GEOFF MILLER. Challenges facing the new foreign policy team.

Sep 3, 2018

There are many uncertainties and unresolved issues facing the new government within its own ranks.  These are paralleled by the international situation it has to deal with.  As former Prime Minister Turnbull said in his introduction to last year’s Foreign Policy White Paper, “change, unprecedented in its scale and pace, is the tenor of our times.”

Many commentaries on “that awful week” in Australian politics have claimed that the conflicts over personalities and politics have not been resolved.  There’s even uncertainty over how long we should expect the new regime, barring accidents, to govern for.  May 2019 is widely assumed to be the date for the next election but a few days ago Josh Frydenberg, now Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, spoke on the ABC of November 2019 as the date.  (That would be the last possible date for the Reps; there still would need to be a half-Senate election in May.)

Whenever the next election is, in the period leading up to it our foreign policy will be in the hands of a relatively inexperienced team.  Not totally inexperienced, of course; Marise Payne and Christopher Pyne both have experience in the Defence portfolio, and being a Cabinet Minister in any portfolio provides an opportunity for an insider’s look at all kinds of issues.  But nevertheless, the departure of Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Steve Ciobo represents a loss of a lot of important experience and ability, as so many former colleagues and commentators have said.

What will the new team confront?  One thing is the fact that domestic and foreign policies interact and affect each other.  One immediate example is climate change.  Prime Minister Morrison has said that he has no intention of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on reducing emissions, though some in the government advocate that.  But if he were in any doubt, statements by leaders due to meet at the Pacific Forum this week, and dire warnings from the EU, make it clear that such a step would not be cost-free.

It’s an excellent thing that Prime Minister Morrison kept his predecessor’s appointment with President Joko Widodo in Jakarta.  Indonesia is a very important country, getting more important all the time, and as a large neighbour is very important to us.  We increasingly share strategic perspectives although, since we are both resource-exporting countries, we don’t have the natural economic “fit” that we both have with the North Asian resource importers and manufacturers.  But we need to maintain our efforts with Indonesia as it grows more populous, more wealthy and more Islamic.  Next year’s Presidential election will be important.

Looking further in Asia, we face the rise of China and the problem of North Korea.  These stress the good sense of Malcolm Turnbull’s ASEAN Summit in Australia earlier in the year, aiming to build solidarity with our neighbours, but highlight the difficulties caused by the Trump Administration’s erratic policies, including pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement, the “trade war” with China and unrealistic expectations regarding North Korea.  Important trade issues are wider than US-China, including Trump’s threat to leave the WTO, and his actions to hobble it, and the futures of NAFTA, the TPP 11 and the RCEP, recently discussed in Singapore.

Violent terrorism remains a threat, but is yielding pride of place to great power relationships and tensions, including between the United States, Russia and China.  The most in your face arena for these is Syria, where Russia’s single-minded and ruthless pursuit of a clear objective makes only too sharp a contrast with the USA’s policy incoherence.

Like the Liberals and energy policy, the Mid-East is full of issues “that aren’t over”; Iran, Yemen and Turkey are three of them.  So plenty to cope with for the new Minister and her colleagues – and all of it made more difficult by the erratic Trump, and his advisers.

What should our new government do?  That depends a bit on for how long they plan/hope to be in office, but perhaps the basic aim for this pre-election period should be just to “do no harm” and keep the show on the road. Within that, a possible set of priorities would be to:

  • Do what we can to keep multilateral and regional cooperation, and the institutions that enable it, going as well as possible. That includes the Paris Agreement, the UN machinery and the WTO.  We need to accept that “the US engagement to support a rules-based order”, referred to a number of times in the Foreign Policy White Paper, unfortunately no longer applies in the unilateralist Trump White House.
  • Continue energetically to pursue trade and economic opportunities bilaterally (e.g. bringing the agreement with Indonesia to the point of signature), regionally (TPP 11, RCEP) and globally (WTO).
  • The Foreign Policy White Paper notes, in its Overview, that “In the Indo-Pacific, the economic growth that has come with globalisation is in turn changing power balances”.  This is particularly true as between the US and China.  The US sees China as a strategic competitor that seeks to supplant it regionally and economically, and perhaps eventually globally.  Influential Chinese say that the US seeks to “crush” it.  Given these US-China tensions, one thing we should do is increase our efforts to strengthen our other relationships in the Asia-Pacific, including with the ASEAN and Pacific Forum countries, Japan, South Korea and India, both bilaterally and through net-working, if that comes up naturally. We should do this without needlessly provoking China, or giving it reason to accuse others of seeking to “contain” it.
  • We should seek to manage our important relationship with China, with all its pros and cons, as well as possible.
  • We should seek to do the same thing with our important relationship with the United States, while also making the point, important in present circumstances, that it should not be taken for granted that we will support or be part of every initiative the United States might take. 

Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and government official.

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