Stuart Harris. What Australia’s Foreign Policy Should Look Like

May 15, 2015

Fairness, Opportunity and Security
Policy series edited by Michael Keating and John Menadue. 

The focus in Australia’s foreign policy has shifted back and forth between the global and the regional, and between multilateralism and bilateralism in economic and political relationships, due only in part to party political differences. While some policies, such as immigration, refugees and to a degree defence, are widely debated in Australia, many are not. Moreover, foreign policies are often not just linked to domestic interests but become part of domestic electoral politics – whether as photo ops with foreign leaders, muscularly assertive security stances or support for influential domestic pressure groups. This often leads to opportunistic political decisions lacking long-term vision and analysis.

We concentrate here on two broad and interrelated challenges to our present foreign policy: first, the choice between the global approach and the regional approach and second, avoiding a choice between the political and economic relationships with the US and China. These two challenges embrace much of what is in practice a wide and complex set of influences.

Among those complexities, the international environment for Australia’s foreign policy is changing with globalization and greater porosity of borders. Inter-state conflict has greatly diminished but intra-state conflict has risen, with consequences for international refugee flows. Population movements more generally will grow and, like political refugees, will target Australia among other well-developed countries. Emerging issues, such as climate change, stressed global commons – oceans, biodiversity, cyberspace and the atmosphere – as well as traditional economic, food and energy issues will shape international relations. Moreover, foreign policy objectives – national security, wealth and prosperity, and a geopolitically stable environment – have become more interrelated. This is even more so if we desire to project a moral dimension through aid and human rights efforts.

Looking at the first of our two challenges, given our multicultural society, a global conception of our foreign policy is inevitable. Australia arguably supports the international system of international law and global rules. Yet despite Australia’s eagerness to participate in international developments, its political support for global institutions has in practice been equivocal. Scepticism about support for the United Nations is often expressed by political leaders, notably in response to criticism of Australia’s indigenous affairs and refugee policies. Australia worked effectively within the UN framework in the East Timor crisis and during its Security Council membership. Its participation in UN and G20 efforts to develop climate change responses, however, has been grudging. Support for the US in the first Iraq war was within UN auspices; that for the second Iraq war was not. While US belief in its exceptionalism means that it is not bound by its own rules, for smaller countries including Australia international rules are crucially important.

Australia’s substantial contribution in developing regional cooperation processes and institutions started in the 1970s, with largely bipartisan domestic acceptance in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Coalition government in the mid-1990s switched the emphasis back to Britain and the US, and this was reinforced particularly after al Qaeda’s attack on the US in 2001.

Asian regional dynamics are changing. Population growth and development in the region is rapid; the importance of countries such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam in particular will grow for Australia. This means there will be a need for a more active foreign policy toward the region. Solutions to many of Australia’s problems, not limited to people smugglers and terrorism, will increasingly need cooperation from regional neighbours.

Asian developments also have significance for our defence policy, requiring greater emphasis on a regional response. Shifts in the geographic focus of Australia’s defence policy in the past have been between either the defence of Australia and its immediate neighbourhood, or forward defence as with our Vietnam involvement. Recently, more emphasis has again been given to alliance support.

In terms of the second challenge, the Australia-US relationship has undergone various transformations. In early post war years, it reflected acceptance of a US international leadership within a range of global trade, finance and arms control institutions, international rules and cooperation. Then, as part of the Western alliance during the Cold War and fear of nuclear war, US bases were and remain as Australia’s contribution to early warning and arms control objectives. Although the Western alliance is now more amorphous, Australia has become closer to the US in recent decades. That we have tended to follow US strategies in the Middle East that failed to reflect the complexities of tribalism, religious divisions or sectarian wars – as in Afghanistan and Iraq – should hold lessons for the future. At the same time, the US has become more unilateral in its actions under Presidents Bush and Obama in particular, and is inclined to define what is acceptable or not for Australia.

The US link has increasingly shaped Australia’s defence, security and foreign policies. More importantly, we have followed the US in seeing solutions to international problems largely in military terms. Sometimes this is sensible as in East Timor and Solomon Islands. Sometimes it is not. Australia’s global approach outside the UN has had mixed results. Our operations in the Middle East – Afghanistan and Iraq in particular – have raised two issues: was the emphasis central to our vital interests; and were we successful? The answer to the first is doubtful; to the second, the failure of those efforts is not in doubt, despite the skills of the Australians involved; the continuing costs, including to domestic security, are substantial.

It is hard to separate the Australia-US relationship from that of the Australia–China relationship. The US is a Pacific power, but it is an outsider in Asia. Australia, however, is linked to the region from within. China is the largest trading partner of virtually all Asian countries including Australia. Australia’s future relations with the region, in Northeast Asia and with ASEAN in particular, will depend upon relations with China as well as with the US. We should not continue to subordinate foreign policy to security policy; our influence in the region will depend not just upon our military capability but also upon our economic strength and our diplomacy.

