RICHARD WOOLCOTT. Foreign policy issues during and after the July 2 Election

Jun 25, 2016


The Turnbull Government and the Shorten Opposition have focussed on domestic issues in the election campaign.  This is understandable but in the longer term the Government elected on the 2nd of July will need to address the greatly changed world of 2016.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek have both addressed the Lowy Institute on foreign policy issues and they have also discussed these issues together at the National Press Club on the 21st of June.  But while speaking of the need to adapt to change, the government and the opposition leaders, and the Lowy Institute Polls, have not addressed in depth the fundamental question of our appropriate reaction to the great changes in the Asian and South West Pacific region over the last two decades.

The government elected on July the 2nd and the opposition will need to show real leadership rather than simply to respond to what they assess to be popular political attitudes which has so far characterised the campaign.  So far a contradiction exists between good international citizenship and national decency which we seek on the one hand and, on the other, the present and often cruel handling of asylum seekers which has been widely criticised overseas.  This is another opportunity for the elected prime minister to demonstrate real leadership.

It will be urgent for the new government to react to the unprecedented transfer of wealth from the West to the East, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which will continue into the foreseeable future.  This major shift, driven by the spectacular rise of China in particular, but also by the rise of India, the continuing economic strengths of Japan and South Korea, in addition to the growing potential of Indonesia and Vietnam, constitute an historic global turning point to which Australia must respond if we are not to find ourselves left behind.

The government elected on July the 2nd will need to acknowledge the fundamental changes in our region and the need for Australia to reshape our national psyche, which must be focussed much more on Asia than on our well-established links with the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.

The most important and strategic policy issue the new government will face is the need to determine a more appropriate and updated balance in our relations with the United States and China.  In doing so we should not be afraid of forward looking change.  The ANZUS Treaty is somewhat out of date and should not be regarded as a guarantee of American military support – which it is not – nor as a political sacred cow.  The only occasion on which Australia sought American support under ANZUS during Indonesia’s ‘confrontation’ against the formation of Malaysia in 1964 under Sukarno, when our forces were involved in conflict with Indonesian forces in Kalimantan, the United States declined to become involved.

Both the Foreign Minister and the Shadow Foreign Minister have spoken of the need to work within the established ‘international order’.  The incoming government will need to acknowledge that the international order, of which the Foreign Minister and Shadow Foreign Minister have spoken, was established mainly by the United States after World War II.   Rising countries such as China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, will want to participate in shaping an agreed order for 2016 and beyond.

Australian foreign and security policy should in future be more balanced and focussed on strengthening Australia’s international independent identity, including the Republic, which should be moved forward onto the front burner in our politics. Our government will need to show more understanding than we have done of Russia’s concerns about the United States attitude to NATO, which we have supported, following the shooting down of the Malaysian plane over the Ukraine, and on the status of Crimea.  It should also avoid provocative comment and actions on the South China Sea claims.  China sees itself as largely reacting to US actions, including its encouragement of Vietnamese, Malaysian and Philippine criticism of China and support for their claims.

The elected government should move quickly to support the evolution of an Asia-Pacific community as all countries in the region – with the exception of North Korea – share the need for a peaceful, stable and economically growing region.  Meanwhile the government should put its views forward in bodies which already meet at the Head of Government level, such as the G20 and the East-West Summit process which now includes both the United States and Russia. With Britain voting to leave the EU, it is useful that the ALP shadow minister did not oppose this course, rightly stating this was a matter to be decided by the British electorate.

Countries in our region need to know what United States current policy really is.  Lowy Polls and government and opposition leaders do not seem to have assessed this during the campaign. For example, to what extent does the State Department acknowledge or support what the United States military is advocating?  Also to what extent does the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade acknowledge and support what the Australian military establishment is advocating?  The two military establishments work closely together and regard China as a threat.

I have urged for sometime that both the Turnbull Government and the Shorten Opposition should cease their excessive public support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The TPP was launched by New Zealand, Singapore, Chile and Brunei but, following the United States pressure on Japan, which agreed to join in the context of the economic containment of China, major growing economies such as India and Indonesia will not join.  Indonesia has said it would ‘consider’ joining, but this is now very unlikely, especially as in the US both the  the Democrats and the Republicans are now opposed to its adoption.

The new government will need to maintain an unambiguous signal to the Australian public, to China, and to the United States, as well as other countries in the Asia-Pacific region that while we have important different attitudes to China and are in an alliance with the United States, Australia welcomes the rise of China, opposes policies directed at the containment of China, and sees no intrinsic reason why China and its system of authoritarian capitalism, cannot continue to rise peacefully, despite the major social and economic problems which it faces.  As former prime minister Rudd said, in respect of the United States, alliance does not equate to compliance; and with China, understanding its policies does not equate to agreement.

To conclude, our incoming government will face great opportunities and challenges in the Asian Century.  Modesty aside, I consider my comments about where Australia should be heading are based on more than 60 years’ experience working in the public service and the private sector.  I have accompanied two prime ministers from the Coalition and two ALP prime ministers on visits to the United States.  I have also done special envoy missions to China, Russia and Malaysia for the Coalition and the ALP.

The need to focus on the Asian and South-West Pacific region means that, logically, Australia should withdraw its involvement in the highly complex situation in the Middle East in which it cannot make a meaningful contribution to the easing of fundamental tensions. It should not take sides. It should withdraw its remaining forces from Iraq ,which is on the verge of becoming a failed state.  Australia should also withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.  While there was a case after the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 for the invasion of Afghanistan, 14 years later this is no longer a relevant or desirable use of our forces. Objectives once deemed to be indispensable have been downgraded or abandoned. Such substantial savings could be much better used for education, health and research.

It is now for a new generation of forward-looking leaders to ensure that Australia is less complacent and self-satisfied and a more economically competitive and compassionate country, integrated more fully with its Asian and South West Pacific neighbourhood.

Richard Woolcott was formerly Australian Ambassador to Indonesia and several other countries. He was Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He was also President of the UN Security Council.


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