with Marines and the ADF presumably based in Northern Australia. The Government has diverted or diluted some of the above but is under increasing US pressure for dragging its feet on funding for the major infrastructure needed for the Marine rotations and the airfield strengthening. So what actually is the government, under pressure from the defence/security interest groups , contemplating Australia must do in this area to ensure that the US remains in the region to “ensure the levels of security and stability we seek”. At what cost will these be to our image in the region and not only in China – echoes of Deputy Sheriff? And if , as widely tipped, we end up with the PACOM Commander as Ambassador in Canberra as a sort of Viceroy !
Mack Williams was Ambassador in the Philippines (1989-94) and later to the Republic of Korea