RICHARD WOOLCOTT. A foreign policy for Australia.

Feb 2, 2017

Our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister often refer to the “rules based world order.” This “order”, of course, was established primarily by the United States after the end of World War 2.   The “rules” have been disregarded by the US itself when it has suited it to do so. As a result It is not accepted by some major countries, especially China, which would want to be involved in the development of any new rules based order. In this context, the dominant influence of the defence and intelligence communities in Australia and in the US must be restrained.  

A White Paper on foreign policy is now under preparation in Canberra; and the inauguration on 20th. January of Donald Trump, as the 45th President of the United States, and his unpredictable policy statements so far, are a reality.

In these circumstances, I would like to put forward the following policy recommendations.

Australia must pursue more balanced and appropriate defence, security, trade and immigration policies that are linked to Australia’s own real national interests; rather than the interests of any political parties.

The two fundamental and most obvious steps should be, first – to have an updated and more balanced approach to a rising China; and second – to withdraw all Australian military involvement from the very complex situation in the Middle East.

In this context, a high-level of public support for a policy (for example the ” turn back the boats” policy) does not mean that the policy is sound. This is especially true of policies based on fear, which short -sighted politicians exploit for short term domestic political gain.

Prime Minister Turnbull has been firmly criticised for not responding to concerns expressed in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, that their dual citizens from any of the banned countries, would be denied entry into the United States. This was seen as bigotry, implying all Muslims nurtured terrorist intentions.

Turnbull stated that during their telephone conversation on 29th January, Trump had assured him that he would respect the acceptance of   refugees in Manus Island and Nauru, who had attempted to reach Australia by boat, to which Obama had agreed last year.

This is completely inconsistent with what Trump has said in general about persons seeking to enter the United States, especially from countries like Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, whether they are Muslims or Christians.

We will need to see, over time, whether it actually happens. Indonesia – by population the largest Muslim country in the world – has publicly criticised both the original agreement between Obama and Turnbull, and its reported acceptance by Trump.

A United States role in the Asian and South West Pacific region, which genuinely acknowledges China’s right to have substantial influence in an area of major interest to it, the South China Sea, is acceptable.  But this approach continues to be opposed by a number of our political leaders, whose priority remains support for United States policy, even when it was failing.

Australia should not exaggerate a Chinese threat to the South China Sea region, including the Spratley, Paracel, and Senaku lslands, shoals, and rocks, and we should avoid any provocative activities there.

In the present debate in Australia, some assume that we have no option but to support continuing American supremacy in Asia, against a rising Chinese hegemony.

This is a simplistic approach which has been challenged by Prime Ministers Keating and Hawke, by the late Malcolm Fraser, and by a number of prominent academics.

Our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister often refer to the “rules based world order.”  This “order”, of course, was established primarily by the United States after the end of World War 2.

The “rules” have been disregarded by the US itself when it has suited it to do so. As a result It is not accepted by some major countries, especially China, which would want to be involved in the development of any new rules based order. In this context, the dominant influence of the defence and intelligence communities in Australia and in the US must be restrained.

Australia can make no meaningful contributions to the situations in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and The Yemen.

As Tony Abbott said when he was Prime Minister the primary role of the Prime Minister is to make the Australian people safer.   True; but our involvement in several of these situations has, in fact, made the Australian people less safe than they were.

On ISIS, for example, we have made the mistake of referring to it as a State.  ISIS is not a State.  It has no air force or navy.  It has no boundaries.  It is a number of militant groups. The IS group actually welcomes Australia, other Western countries and Saudi Arabia, referring to it as a State, as they then maintain it is mainly Western intervention ,managed by the United States.

The Foreign Minister on 12 December last year said that Australia would be standing for the Human Rights Commission in 2020.  She argued that the main reason we should be elected was our established opposition to the death penalty.  She overlooked that, as Prime Minister, John Howard supported the death penalty for Saddam Hussain and also called for it to be imposed on the Indonesian Bali bombers.

In the same speech the Foreign Minister said that she had put strong views about the death penalty to Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, The Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia.  The fact she has overlooked is that not one of these countries has responded to the pressures which she maintains she has put on them.  This does not auger well for our candidature for the Human Rights Commission in 2020 because countries will be aware of Australia’s support for the death penalty in earlier situations.

The other candidates for election to the Human Rights Commission are France and Spain, which our Foreign Minister has tended to dismiss on the grounds that, as they are neighbours, only one should be elected.  Although they are neighbours France and Spain, speak different languages and have different groups of supporters.

Human Rights Watch does not support Australia’s candidature.  Moreover, the recently appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations, the former President of Portugal, Antonio Guterres, would not be attracted to our immigration detention policies in Nauru and Manus Island which were hastily put together by the Abbott Government.

I have always found that one of the dangers of Government is self-delusion in terms of assuming support of their policies is greater than it really is.  This is particularly true of Indonesia in respect of the “turn back the boats” policy.  Another issue is the grossly excessive cost of our trying to settle half a dozen refugees in Cambodia.

To some extent news is replacing religion as a major source of guidance and a touchstone of authority, which means it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be influenced by distorted and one-sided news reports.

A clear example of this is the extensive reporting in our media of the cruelties of the IS group in Iraq and Syria, while virtually ignoring the similar activities of our allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia in particular, in its air strikes in The Yemen.  Stephen Kinze has written about this fully in The Boston Globe.

A former Indonesian Ambassador to Australia, Sabam Siagan, who was also a former Editor in Chief of Jakarta Post, told me last year that thinking Indonesians found it difficult to accept Australia as a “true strategic partner.”  He added that Australia needed to “speed up its transition to the changed global and regional situation of 2016 and beyond.”  Australia needed, he added, to be an “independent Republic, standing on our own two feet” in our region of the world – South East Asia, North Asia and the South West Pacific.

Our strident criticism of North Korea also requires a policy adjustment.  North Korea’s intransigence is related mainly to the fact that it is not interested in the so-called “six power talks.”  What North Korea is radical and isolated, but what it really wants is bilateral discussions with the United States . It is difficult to accept the United States argument that it will not have bilateral discussions with North Korea.

Last year Australia sought to be added to the group of six but this was declined because our views on North Korea were seen as identical to those of the US.

The fundamental adjustment Australian policy needs to make is to recognise that an Asia Pacific community is clearly emerging, as Dr Kissinger recently acknowledged. This community includes, important countries such as China, India, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam.

We have also tended to put excessive focus on ASEAN as a group.  ASEAN is a divided organisation.  In particular Laos and Cambodia take a different approach from some of the smaller members such as Singapore and Brunei.  In this situation it is unwise for Australia to talk about an ASEAN attitude.

We also need to address concerns about Australian policies in Papua New Guinea and in Fiji, which they find intrusive.

Another factor is that the G 20 is perhaps too big to be effective for us .It is Europe – heavy and it would be worth considering reviving and revising the G 7,so that it would have a stronger focus on China, India, Brazil and Indonesia.

It is of fundamental importance that public comments by Australian political figures do not display religious intolerance or racism. Unfortunately, this is happening in our present Senate.

Australia, if it is to catch up with the realities of 2017 and beyond, needs to become a Republic, to change its National Day, to change or alter its Anthem, and to pursue updated relationships with China, Indonesia and Russia in particular.

Our support of the US has led Australia into three unsuccessful or loosing wars – in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our excessive involvement in the Middle East, especially our reluctance to accept that Russia and China would not allow Assad to fail, has put us on the same side as Saudi Arabia in essentially a civil war situation.

The Abbott Government, and to a lesser extent the Turnbull Government, adopted an excessively hostile position towards Russia on the Ukraine and the Crimea. The problem to which Russia is responding is the NATO-base on the Polish/Russian border, which is widely regarded as contrary to an earlier agreement between Gorbachev and George Bush Snr.

To conclude, at the recent Davos meeting President Xi Jinping of China defended globalisation and free trade, including in the South China Sea.  Australia’s attitude often confuses rhetoric with reality as China has not sought to impede any trading ship from Australia proceeding through the South China Sea for the last century and before.

As a rising great power China rightly regards the South China Sea region as a major part of its sphere of influence, as the United States has always regarded the waters around Hawaii and the Florida Keyes as parts of its sphere of influence.

Richard Woolcott AC is a former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador to Indonesia and Ambassador to the United Nations from 1982 to 1988, during which he also represented Australia on the Security Council. 

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