RAMESH THAKUR. Australia charts a flawed foreign policy course

Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper sketches the global geopolitical transition with remarkable precision and elegance and the document is exceptionally strong on principles, rules and norms as the foundation of world order. The word “rules” is used 70 times, “norms” 22 times, “principles” 15 times and “international law” 26 times.

The paper documents how a connected world is becoming more competitive and contested, reshaping world order and putting global rules and institutions under strain. These present opportunities alongside threats. The most consequential challenge for Australia is the growing power, wealth and influence of China enabling it to contest U.S. primacy.

Australia’s response is to restate the fundamental importance of the U.S. alliance as the core of strategic and defence planning and encourage a strong U.S. security and economic engagement with the Indo–Pacific region. Canberra will look to stronger bilateral engagement with China but also to enhanced engagement with the regional democracies of Japan, India, Indonesia and South Korea.

However, the paper suffers from three conceptual flaws of direct relevance also to Japan’s foreign policy. It ignores the emerging split between the geopolitical balance of power and the normative centre of gravity; fails to connect changing geopolitical equations to the evolving normative structure; and artificially conflates the Pacific and Indian ocean regions. It betrays a transactional approach to foreign policy, not a commitment to a norm-based security order.

International politics used to be a struggle for power. Now it is a struggle for the ascendancy of competing normative architectures for world order conducted on two axes. The first axis consists of military power, economic weight and geopolitical clout; the second, of norms, principles and ideas. The two can be congruent or divergent.

The world’s geopolitical balance circa 1945 is reflected in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) but the normative centre of gravity is the General Assembly (UNGA) where all 193 member states have one vote each. There have been three recent instances of UNGA asserting normative primacy over UNSC geopolitical dominance. In 2016 UNGA inserted itself into the process for selecting the ninth Secretary-General; all previous choices had been made solely by the UNSC and ratified by UNGA. Had a similar process of public consultations with all member states and civil society been followed in 2006, the charisma-challenged Ban Ki-moon would most likely have faltered. Nor would Antonio Guterres have succeeded last year under the old process.

Second, a new nuclear ban treaty was adopted by 122 states on July 7 despite the unanimous opposition of the five permanent UNSC members (P5). Third, on Nov. 20 in an unexpected contest for re-election to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), India’s Dalveer Bhandari defeated Britain’s Christopher Greenwood. Going into the voting, Greenwood had the support of 9 of the 15 UNSC members but Bhandari had almost two-thirds support in UNGA. For the first time since 1946, a P5 member will not have a judge on the ICJ. Thus the era of P5 privileges may slowly be coming to a close.

The final flaw is that although Australia faces both the Pacific and Indian oceans, there is no strategic integration between the two. The regional dynamics among the states around the two oceans are totally different. While China is contesting U.S. strategic primacy in the Pacific, India as the dominant Indian Ocean power has edged steadily closer to the U.S., Japan and Australia. While it makes sense for Canberra to push for closer ties to Delhi and encourage a growing Indian footprint in Southeast Asia, the “Indo–Pacific” is not a coherent analytical frame, merely a convenient device for incorporating India in an anti-China strategic arc.

Australia strongly supports continued U.S. global leadership and pledges contributions to coalition operations to underwrite global and regional security, but in the very next paragraph emphasizes the importance of “collective efforts to limit the exercise of coercive power” (p. 7). In recent decades the U.S. has exercised coercive power far more than any other actor, often with Australia as a coalition partner, including in violation of international law in Iraq in 2003. Yet all the examples of impermissible behaviour cited in the document are to actions by Russia, Syria, North Korea and China.

The vision outlined is of the rear-view mirror of a world already fading from memory, namely the liberal international order created and underwritten by the U.S.-led West. This would deny China agency as the rising power to write global rules and design and control the institutions of global governance. An editorial in the South China Morning Post, “Australia turns its back on the new Asia with white paper,” correctly concluded that Canberra has chosen to stick to the U.S. line rather than recognize the reality of China, work to improve relations with Beijing and commit to global organizations.

Thus the white paper calls on all parties to accept the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling on the China–Philippines maritime territorial dispute. Noting that Canberra is not a party in the South China Sea disputes, China’s foreign and defence ministry spokespersons criticized Australia for “carping” and “irresponsible” comments, insisting that “interference from countries outside the region can only complicate the… issue and will be of no help to regional peace and stability.”

