Forging a national consensus on Australia's external security

By John McCarthy
Former Australian Ambassador

With the federal election out of the way, and some welcome stability in the leadership of the major political parties in prospect, Australia now faces the challenge of forging a national consensus on an external security policy that reflects our self-confidence and maturity as a nation.

There’s been an upsurge in debate in this country on our foreign and defence policy settings, the quality of which has been mixed. (It is ill-advised, for example, to mention Munich or the Nazis other than in a precise reference to history.) However, some of it has been very good.

The important thing is that Australians are now engaged in thinking about our external posture. For example, in recent weeks Australian National University Professor Hugh White and University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer (on one occasion appearing together) have spoken on China–US issues to audiences whose size would have been unimaginable a year or so ago.

Irrespective of where Australians actually sit on the subject matter, we could be beginning to recognise that the strategic challenges we face as a nation today are as important as the questions we faced over immigration and the Cold War in the generation after World War II, or with the challenging external conditions that gave rise to the economic reforms of Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard in the 1980s and 1990s.

But the debate has been wanting in two important respects.

First, security is not just about guns. It’s also about butter. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was being facile when he said, ‘You can sell your soul for a pile of soybeans, or you can protect your people.’

It’s not an either-or choice. You need to sell butter (or soybeans) to buy guns.

Sensible external security policy often exacts an internal cost. For example, we are rightly putting a major emphasis on the South Pacific. However, as we have recently seen, South Pacific leaders are not just interested in money for climate change remediation. They want us to change our own policies, which the current government doesn’t want to do.

And some of the responses we make to Chinese actions might well involve retributive costs to us. But, in the end, it makes no sense to debate a binary choice about prosperity versus security. It has to be about how to enhance and manage both because one is interlocked with the other. This task involves the constant balance of risk and opportunity.

Second, in foreign policy, no relationship between one country and another can be seen in isolation from what is going on elsewhere. Our public debate is about the triangular relationship between Australia, the United States and China. We need to be much more conscious of the nuanced positions of other countries involved in the mix, and their relevance to us.

For example, the ASEAN nations are now taking a more resolute stance on China. However, according to a recent survey by a respected Singaporean think tank, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, China is now regarded in Southeast Asia as more influential both economically and politically than the United States. Japan easily emerges as the most trusted external power. What does that mean for us? Possibly working even more in conjunction with Japan.

And while Japan is understandably anxious to keep its relations with the US in good order, it’s also hedging. Its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, made an official visit to China last year and Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to go to Tokyo later this year.

India has serious border issues with China. Yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi have annual summits. India’s defence links with the US are getting stronger. Yet New Delhi has real differences with Washington, including over the application of sanctions to Iran and Russia.

The approaches of these regional powers are not necessarily models for Australia, but they should tell us two things.

First, the shape of the region in which we live depends more on the policies of these powers and perhaps less on those of just the US and China than we currently recognise.

Second, these countries are showing more fluidity in their dealings with the US and China than we are, recognising that they need both, but also that both need them.

Should we then be so enthused about the laying on of hands by Pompeo and his like—surely a different Republican breed to people like former secretaries of state George Shultz, James Baker and Colin Powell—or indeed by President Donald Trump?

Do we need to become involved in an American naval enterprise in the Strait of Hormuz?  The situation there is of the US’s own making. NATO allies Germany, France and (until Boris Johnson became prime minister) Britain, all with a bigger stake in that strategic waterway than Australia, avoided involvement. Shouldn’t our political energy be focused on our more immediate region?

While our decision on the Strait of Hormuz has probably already been taken, hopefully Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be thinking about all these issues when he travels to a number of countries in the coming weeks.

Since the government’s re-election, Morrison hasn’t made a bad start. In his speech to the University of Melbourne’s Asialink in June, Morrison pragmatically showed China respect. And at the annual Australia–US ministerial meeting, AUSMIN, while not eschewing the customary hyperbole, he avoided the trap posed by the dangerous idea of stationing US intermediate-range missiles in Australia.

The next step could be to lead Australia in new, more confident directions. We don’t have grounds to hold our breath in anticipation of this. But, as an undiluted conservative, Morrison might just have the political space to say ‘no’ to the US and to China when Australia’s interests so dictate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. This article first appeared in The Strategist.

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