Richard Woolcott. Foreign policy priorities for Malcolm Turnbull – focus on the region, get out of the Middle East, and other ..

Oct 23, 2015

This can be an exciting time for Australia in that there is a coincidence of the need for long overdue foreign policy adjustments and the appointment of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister. He has said he intends to be a forward-looking Prime Minister for the 21st Century. This is indeed encouraging but success will call for skilful negotiation in Cabinet and strong leadership over time. Mr Turnbull will have much more in common with Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, than he would have had with defeated PM Harper. They will meet later this year at the G20 and at CHOGM.

Understandably the pressures on the new Prime Minister will be mainly domestic and on the economy. Foreign and security policies are naturally less immediate (although evolving situations e.g. Syria, ISIS, Russia, and an overhyped TPP, which has yet to be adopted by the U S and which does not include such major economies as China, India and Indonesia, call for prompt reactions and it would be unfortunate for Mr Turnbull to lock himself into positions now which he might find uncomfortable in two or three months).

I consider there are eight policy issues which Prime Minister Turnbull could review and update later this year, or early in 2016.

They are: –

1. We need to refocus on the important interests in our own region – South East Asia, North Asia and the South West Pacific in what is now generally called the Asian Century. Former Indonesian Ambassador to Australia Sabam Siagian and editor-in-chief of the Jakarta Post wrote earlier this year the blunt commentary that “Australia is still stuck in the 20th Century mode. It is a monarchy, with a Head of State in London, and its security arrangements are largely Cold War relics… Australia is out of sync with the emerging geopolitical environment of Asia today”.

2. We do need to establish an updated and more balanced approach to the vital relationship between the US and China. There is a danger that adversarial attitudes towards China could become a selffulfilling prophecy. The present debate on China mainly assumes that Australia has no choice but to support American primacy in Asia against a perceived rising Chinese hegemony. This is a simplistic approach which has been challenged by Hawke, Keating, Fraser, most former ambassadors to China and a numbers of academics. While China can be expected to resist American ‘hegemony’ in the Asian region, it accepts a constructive and cooperative US role in Asia.

Australia should not take sides on China/Japan disputes, or on rival territorial water claims. Our focus should be on unimpeded passage through International waters and trade routes.

3. We should withdraw our forces from Iraq and Syria. Our presence in the Middle East will not contribute seriously to defeating ISIS, or securing stable, democratic, uncorrupt governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our involvement was in support of the American Alliance, although US policies are demonstrably failing. The reality is our participation is essentially peripheral and symbolic. We should move out of this very complex changing kaleidoscope of numerous factions fighting each  other and cease pretending to ourselves and overseas that we can influence the outcomes. The considerable financial savings could be much better utilised in shaping the next budget.

There were reasons for joining the US led Afghanistan invasion in 2002 but 14 years later, with 40 Australians killed, over $500 billion spent and more than 13,000 Afghan civilians dead, objectives once deemed to be indispensable such as nation-building and effective counter-insurgency, have been downgraded or abandoned because there are no longer adequate resources, time, or the US will to achieve them. The US public is now opposed to US ground forces becoming involved in further conflicts.

4. We should look to consult diplomatically all of the main and influential countries of the Asia/Pacific region – the US, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Russia, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and New Zealand – on all regional and international issues before the UN. Terrorism must be dealt with essentially within each country, although discussions on dealing with it internationally can be useful. While cooperation between our AFP and the Indonesian Police has been good, it is strange that we have been consulting the US and the UK about dealing with Islamic extremism and the ISIS but not until very recently with Indonesia, the largest and most moderate Muslim country in the world. Nor have we consulted closely regional countries like Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines which have substantial Muslim communities.

Australia need a fundamental change of our national psyche focused more on Asia than on our traditional links with the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand ( the “Anglosphere”), and Europe. We need a much more sustained conversation with our neighbouring countries in Asia and the South West Pacific.

