Australia’s international strategy

Jun 16, 2023
US of America and China relations. USA and Chinese flags wrecking balls swinging on blue cloudy sky background. 3d illustration

America is no longer the dominant hegemon in our region. In its place Australia can and should play an important role in establishing a true multipolar system of governance. But that will first require Australia to resolve the present contradiction between our foreign and defence policies.

The future US-China relationship

The starting point for any review of Australia’s international strategy must be an assessment of the future US-China relationship, focusing on the possible threats and opportunities.

A good start was made in a major speech by the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, at the National Press Club two months ago, where her key point was that we are living in a multipolar region. While Wong thinks that America will remain “indispensable” she understands that America will no longer be the dominant power in Asia.

Instead, Wong said that our national interest is to bring about a region where all countries benefit from a strategic equilibrium where no country dominates and no country is dominated.

Furthermore, the Defence Strategic Review comes to a similar conclusion, stating that “No longer is our alliance partner, the United States, the unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific.”

And as I spelt out in a previous article Why is America so reluctant to acknowledge China’s economic power? the Chinese economy overtook the American economy back in 2016 and has continued to grow much faster ever since. The idea that America can continue to dominate is absurd and not a sound basis for our international strategy.

The problem, however, is that America does not seem to recognise the change in its position in Asia. As Hugh White put it “It is quite clear that the US has no interest in joining China as a co-equal partner in a regional multipolar order.”

And as that most experienced diplomat, Henry Kissinger, said in a recent interview with The Economist, “we are on a path to great-power confrontation.” “Both sides have convinced themselves that the other represents a strategic danger.”

Thus the US, with our support, says that it wants to preserve the so-called “rules-based order”. But that order is not the order enshrined in the United Nations Charter. Instead, it was established by the US and was intended to serve the interests of the US.

It is therefore understandable that China might want to make changes to the US rules-based order – changes that could readily be accommodated by the other nations in the Indo-Pacific. For example, both the IMF and the World Bank have not reflected China’s importance in their governance and decision making.

Furthermore, as Australia’s former Ambassador to China, Geoff Raby says, “an inclusive framework of norms, rules and habits of consultation which include China and of which it is an author [my emphasis], will be the best means of constraining bad behaviour”.

But there is also the problem of US adherence to the new rules, as the US does not always abide by the present rules-based order. Instead, the US is happy to ignore or bend the rules when the rules don’t suit it. For example, the US has never signed up to the UN Law of the Sea, and the US does not always accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court or the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Thus, the US trade sanctions on China have never been authorised by the WTO, while when China introduced trade sanctions on Australia, the US quickly jumped in to take our market. Furthermore, it is not just China that sees America’s new protectionism as an attempt to contain it, America’s allies fear that the Biden Administration’s hyperactive industrial policy will damage them as well.

But whatever one might think of these examples of the US use of its power when it was the dominant hegemon, the reality is that this is no longer the case. And as Penny Wong has made clear we want to live in a multipolar region which no country can dominate.

Australia’s role in encouraging multi-polar governance

The reality is that a multi-polar system of international governance offers the only sustainable way forward. At the very least, Australia should therefore be working to encourage the US to accept the reality of its changed situation and that it needs to work on relations that share the power.

As Hugh White says: “Australia’s best chance of shaping the new order in Asia is to influence America’s approach to it. But we cannot do that as long as our unconditional support for US policy sends the unmistakable message that we are perfectly happy as it is.”

The problem is that both our foreign policy and our defence policy are based on a contradiction. We recognise the reality that we are living in a multipolar region, but we then tie ourselves to an alliance partner that doesn’t.

In addition, as the Australian Government knows, our region is not enthusiastic about great power competition and doesn’t want to be forced to take sides. Like us, these other regional members depend upon both major countries, and we share a common interest in establishing a set of ongoing governance arrangements that accommodates the reasonable demands of all member countries.

For Australia, this would represent a return to the former Australian position where Australia was itself clear that it didn’t wish to take sides in the struggle for influence between the United States and China. But under the Morrison Government, Australia was so often seen as a mouthpiece for America, that it weakened our credibility within the region, and just when we needed it most.

As Geoff Raby said: “A sleight of hand is at work. Great power rivalry between the US and China is driving our policies and those of our regional neighbours. But it is taking Australia in a different direction from our regional neighbours.”

Instead, as the distinguished scholar and former Singapore diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani has said, ASEAN countries want to have good relations with both America and China, and the wisest policy for Australia is to align ourselves with the ASEAN position where we can. That way we could play a significant bridging role between Beijing and Washington. Indeed, as Minister Wong has said, “the value of our engagement in the region is central to the value we add in our alliance with the United States”.

Furthermore, Australia’s standing with other countries in the region would be improved if Australia plays a leading role in influencing America to accept the reality of a multipolar region, which they see as very much in their interests.

Australia’s future relationships with the US and China

As already discussed, Australia cannot be an effective intermediary in promoting a multipolar governance system in our region while it remains an unswerving disciple of America.

The key to Australia’s subservience to the US and our engagement in so many of its wars has been our perception that we depend upon the US for our defence. But we need to identify our own Australian interests clearly and all actions should be determined accordingly.

As Paul Keating recently wrote: “all governments declare that their fundamental responsibility is the defence of the nation. But what they really mean is the defence of the nation’s sovereignty – its right to divine its own destiny.”

Right now, the most immediate threat to Australia’s sovereignty would be a war between the US and China over Taiwan. I like many others do not think Australia should join the US in a defence of Taiwan, and the issue is how that might impact the AUKUS agreement and our purchase of nuclear submarines.

In the past I have defended the purchase of nuclear submarines. While many have argued that China has no intention of attacking Australia, intentions can change quickly. This is why defence forces are usually structured against an assessment of capability of potential adversaries and there is no doubt that China’s capability is rising rapidly.

In that context it is a legitimate response to buy nuclear submarines to strengthen our own independent defence capability, but that equally requires that we control the use of these submarines. So, if AUKUS is not compatible with Australia being able to determine and protect its own long-run regional interests, as described above, then we should be prepared to let it go.

Indeed, as the Defence Strategic Review said, Australia’s focus should be on “how we ensure that our fate is not determined by others, how we ensure our decisions are our own.” So consistent with the Defence Strategic Review, if AUKUS does not allow us to make our own decisions in our own interest then we are better off without it.

Furthermore, as Paul Keating wrote: “Australia’s capacity to protect its sovereignty lies not in accession to US interests but in a broad diplomatic and security effort with our Asian neighbours to give the region the resilience they want, the economic growth they need.”

Turning to Australia’s future relationship with China, obviously our two countries do not share the same system of government and values. Of course, Australia will need to push back when its interests and values are challenged. The Albanese Government is right when it says that: “We will cooperate where we can, we will disagree where we must, and we will engage in our national interest.”

But Australia needs to work with other nations on specific issues of national interest, even where they are not like-minded in terms of adherence to liberal values, including respect for human rights. While our ability to push back will be enhanced if we have an ongoing dialogue, especially with China. For example, the renewed discussion at ministerial level has meant that issues that offend Australian values – unexplained detention of Australian citizens in China, human rights matters including Xinjiang and Hong Kong, press and religious freedoms – can now be raised, explained and discussed at senior government levels.


In sum, it is clearly in Australia’s interests to work with both China and the US. But we need to get on the front foot in working to establish the multipolar region that Foreign Minister Wong talks about. That will require Australia to work closely with the many other like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and if necessary, be less subservient in our future dealings with America.

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