Strategic policy is perhaps the most challenging area of government. For decades policy settings have largely been perfunctory with the US alliance occupying the central place. The post-Cold War setting of a single dominant hegemon has meant policy makers haven’t had to operate in an international order characterised by balance-of-power considerations. Even the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West was atypical. The main feature of future geopolitical relations is likely to be dispersed centres of power and influence with overlapping and competing interests. Australian policy makers appear unprepared for this shift.
The extent of the need to reorient strategic thinking is seen in Peter Jennings’ latest offering. Jennings views are significant as he was Chair of the Expert Panel and Community Consultation for the 2016 Defence White paper. Three years later he points out that ‘the biggest challenge the next government will face will be dealing with an unravelling security order in our region’. At the heart of this judgement is a view of the need to disengage from and confront China that is shared by much of the Australian security community and the US.
When the 2016 White Paper appeared, Jennings praised it for making ‘a compelling case for being concerned about a generally deteriorating situation’, describing it as a ‘deliberate, rigorous and methodical’. He wrote it was a ‘welcome change and points to a growing maturity around the thought that Australia can do the strategic equivalent of walking and chewing gum’. As he might!
Things have changed. The dominant strategic theme in the White Paper was defence of the ‘international rules-based order’. In Jennings’ current assessment of the strategic priorities, presumably because of events since 2016, he speculates that, ‘[I]t’s anyone’s guess how much of the rules-based order will survive over the next decade’.
This is a significant reassessment given the crucial judgement in the White Paper that, ‘[A] stable rules-based global order serves to deal with threats before they become existential threats [italics added] to Australia’. That is a key judgement. If this fundamental element of Australia’s security is collapsing Australia’s security is precarious. Otherwise the White paper is just a word game. But Jennings doesn’t seem to think the international rules-based order is quite as indispensable as previously believed. It is now apparently a ‘dead parrot’.
In line with the importance of the rules-based order, the White Paper announced that Australia ‘will be working with our alliance partner the United States, ASEAN countries, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United Nations and other partners to achieve our common goals in protecting and promoting a stable rules-based global order’. It is important to note that, NATO and the UN, key elements of the rules-based order, are currently being seriously eroded by US policies.
Jennings now urges the next government to ‘work much harder to shape key bilateral relationships in ways that promote our interests’. Presumably, given the tone of Jennings approach, that means aligning them against China; the ‘assertive, dangerously nationalistic, Leninist one party state’, as Jennings labels it.
Jennings clings to the belief that China is the problem and US regional military engagement is the solution. This ignores the glaring reality that the major assault on ‘international rules-based order’, previously considered indispensable for Australia’s security, has been the relentless bilateral and nationalistic actions of the US. The US view of China as a strategic competitor that must be confronted and contained is fully ingested.
Yet this is not the prevalent view in Europe, Africa or Asia. How much more isolated Australia would become were it to adopt Jennings advice in relation to China is shown in the attendance at the recent Belt and Road forum in Beijing. The Heads of State of 28 countries attended, notably including Rodrigo Duterte, Mahathir Mohamad, Joko Widodo, Tran Dai Quang, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Jennings’ urges Australia to lift its relations with ‘Southeast Asian countries to a new level of engagement’. He believes ‘Australia’s security starts with a secure Southeast Asia’ and the next government should focus on building Australia’s regional leadership and convince Southeast Asian states to look on Australia its allies, read the US, as ‘partners of choice’; against China (sotto voce). In the absence of agreed views on the international situation Australian regional leadership seems unlikely. The attendance in Beijing of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar shows how far from convergence on China are Australia and the near region.
When one of the principal contributors and supporters of the 2016 Defence White Paper calls for a radical revision of a key strategic judgement it raises some important questions. Only three years after the drafters declared ‘decisions in this White Paper are the culmination of a rigorous process of review and assessment of Australia’s future security environment spanning the next 20 years’, a major tenet of the policy appears to have been abandoned.
The rule-based order which is failing is the post-war one designed and policed by a hegemonic US. There is a new order emerging that is less liberal but it will still have rules. Nations need them. China is not a liberal democracy but it is a permanent global fixture. Most of the world accepts that China must be approached with caution but that engagement is inevitable and important. Many European states see the benefits from prudent cooperation and engagement. The EU wants to negotiate a Europe wide agreement.
The prospects of the US regaining and exercising a leadership role in the multipolar world are fading. Jennings was dismissive of the White Paper’s inclusion of ‘the words ‘agile’ and ‘innovative’’. But they are exactly the attributes Australia will need as it attempts to shape and operate within the new rules-based order. It already has some catching up to do.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.