There may have been advantages in keeping the recent election campaign away from foreign policy. Statements made to win domestic votes can be damaging to a country’s international relations. It is now time, however, for some serious thinking.
This is arguably the most dangerous period in our foreign relations since the late 1940s. It is a positive sign that our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister are already embarking on international missions.
Australia is becoming an even more lonely country now than we were seventy-five years ago. At that time the Pacific War had demonstrated that Australia could no longer find security in the British empire and strategists on both sides of politics puzzled over how Australia might be positioned in a post-European Asia. The US alliance of 1951 allowed us to relax. Certainly, in 1969, President Nixon caused concern when he told US allies to take greater responsibility for their own defence. But our situation is far more grave today.
It is not just that the current United States administration cannot be relied upon. In relative terms the United States was becoming a less significant trading and military power in previous presidencies. The faith Australians place in the United States – attested in one opinion poll after another – has for a long time been largely unexamined and unrealistic, and this in itself must increasingly be a problem for government.
Nor is our current crisis only a result of the cold relationship that has developed with China, though this situation is extraordinary. No nation is more dependent on trade with China than Australia. Our trading relationship with the United States is tiny by comparison.
Australia’s other great trading partners are also in the Asian region: the ASEAN countries, Japan, South Korea and India. In economic terms we are increasingly integrated – but from a strategic and civilizational perspective we are becoming an outlier.
In the 1940s the countries around us were emerging from European or American imperial domination. Western political and cultural power remained strong, and Australia retained some prestige as a consequence. Today all this has changed. The shift in power from West to East is acknowledged in every quarter. Even in Southeast Asia – the Asian region in which we have been most engaged over the last half century – the relativities have changed dramatically. Not only are the economies of these countries growing faster than ours, but the influence of Western liberalism seems to be in retreat.
This is no minor matter for Australia. As David Kemp has argued recently, liberalism has been “the source of the dominant ideals in Australian politics for most of the country’s history”. In dealing with Asian societies we tend to be guided by, and defined by, our liberal values. Foreign Minister Bishop tried to argue for a ‘liberal rules-based order’ in Asia. But it is not just in China, but also in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand that non-liberal values – of one type or another – are increasingly advocated.
Looking for like-minded partners we turn to Japan and India, and also South Korea. Apart from the possibility that their endorsement of ‘democracy’ disguises real differences with Australia, each of these countries has its own strategic objectives – including with respect to China. At present they all appear to be seeking a more positive engagement with China, and it is not clear how far any of them see benefit in allying more strongly with Australia. In the so-called Quadrilateral initiative involving the United States, Japan, India and Australia – which so far entails only meetings of officials (not heads of government) from these countries – there are signs that Australia is the most enthusiastic participant.
Handled carefully the Quadrilateral might bring advantages, but it could also exacerbate tension. One danger is that it is seen by many – and not only in China – as explicitly anti-China. Using ‘Indo-Pacific’ to define our part of the world – as we do increasingly – may also give the appearance of rallying against China. The phrase ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ – used especially in the United States and Japan – is certainly decoded in that way. ‘Indo-Pacific’ is used in a more inclusive manner in India and Southeast Asia – but the absence of the word ‘Asia’ in this descriptor has been noted. A further fear is that advocates of ‘Indo-Pacific’ seek a new regional architecture – a threat to the carefully-developed ASEAN institutions which have provided at least some foundation for a post-American regional order.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee’s speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue this week provides a warning of the direction of thought around Southeast Asia and perhaps further afield. Although a long-term friend of the United States and Australia, he insists that the world must “adjust to a larger role for China” and rejects any regional cooperation initiative which might “create rival blocs” or “force people to take sides”.
Navigating regional anxieties and rivalries may become increasingly difficult for Australia, but both geography and history give us no choice. Australia is potentially vulnerable – increasingly isolated, yet significant enough to be punished.
In the medium term, Australia’s best strategy might be to concentrate on ASEAN – our second largest trading partner. Strengthening relations here offends neither Beijing nor Washington – and has the potential to enhance Australia’s influence with both. We may even learn something from the Southeast Asian diplomacy. The region has had deep experience of working with the Middle Power. Prime Minister Mahathir’s style of negotiation with China deserves attention – as well as the detail in what Lee has said at Shangri-La.
We have a relatively favourable track record in Southeast Asia – including last year’s ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney. For once the Australian leader was seen to collaborate with Asian leaders independently of our United States hegemon.
Australia faces a long game in the Asian region. Although the global community is focused on the US-China contest, the immediate – and realistic – priority for Australia ought to be to get things right in Southeast Asia. This is likely to be the best way to build an Australian role in a ‘post-American’ – or at least post-American-led – Asia.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Australian Financial Review on 14 May 2019.
Anthony Milner is international director at Asialink and professor in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU.