RICHARD WOOLCOTT. Do we need a White Paper on Australia’s foreign policy?

Aug 31, 2016

A White Paper could be useful if it is agreed to by the key ministers of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Defence, and Immigration and Border Protection ; and consistently applied by the Cabinet.

A major problem which I see is that we seem to be in a period of fairly intense political and bureaucratic infighting over Chinese activity, especially on the South China Sea. My concern is that there are serious divisions within the Coalition and also divisions within the ALP.

The rise of social media means that it is more likely to attract controversy than was the case with the first 2003 White Paper, with which I was closely involved. I would be happy to put forward views on what I would regard as the obvious needs now for an updated foreign, security and trade policy in the context of the greatly changed world of 2016, and ahead of us.

In Jan.1973 the Government recognised China, somewhat ahead of public opinion. In 2016 we should acknowledge China’s right to increasing power status ahead of public opinion, but this would be more complicated now than it was in 1973. There are a number of issues on which it will be difficult to achieve the required measure of agreement. These include the need for changed attitudes to the United States and China, as well as the development of a more effective approach to ISIS, Al Quida ,and international terrorism ,that will meet our best interests. For example, the Turkish government regards Kurds as a quite separate terrorist group to ISIS.

The present chaotic situation in the Middle East indicates the potential difficulty in getting agreement in a White paper. At present we have been drawn into a United States-led position that tends to oppose Iran and support Israel and Saudi Arabia, including its overflow into Yemen. It is an extraordinarily complex region, and if Australia were to focus on its major interests in Asia and the South West Pacific ,we would need to reconsider our operations in Iraq and Syria. I have thought for a long time that it was clear that Russia, and less actively China, would act to ensure that Assad was not removed.

But Australia has never moved in the direction of that reality. It is Western intervention which in fact strengthens- not weakens – opposition to us in the Middle East.

A recent good example of the approach Australia should adopt to China was set out In the ‘Partnership for Change – Australia-China Joint Economic Report 2016’. I have found this report impressive, but doubt that it will be widely accepted in the wider community.

Unfortunately I feel that politicians and the bureaucracy tends to be divided between, on the one hand, the group which wants to take a hairy-chested attitude towards China and ,on the other hand, a group which considers that Australia in 2016 and beyond, with a population of only between,say,23 to 30 million people, would be best served by adopting a position accepting China’s rise as a major power.

A problem for Australia has always been – and still is – that our relationships with the countries of most importance to us – the USA, China, Indonesia and Russia- are asymmetrical. They are all more important to us than we are to them.

For the above reasons I do have some doubts that the White Paper, to which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appears to have committed herself ,could be developed well,given the wide differences in the community ,both towards a need to maintain an outdated United States alliance and the need to accommodate a peaceful rise by China. It’s time we belatedly came to accept that ANZUS is neither a blank cheque nor a guarantee . It was not in 1964 and is not now.

Richard Woolcott was President of the UN Security Council, Head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Ambassador to Indonesia.

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