Silence on foreign policy a calm before the diplomatic storm

By Anthony Milner
International Director, Asialink

There are dangers as well as benefits in keeping the election campaign away from foreign policy, as the Australian public will find out after election day.

The whole world is watching with trepidation the US-China trade war – but Australia has local geopolitical problems that go far deeper. While getting caught up in the war is clearly a risk, the conflict itself points to the fundamentally difficult choices over Australia's foreign policy future that will face the new government on Monday.

This is the most formidable time for Australia’s foreign relations since the late 1940s. We are becoming an even more lonely country now than we were then. In the earlier crisis the Pacific War had demonstrated that Australia could no longer find security in the British empire, and it was only in 1951 that the ANZUS Treaty allowed us to relax. In the intervening, anxious years strategists on both sides of politics puzzled over how Australia might be positioned in a post-European Asia. With the US alliance the hard thinking could be postponed.

Shifting from the British to the American empire was one matter - today, the old security paradigm of the ‘powerful friend’ is in poor repair. As in the 1940s, we require strategic imagination.

It is not just that the current United States administration cannot be relied upon. In relative terms the United States was becoming a less significant trading and military power in previous presidencies. The faith Australians place in the United States – attested in one opinion poll after another – has for a long time been largely unexamined and unrealistic, and this in itself must increasingly be a problem for government.

Nor is our current crisis only a result of the cold relationship that has developed with China, though this situation is truly extraordinary. No nation is more economically entangled with China than Australia. Our trading relationship with the United States is tiny by comparison.

Australia’s other great trading partners are also in the Asian region: the ASEAN countries, Japan, South Korea and India. In economic terms we are increasingly integrated – but from a strategic and civilisational perspective we are becoming an outlier.

In the 1940s the countries around us were emerging from European or American imperial domination. Western political and cultural power remained strong, and Australia retained some prestige as a consequence.

Today all this has changed. The shift in power from West to East is acknowledged in every quarter. Even in Southeast Asia – the Asian region in which we have been most engaged over the last half century - the relativities have changed dramatically. Not only are the economies of these countries growing faster than ours, but the influence of Western liberalism seems to be in retreat.

Foreign Minister Bishop tried to argue for a ‘liberal rules-based order’ in Asia. But it is not just in China, but also in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand that non-liberal values – of one type or another – are increasingly advocated.

Looking for like-minded partners we turn to Japan and India, and also South Korea. Apart from the possibility that their endorsement of ‘democracy’ disguises real differences with Australia, each of these countries has its own strategic objectives - including with respect to China. It is not clear how far any of them see benefit in stronger engagement with Australia. In the so-called Quadrilateral initiative involving the United States, Japan, India and Australia – which so far entails only meetings of officials (not heads of government) from these countries - there are signs that Australia is the most enthusiastic participant.

Handled carefully the Quadrilateral might bring advantages, but it could also exacerbate tension. One danger is that it is seen by many – and not only in China – as explicitly anti-China. Using ‘Indo-Pacific’ to define our part of the world – as we do increasingly – may also give the appearance of rallying against China. The phrase ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ – used especially in the United States and Japan – is certainly decoded in that way. ‘Indo-Pacific’ is used in a more inclusive manner in India and Southeast Asia – but the absence of the word ‘Asia’ in this descriptor has been noted. A further fear is that advocates of ‘Indo-Pacific’ seek a new regional architecture – a threat to the carefully-developed ASEAN institutions which have provided at least some foundation for a post-American regional order.

Navigating regional anxieties and rivalries is not easy, but both geography and history give us no choice. Australia is potentially vulnerable – increasingly isolated, yet significant enough to be punished.

In the medium term, Australia’s best strategy might be to concentrate on ASEAN - our second largest trading partner. Strengthening relations here offends neither Beijing nor Washington - and has the potential to enhance Australia’s influence with both.

We have a relatively favourable track record in Southeast Asia – including last year’s ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney. For once the Australian leader was seen to collaborate with Asian leaders independently of our United States hegemon.

The US-China contest is the main focus for the global community - but Australia faces a long game in the Asian region. Getting it right in Southeast Asia is a realistic objective and may be the best way to build an Australian role in a ‘post-American’ – or at least post-American-led - Asia.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review on Wednesday 15 May. 

Cover image by Laen.