The paper boasts that “Australia is a principled and pragmatic member of the United Nations” (p. 81). Moreover: “Threats to international rules come from countries directly challenging, ignoring or undermining international law” and from the emergence of new rules and norms “that are not consistent with Australia’s interests and values” (p. 82). The last is tacit admission that Canberra supports a rules-based order only if the West gets to write, police and enforce the rules. Yet the document is right in noting that the leash function of strong rules is “becoming more important to Australia as the distribution of power changes in the international system” (p. 82).

On nuclear matters, the paper repeats the familiar mantra of the nuclear powers that a complex security environment requires “a patient and pragmatic approach” that imposes immediate, precise and binding non-proliferation obligations against vague, indefinite and rhetoric-only promises of disarmament. It restates the importance of the U.S. nuclear force for the security of U.S. allies. And it simply ignores the adoption of the U.N. nuclear ban treaty, pretending it does not exist. All of which suggests that Australia is neither principled, pragmatic nor U.N.-friendly in its strategy of global engagement in reducing nuclear risks and eliminating nuclear threats.

This article first appeared in The Japan Times, on 8 December 2017

Ramesh Thakur is a professor at Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.


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1 Response to RAMESH THAKUR. Australia charts a flawed foreign policy course

  1. Tony Kevin says:

    This is a fine piece of critical analysis by Ramesh Thakur. At the moment, the best critiques of the Foreign Policy White Paper are this one, Hugh White’s Quarterly Essay, and his shorter and very readable summary essay in the AIIA Weekly Digest this week, and Paul Keating’s pithy critique.

    Both White and Thakur and Keating come to similar conclusions: that the White Paper is backward-looking and unrealistic about today’s world , and that the consequences for Australia of our sentimental fantasy-building could be dangerous, We need to look unblinkingly at our foreign policy situation and prospects.

    All three eminent critics focus as is appropriate on China, the major strategic power in our region and poised to overtake the US global economy in a few years.

    I would probably diverge from White – though I am not so sure about Thakur and Keating – in the extent of his emphasis on China. At its crudest, such a ‘binary’ approach could risk replacing our fixation on a great white protector ( UK till 1942, thereafter US) by a fixation on China as the new great protector . This might not end well for Australia, replacing one kind of strategic dependency for something possibly as bad.

    We need, I suggest with Thakur, to engage fearlessly with multipolarity, with all its risks and opportunities.

    The first rules of multipolarity must be – no outlaw or pariah nations, whether China, Russia or Iran. Or North Korea for that matter. No ‘rules-based international order’ as a cloak for the West trying to set the rules for others : only the rules applying to all, of the UN organisation and its UNSC collective security system, We must get out of the business of passing moral judgements on countries that have different values and different ways of seeing the world from us.

    Before people reach for inappropriate Hitler and appeasement analogies, let me say that none of the countries I have mentioned – apart from North Korea, with its terrible recent history of genocidal war by the US – remotely approximates to the evil Nazi regime as it was in 1939, and as we knew it was at the time.

    In our region Asia, Russia and Vietnam are each in their own way dealing sensibly and prudently with their great and powerful neighbour China. Each has living memory of being at war with China. They are now defending their security intelligently, coming to terms with China’s security needs, and without any backup by a great and powerful protector. Yet neither has become a Chinese vassal or satellite. There is no reason why Australia could not learn from their experience of living alongside China in peace and dignity . They defend their national security interest in a multipolar world with little or no backup.( Vietnam does derive some security reassurance from its membership of ASEAN – but it is basically a proud self-reliant nation).

    We have to learn to create something similar to Russia and Vietnam. It will require “a measure of confidence and courage’, as White says in his AIIA paper, but it is not so scary a prospect. Less scary to me than the prospect of being ‘joined at the hip’ – Turnbull here got the words deadly right – with an irresolute, internally riven, relatively declining, risktaking-prone great power.

    Finally – in the new foreign policy world I and I believe Ramesh Thakur envisage here, there is no place for the kind of Foreign Interference/ Agent of Influence legislation recently introduced by the Turnbull government. Turnbull unabashedly cited Russia and China as adversaries and the description of them as ‘potential enemies’ is being freely bandied about now in our national security elites. ( See Brian Toohey’s excellent AFR essay, republished on John Menadue’s blog in recent days)

    In a stable multipolar world there can be no adversaries – only national interests, to be negotiated and balanced through mutually respectful codes of diplomatic protocol and practice . Australia needs to relearn those codes. It is an exciting time.

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