What Ministers in a new Government should do – climate change, China-US relations and our region

May 12, 2022
World map text composition of country names, typographical black and white print

Foreign policy must be one of the areas where any government can find itself most constrained by the circumstances it has to deal with—“events, dear boy, events”, as former British Prime Minister Harold McMillan once said. But given that, even in the most pressing state of affairs a government can choose where it directs its discretionary resources.

Three priority areas for the new Australian Government to be elected on May 21 are climate change; a strategy for the Asia-Pacific, including relations between China, the US and ourselves; and greater attention to the region around us, including in particular South East Asia and the South Pacific, where we should work closely with New Zealand.

Climate change
There is constantly growing evidence that climate change is causing harmful consequences world-wide, in the form of heat-waves, bush-fires and floods, indeed of wild and unmanageable weather of all kinds. We have experienced all of these here in Australia. It’s very much an open question as to whether human civilisation as it now is can survive the trends already set in motion; another open question is whether or not those trends will get much worse and reach irreversible tipping points, given the lukewarm efforts being made to address the problem.

In this situation our present government has not distinguished itself, despite having eventually having been dragged, kicking and screaming, to endorse the goal of zero emissions by 2050. We need to change to a much more urgent and genuine policy of promoting and implementing, not reluctantly going along with, global efforts to address climate change, in the interests of the planet, our region and the countries of the South Pacific in particular, and of our own country, children and grand-children. As to what we might do, I would refer to a very sensible program developed by Diplomats for Climate Action, a group of concerned individuals who have worked in the foreign affairs area.

China, the United States and Australia
Our relations with China are clearly one of the most unsatisfactory areas of our current situation, with our major trading partner and the greatest power in our region not prepared to speak to us at Ministerial level, despite decades of mutually beneficial interaction and cooperation, and subjecting us to various instances of economic bullying which, fortunately, have not been very effective. This is not all our fault. China has become more pushy and touchy as it has become more developed, richer and stronger, and some of its actions, including its establishment and militarisation of bases in the South China Sea, have gone against earlier assurances. But we have contributed to the present state of affairs too, in particular by choosing to lead international campaigns against China over, to name two, possible facilitation of intelligence gathering by Huawei, and the origins of COVID. More recently we have been quick to condemn China for not denouncing Russia over the Ukraine, have almost seemed to be also blaming China for what Russia was doing, and quick to draw public parallels between what Russia is doing in Ukraine and what China might do over Taiwan.

Behind all this is what seems to have become a complete alignment of our thinking about the Asia- or Indo-Pacific with United States attitudes. As I and others have said before, United States and Australian interests in the Pacific are not the same. We both want a stable, prosperous and peaceful region, but it seems that there are many individuals and groups in the United States who want something more, and that is United States preponderance in it. They see China as an existential rival and challenge, on the grounds that “the United States cannot tolerate a peer competitor”. That is not the case for us, though we do want the US to retain an influential presence in the Pacific. It certainly brings US aspirations into conflict with China’s.

A particular problem is that this conflict is inter alia reflected in military thinking, on both sides, with the US concerned to prevent the growing Chinese navy from getting past the two “island chains” allegedly keeping it confined to the Western Pacific. Because of the close cooperation between the Australian and United States armed forces this has led to our own defence planning being skewed towards capabilities not designed for the defence of Australia but for war-fighting—“strike capacity”—further afield, really aimed at China. As everyone knows most of our planned new acquisitions in this category won’t be in service for decades, so their utility is very questionable, but the fact of our seeking them, and publicly making a virtue of that, certainly sits awkwardly with any effort we might make to put our relations with China on a more normal footing.

And this brings me to a related point: people wishing to make the anti-China case, in both the United States and Australia, cite various examples of Chinese actions as proof of the particularly malign nature of its international behaviour; but a lot of what it does, expanding its influence and so on, is normal enough, “what great powers do”, and what “our” great powers, Britain and the US, have done during their rises to power. Managing a certain degree of separation from the US will not be easy, will feel awkward and strange—and will be made even harder when the iconic Caroline Kennedy takes up her appointment as United States Ambassador in Canberra. But we should do it if we hope to be respected in the Pacific as an independent country that thinks first of its own and the region’s interests.

South East Asia and the South Pacific

If we are to be thought of in that way we need to put the work in. The South Pacific has been very much discussed lately, because of the Solomons’ agreement with China, and while the Foreign Minister took issue with Labor’s proposals for improving our standing there, saying that the current Government is already doing everything contained in them and everything is fine, that doesn’t quite seem to be the case. Our attitude to climate change is one very important example, with one Pacific commentator saying that our position led to Pacific nations viewing us with feelings of “repulsion”. Another example of a very important area where we clearly could have done more was given recently by Hamish McDonald in the SMH, who pointed out that after the recent visit to the Solomons by high-ranking US officials the US Government announced that it would send a hospital ship to the Solomons to carry out much-needed anti-COVID vaccinations; more help with vaccinations, without the ship, is something that we could have done.

South East Asia too is a clearly very important area where we have long and positive associations, are members of relevant bodies like the ASEAN Regional Forum, in fact are ASEAN’s oldest dialogue partner, but where we seem to be no longer so closely involved. Countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are intensely involved in what is happening in the Asia-Pacific and the contest for influence between China, the US and Japan, and have a great deal of knowledge about the players and issues involved, perhaps more than us, as the Singapore Prime Minister implied—though he did not say—in his remarks to our Prime Minister on how to handle China in Singapore not long ago.

But we do not seem to be as actively engaged with South East Asian countries as we could be, or have been in the past, with Foreign Ministers like Bill Hayden, Andrew Peacock or Gareth Evans. And we should certainly be doing more in all kinds of areas with Indonesia, our giant neighbour with which we have a history of cooperation, which is forecast to become a major economic power, and which faces the same “balancing” problems as we do.

An Australian Foreign Minister should spend more time with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, and less with European counterparts. Indonesia is a resource exporter, like us, and, also like us, naturally looks North to where the markets are. We’re not economically complementary, and so we need to be pro-active if we want it to look South some of the time and think of us as a “partner of choice”, to use a phrase currently in vogue. Possibilities in the climate change/renewables area are currently being explored at non-governmental level, and could be a productive area to pursue.

So these are my three priority areas for “discretionary” attention. There are plenty of Harold McMillan’s “events” that will either command our attention, or deserve it. They include coping with the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which will be far-ranging economically as well as politically; what may develop on the Korean peninsula, given a new harder-line President in the South, North-South posturing, the North’s missile and possibly resumed nuclear testing, and the US’s signalled intention to respond with yet more sanctions; given our role as a major international trader, the need to restore the World Trade Organisation to proper functioning; and the need to try to ease the plight of those suffering under repressive regimes or violence—i.e. Myanmar and Afghanistan as well as Ukraine. There will be no shortage of things to do.

Hopefully the three areas I have emphasised will be given the attention they deserve.

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