We should work discretely towards the evolution of an Asia/Pacific community, of which ASEAN would be a major part. Meanwhile we should use existing organisations that meet at Head of Government level, such as the G20, APEC (although it does not include India), the East Asian Summit (which does now include both the US and Russia), the UN Leader’s Week in New York, and the Commonwealth HoG meeting (a relic of British colonialism, but some Asian leaders attend and can discuss regional issues), which will meet in Malta on 28/29 November.

5. In the long term no bilateral relationship will be more important to Australia than that with Indonesia. The stability, unity and economic growth of a predominantly (81%) moderate Muslim peaceful nation of 250 million, stretching across our North, a distance similar from Broome to Christchurch in NZ, is vital to Australia. Despite Government ‘spin’ to the contrary, the overall relationship is not good and needs nurturing, especially at the Head of Government level. The empathy towards Australia, evident in the 1980s and early 90s, has gone and needs to be rebuilt,

Malcolm Turnbull as a new Prime Minister will have a number of opportunities to develop a personal relationship with the relatively new Indonesian president (Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi) at Head of Government meetings later this year. This will be an important step forward for Mr Turnbull and Australia if he can establish close personal contact.

6. Mr Turnbull has already emphasised in Parliament on the 19th of October the major importance he attaches to strengthening the relationship with New Zealand following his visit. He suggested that we should in future work even more closely with New Zealand on a range of regional issues.

7. In the years ahead Mr Turnbull will have an important opportunity to address, through a number of decisions, the international standing of Australia as a more independent nation with a foreign and  security policy based not largely on compliance with American policy or fear of China, but on its own genuine national interests. In this context, he will have the opportunity to adopt a more balanced position on Israel / Palestine issues. He will also be able to develop a sound position on the major global issue of Climate Change for the high level international conference to be held in Paris in December, which he intends to attend.

Continuing foreign perceptions of Australia as a constitutional monarchy whose Head of State is the Queen of England (quaintly called here the Queen of Australia) and whose flag is dominated by the Union Jack, are sad anachronisms in the 21st. century. The establishment of the Republic of Australia will be, like Federation, a defining moment in the history of our country. This is not only a symbolic issue. It lies at the core of our national and international identity.

Another prospect in the longer term would be to reconsider joining ASEAN, although we would need ASEAN to welcome this. Mr Turnbull could consider private consultations at the Head of Government, Foreign Minister, Defence and Trade ministerial levels regarding possible membership of ASEAN. If New Zealand did likewise it would be mutually reinforcing.

This will not be easy now. 41 years ago Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner and I hosted the first meeting overseas of the then five ASEAN Secretaries General at my home in Canberra. One course might be to start with seeking observer status as Indonesia’s other close neighbours, PNG and Timor Leste, have already had since 1976 and 2002 respectively. This would be a logical evolution of Australia’s long-standing engagement with Asia. As early as 1970 I considered this and, as Secretary of DFAT, discussed it with then-Foreign Minister Gareth Evans in 1990. Paul Keating had also suggested we should seek to join ASAEN. Unfortunately, it lapsed, partly because of other issues and following my retirement in 1992.

8. Another positive change which Prime Minister Turnbull could make as soon as possible would be to sign up to the Open Government Partnership (OPG). Nearly 70 countries, including Indonesia, New Zealand, the Philippines, the US and the UK have already done so. Mr Turnbull has already said he wants to have a more transparent and open government. Joining would reinforce his comments.

Finally, if Australia is to progress its involvement with the Asian region the Turnbull Government needs to give more thought to our style. We need to demonstrate a greater degree of cultural sensitivity. We should also show we are prepared to listen more and lecture less. This is essentially a question of presentation and diplomacy. Richard Woolcott 21 October 2015

Richard Woolcott AC was Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia and the Philippines as well as High Commissioner to Malaysia, Ghana and Singapore. He was the Australian Ambassador to the United Nations and President of the United Nations Security Council. He was Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1988 to 1992.

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