While Australia has enhanced its US relationship in security terms, its economic relationship with China remains largely in a separate policy box with Australia keen to enhance economic ties with China. That policy separation will be more difficult to sustain in the future, with the US increasingly seeing economic developments from a strategic viewpoint, as the ‘pivot’, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) suggest. Yet China will continue to have a critical influence on Australia’s economy, GDP and employment; despite attempts by politicians of both parties to politicize China’s limited investment in Australia, foreign investment including from China will be needed in the future to support our economic growth.

Given the importance of China to Australia’s economic fortunes, we need to focus more on that relationship, develop greater understanding of its many dimensions, and establish depth comparable to that we have with the US relationship. We also need to decide for ourselves issues affecting China rather than seek guidance from the US, whose interests are often different to ours.

US global leadership post-WWII contributed substantially to global and regional stability and remains essential, but that leadership is now ambiguous. It needs to come to terms with the new global and regional circumstances, primarily but not limited to the rise of China, and its own constrained relative capabilities. China undoubtedly wants to move from under the strictures of US primacy and potentially will do so in the long term. It is a long way from being able to do so at present. With a recent hardening of attitudes, the US and its military want to maintain that primacy and treat as adversarial China’s attempts to move to greater equality and reduced vulnerability to US dominance. Australia needs to avoid involvement in such a contest and must help reduce their mutual mistrust, developing an accommodative approach in its diplomacy with the US and China.

For Australia, the US relationship also has a broader economic impact. After a long protectionist history, Australia became a strong supporter of an open, non-discriminatory trading system, supported multilateralism and a rules-based international economic system, under the GATT and then WTO, to its considerable advantage; it reverted, in the 1990s, however, to becoming a preferential bilateral trading nation. Although helping some groups of traders, overall such preferential agreements have provided limited benefit and incurred considerable economic costs, as the preferential US-Australia ‘Free Trade’ Agreement illustrated. Apparently under US pressure to create a precedent, Australia conceded some sovereignty to overseas investors in the economic policy field, through the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) instrument. Its recently concluded Korean agreement permits legal recourse (overriding Australian legal jurisdictions) if Australian policy changes are judged to affect foreign investors’ expected success. It is apparently proposed that this should be part of the preferential TPP currently being negotiated. Safeguards will presumably be sought but with considerable doubts about their likely effectiveness. The TPP is already dividing the region contrary to Australia’s interests, since not just China, but Indonesia and India in particular, will find it difficult to meet the admission conditions. There are times, as with the TPP, when we should be willing to walk away from bad deals. Rather than surrendering sovereignty in the TPP, we would gain more by putting our efforts behind region-wide efforts such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

So what should our foreign policy look like? A successful foreign policy needs a long-term strategic vision – over decades, long enough to understand that there will be major, and not just marginal, differences to the world as we know it. That vision needs to be based on a clear direction and a careful analysis of all relevant factors and their implications. Our policy orientation should be multilateral and multidimensional, using all our foreign policy tools and recognizing that military methods are unlikely to resolve many problems we might expect in the future.

Moreover, Australia should not automatically follow the US, but should support actively existing international institutions and their rules and rule-making processes, and contribute constructively to further development of international rules. Areas where this will be necessary are in the climate change field and perhaps international refugees. Although Australia is less well placed to lead internationally than in the past, it can still influence developments if it bases its approach on its own independent thinking and interests. Given the changes likely over the long-term in Asia, however, our efforts should be directed primarily to the region.

In the security field, the objectives of our existing policies are unclear, as are just what constitute the aims of our military procurement and defence policy more generally, illustrated most recently by the confused submarine issue. Given our diminishing defence spending capabilities, priorities will be needed among different interests and objectives, concentrating our efforts rather than trying to foresee all potential areas in which our military could be involved. Traditional security threats directed at Australia are unlikely in the short and medium-term, but given the potential changes in the region, self-reliance and area denial would seem to have priority rather than other options including alliance support.

This would have implications for our current considerable enmeshment with the US military. We need to avoid having to choose between the US and China, especially in the, admittedly currently low, likelihood of actual military conflict. While China has not shown real evidence of expansionist objectives, Taiwan is a qualified exception. A potential cause for conflict could arise over Taiwan in the future, in which case pressure will increase on Australia to support the US militarily. Yet opinion polls continue to show little public support for our participation and we should look to discourage any action on our part that encourages US confrontation with China. As Mr. Abbott said in 2012, the US should not take Australia entirely for granted. Inevitably, military conflict between the US and China would have massive consequences, including for Australia if involved. Democratic processes would require that no Australian political leader commit Australia to military conflict involving China without substantial public support and a full parliamentary debate. Without that, history would be unforgiving.

Stuart Harris was Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs 1987-88. He is currently an Emeritus Professor and Visiting Fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia and Pacific Affairs at the ANU.

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