Paul Keating and Gareth Evans used to claim, with justification, that by the mid-1990s Australia had become ‘the odd man in’ in Asia. This was in significant part because of the headway they’d made in Southeast Asia, with ASEAN countries, in gaining acceptance of Australia as ‘one of them’. This was no slogan. Behind it lay a geostrategic idea of Southeast Asian countries as natural partners into the long term future, in a world dominated by competing great powers, and offering the entree to what Keating called ‘finding our security in not from Asia’. Keating and President Suharto’s Agreement on Maintaining Security was a first stage in that direction, flanked by the initiative for a Ministerial Forum with Indonesia. Evans, encouraged by the response of Southeast Asian colleagues, floated a geopolitical definition of Asia that included Australia as a logical component of what he called the East Asian Hemisphere.
Through this closeness with ASEAN, Keating and Evans had developed an ability to see how policy thinkers in Asian countries viewed the world from their side of the fence, and to take their views seriously. To do this is challenging in any circumstance but quite unusual between countries of such different backgrounds, and it was important in assisting these two leaders to strengthen their framework for thinking about our own foreign relations and their narrative of an independent Australia, distinguished from the interests of the major powers. It was as though they’d gained access to a Southeast Asian think tank that could challenge and balance, if not necessarily always alter, their strategic view. Alexander Downer had something of the same inclination, but it was explicitly and strongly rejected by John Howard, and it’s been absent from the thinking of all prime ministers since Howard.
Evans has said recently that our relations with ASEAN now seem far removed from the time when as Australia’s Foreign Minister he had no counterparts anywhere in the world with whom he felt more close and comfortable. ‘ASEAN doesn’t feature as largely in Australia’s collective consciousness as it should or (Indonesia perhaps excepted) get the policy attention it should; Australian politicians don’t go out of their way to forge personal relationships with regional counterparts as they should; students don’t study the region’s languages anything like as much as they should, and indeed used to; and — compared to other countries — there is a really striking lack of Australian financial investment in the region.’
Twenty years on from when Evans was Foreign Minister, Southeast Asia and Australia are objects of rivalry between a China intent on restoring what it sees as its rightful and historic place in the sun and a United States intent – in what it does, not what it sometimes says – on blocking or containing China’s ambition. US resistance to China’s proposed Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank is but one, non-defence or military, example. This gargantuan contest challenges Australian policy thinkers to ask how we should respond strategically, in our interests. The government claims a kind of even-handedness, citing for example economic relations and the recent FTA with China, and the strong political, and (not too loudly) defence and intelligence relationship with the United States. This is also said to be ‘hedging’, which is a giveaway to its real position.
But the government has offered no framework, and no honest narrative, about how it thinks we can manage ourselves successfully and securely into the next ten to twenty years. If it did it would have to admit and defend the fact that it’s a witting part of the US intent to try to deter and contain China, through alliance arrangements and Australia’s more-intimate-than-ever intelligence and defence enmeshment with the US including our participation in US military command arrangements and military manoeuvres in the Pacific. And it would have to concede the dangers this carries for us. Its position has the complete acquiescence of the Opposition, so there’s no debate from that quarter. And neither side discusses it frankly with the Australian public. Australian independence is crippled by this subordination to the national interests and great power purposes of the United States.
Among the many blinkers on this policy is that Australia looks from the US side of the fence at China’s assertion of political and strategic influence. As also Asians’ reactions to the shift in power relations. Every move by a Southeast Asian country to deepen relations with the US or stand up to China is hailed as one-way traffic towards supporting, and justifying, the US challenge to China’s bid for regional supremacy.
Not necessarily so. Take a Southeast Asian view, George Yeo for example, former Foreign Minister of Singapore. ‘Historically, in East and Southeast Asia — until the Western arrival — there has only been one major power rising and ebbing: China. When it rises, it is best to accord it some respect in return for which one derives considerable economic advantage. Over the centuries, a rich China invariably brought prosperity to all of East and Southeast Asia. Therefore, while Asian countries might value the U.S. as a friend, no one wants China as an enemy. There is a spot that is sweet for everyone. If the U.S. moves closer to China and to other countries of Asia, all will benefit. If the U.S., in response to China’s rise, moves too close to some as a move against others, everyone is caught in a lose-lose situation.’
The US, in its ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’, has in fact already moved ‘too close to some as a move against others’. We’re there with them, and the situation’s drifting towards a lose-lose situation.
And a big danger about the US and China, to which Australian politicians on both sides seem oblivious, is that their contest is not simply that of the re-emerging world power challenging the existing one, already volatile enough. It’s that each is driven by an idea of itself as exceptional. We’ve long lived with American exceptionalism, although we don’t always recognise it or raise the awkward question of just how completely that idea puts American interests above all others including its allies. But China too is a similarly exceptionalist power, and the contest between these two is not just about power and influence relative to each other, it’s also about who has the exceptional ‘right’ to determine the rules by which the world is run. It’s by no means assured that China’s hegemonic rules will be worse, or better, than America’s. But a clash of two exceptionalisms is ideological, and particularly hazardous, and this is no time for Australia to be picking winners, it’s a time to stand clear of their fight lest some of the blows land on us.
Assuming there was an Australian government that wanted to return to an independent foreign policy, viewing the world through the Australian prism and serving Australia’s interests, there has to be a strategy for moving to that position. And one effective strategy would be to re-invigorate the relationship with ASEAN, revive the idea of Australia being a part of Asia, re-energise the project of closer regional integration, think creatively of Southeast Asia as our critical geostrategic region, and find our security in not from Asia. Gareth Evans suggested something of this in that recent speech.
It would have many advantages. It would be welcomed in ASEAN countries as an Australian re-dedication to regional partnership. Neither the US nor China could object and it wouldn’t entail repudiation of them. As a strategic move it would give us collective company in balancing between the two and resisting when necessary both their blandishments and their importunities and pressures. It would give us collective weight in seeking to influence and moderate their more high-risk behaviour. And it would encourage us to plumb the varieties of Asian thinking on regional affairs and power politics rather than discount or dismiss them as we often do, and this would be of immense value for us in developing a long term framework, more predictable policy-making and a more Australian narrative for our foreign policy. There’s also a host of economic and pressing transnational issues on which we can only benefit from much closer cooperation with ASEAN countries, not least the question of asylum-seekers. And domestically, it would help Australia re-focus and re-imagine the positives of our Asian engagement. Who knows, we might even see a diminution in the negative view of our most important neighbour Indonesia, and perhaps even a resurrection of Indonesian language learning!
This is not to suggest there should be anything but the closest and most constructive of relations with China and the US. Or neglect of other Asian regions or partners. A strategy of this kind should seek also to enhance our independence through closer identification with the ROK and Japan, and engagement with regionalist arrangements in those two countries and their many networks of association with Southeast Asia and with the strong currents of thinking in both that want to avoid being skewered by the China-US trap. It’s to say Southeast Asia is our immediate habitat, and in today’s shifting and dangerous power relations it’s more central for us geostrategically than it was even when Keating and Evans recognised it two decades ago. And it’s achievable, if we could really put our minds to it.
What about pulling back from the client relationship with the US? How achievable is that? You can’t be too optimistic about today’s political leaders because they have no foreign policy framework and seem frightened of big ideas. They don’t even feel able to debate critical policy decisions, like going back to Iraq with the US.
But it could be done. When Whitlam took on the fear of China by going to Beijing as Opposition Leader, he also took on the fear of being independent, of offending the US, of daring to see the world through a prism other than that of the US, of taking issue with it on foreign policy. He went to Beijing before the US surprised the world with its reversal of China policy. As Prime Minister, when he publicly condemned the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi this initially infuriated Nixon and Kissinger, but like it or not, in the end America accepted his re-framing of relations. What Whitlam had done was open out the relationship, to one of independence without repudiation of the alliance, and that later became the position of Malcolm Fraser and his two successors.
What about China? Doesn’t it see Southeast Asia as its pond? China views both Southeast Asia and Australia as coming within the sphere of what it calls its peripheral country diplomacy. This is a mixed blessing. It seeks to reward obliging peripheral countries, for example the FTA with Australia (if you believe that’s a blessing). But periphery supposes a centre, and the doctrine of China’s peripheral diplomacy is aimed at co-opting peripheral countries in the cause of the centre and China’s recovery of the position it once had as the great power of our region. As in Chinese chess, you secure the corners of the board in order to secure the centre. The FTA and President Xi Jinping’s 2014 visit to Australia were first moves, not the last, in our particular corner of the board, to co-opt us into the ‘Chinese dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation’. Being China’s potential adversary as a client of the United States is dangerous. But being hugged by this panda would be uncomfortable, even painful, and not without its own perils.
So, Australia part of a more integrated Southeast Asia, caucusing for the common interest, where necessary in resistance to a Chinese interest? Why not? If we could have the fortitude to believe we could stand up to America without damaging our long-term relations, why shouldn’t we do the same with China? It depends on your prism. If you see China through the US or Western prism you’ll tend to believe China’s intentions in Southeast Asia are at best not benign and at worst inimical to our interests, and fear to provoke it and cleave to the United States. Its intentions may at times be both of these, but equally they may not.
With our own prism, and those of our Asian partners, an independent foreign policy can be had. But to have it, with a strong and strategic bilateral relationship with both these great powers, you have to have politicians who’ve worked hard at the ideas part, done their own hard thinking not farmed in some person or committee to do it, leaders in ideas, not afraid to lead, not afraid to take on the fear of the US or China. I’m waiting.
Stephen Fitzgerald was formerly Australia’s Ambassador to China.