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The Challenges for Australian Foreign Policy

Address to NSW Labor Speakers Series, Sydney, 25 November 2019

Australia faces an international environment, both regionally and globally, more challenging than it has been for a very long time. Big and often disconcerting geopolitical shifts have been occurring, most of them faster and going further than almost any of us would have believed possible not very long ago.

They include China’s rapid rise; America’s rapid comparative decline; North Korea’s rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons capability; ASEAN’s loss of a significant amount of its coherence and credibility at a time when both have never been more needed; the re-emergence of our own immediate South Pacific region as a potential playground for major power contest; India’s long awaited emergence as a major player; Russia playing the role of regional hegemon and global spoiler whenever and wherever it can (although, we often forget, its economy remains no bigger than Australia’s); Europe struggling to maintain its own coherence in the face of Britain’s Brexit brain-fade and surging nationalist and populist sentiment across the continent; and a deteriorating worldwide commitment to multilateral problem solving, with diminishing confidence in the capacity of a global rules-based order to constrain those who are big and strong enough to think they can act unilaterally. And that list doesn’t even mention what is happening in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America.

Of all these challenges, it is the contest between the United States and China which is dominating almost everything else, and certainly concentrating the minds of Australian policymakers more than anything else, with almost every day’s news generating new concerns about either Chinese over-reach or American over-reaction.

China’s economic rise has been breathtaking in its speed and magnitude, and is now being accompanied by much more political assertiveness. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, intolerance of internal dissent, including in Hong Kong, is back to almost Maoist dimensions. Internationally, the longstanding injunction of Deng Xiaoping for China to ‘hide its strength, bide its time and never take the lead’ has now been completely abandoned. China wants to be a global rule-maker, not just a rule taker. It is no longer prepared to accept second-rank status in international financial and policymaking institutions. And its economic strength is now being parlayed into geopolitical influence on a massive scale across the Asian continent and its maritime surrounds, including the Pacific, through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Strategically, China wants its own space in East Asia, and is no longer prepared to play second fiddle to the United States. Militarily, while its expenditure and overall firepower does not match America’s, and catch-up globally will be a long time coming, there has been a very significant modernization and expansion of its capability, certainly along the East Asian littoral, and into the Indian Ocean. Most disconcertingly, some expansionist territorial claims have been pursued, most notably in the South China Sea, with the continuing creeping militarisation of the reef installations in the Spratlys.

As China’s authority has been rising, that of the United States has been manifestly waning, notwithstanding the enormous economic and military power the US continues to have, and the alliances and partnerships it continues to maintain. Its President has forfeited by his behaviour any claim to personal respect, and he Trump administration has squandered US credibility, not just in Asia but worldwide, at multiple levels. By tearing up the painstakingly negotiated, and manifestly successful, nuclear agreement with Iran; by insulting and alienating his NATO partners, and making clear in multiple ways that he regards allies as expensive encumbrances rather than assets; by walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, trying to destroy the WTO, and showing less understanding than a junior high-school student of the economic benefits of international trade; and by mounting a host of other assaults on multilateral institutions and processes, above all walking away from the Paris Climate Accords.

Australia's Strengths. In working out how we should respond to these challenges, we have to recognise that there are obvious constraints limiting the exercise of Australia’s diplomatic authority. We are not a great or major power, with economic or military might to match. We are somewhat geographically isolated, though much less than in the past. As a rusted on US ally – at least until now – with an unbroken record for more than a century of fighting Washington’s wars alongside it, we are not always seen, especially by the global South, to be as independently minded as we like to think of ourselves. Memories linger of our past racist policies, and we have to be more careful than most about charges of double standards or hypocrisy if our immigration or other policies are either wrong-headed or misunderstood internationally.

But against all this we have wonderful strengths: assets and capabilities giving real weight to our standing and reputation – some of them inherent or of very long standing, some much more recently acquired. We are by most measures the thirteenth largest economy in the world; by any measure we are the sixth largest by landmass and with the third largest maritime zone; we are one of the most multicultural countries in the globe, with a very large pool of fluent Asian language speakers – hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Australians alone – constituting a fantastic but so far under-appreciated and underutilised resource; and we have, belated though it may be, a strong commitment to our Indigenous people, as the whole world applauded with Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation, which followed Paul Keating’s equally moving Redfern speech sixteen years earlier.

We bring to the table a unique geopolitical perspective, bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; Australians working in international organizations, both official and non-governmental, and Australian peacekeepers, have won almost universally outstanding reputations; we have had a strong and longstanding commitment to a rule-based global and regional order; and we have had a long record of demonstrated national commitment to the United Nations system in all its security, social and economic justice and human rights dimensions.

Beyond all that, we have been seen for many decades as a creative middle power with global interests and a long – though certainly not unbroken – record of active and effective diplomacy, on global and regional as well as bilateral issues. What should give us confidence in facing the future is how well, particularly under past Labor governments – but, to be fair again, not exclusively so – Australia has played that international role in the past.

The Hawke and Keating Governments in particular were able to achieve a great deal both in or own region and wider afield, including helping create the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and other new, cooperative, regional economic and security architecture; crafting the peace plan for Cambodia; securing the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention and advancing some major nuclear weapons objectives; playing a central role throughout during the Uruguay Round trade negotiations; building, with France, a strong coalition to save the Antarctic environment from mining and oil drilling; and in being a key player in crafting the financial sanctions strategy which finally brought down apartheid in South Africa.

Responding to the Challenges. So how should Australia, and in particular the Labor Party, be reacting to these and other stress-generating international developments in our own region and beyond? I think there should be four primary elements in our policy response: Less America, More Self-Reliance, More Asia and More Global Engagement.

Less America. I am not suggesting for a moment that Australia walk away from the US alliance, from which we unquestionably benefit in terms of access to intelligence and high-end armaments, and – however flimsy the ANZUS guarantee may prove to be in reality – the notional deterrent protection of America’s massive military firepower. Continued counter-balancing US engagement in our region is certainly highly desirable, but less reflexive support by Australia for everything the US chooses to do is long overdue. As I have often said, ‘Whither thou goest, there I goest’ might be good theology, but it is not great foreign policy for a country that values its independence and wants international respect.

My own experience strongly suggests that periodically saying ‘no’ to the US when our national interests are manifestly different, makes for a much healthier and productive relationship than one of craven dependence. While Simon Crean’s position in 2003 that we would not support the US invasion of Iraq in the absence of a UN mandate gave Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd, among others, the vapours, he was absolutely right and I hope we would take that stance again if a similar situation arose: I was glad to see Bill Shorten effectively saying as much in his major foreign policy speech early this year – but that’s now academic.

The bottom line is that neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that, for all the insurance we might think we have bought with our past support, the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat. While that was almost certainly also the reality under previous administrations, it has been thrown into much starker relief by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, and it should not be assumed that anything would be very different in a post-Trump era. I think the reality is, as my ANU colleague Hugh White has repeatedly put it, that ‘we need to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America’.

None of this positioning is as breathtakingly adventurous, or politically dangerous, as it might once have been. Recognition that the US is a much less reliable ally than it once may have been is alive and well in Europe, is creeping into the writing even of the conservative commentariat here (certainly that of Pope Paul Kelly, if not Cardinal Greg Sheridan), and was clearly a subtext of the Government’s own Foreign Policy White Paper in 2017. Both sides of Australian politics are going to have to think long and hard about how sensible it is to resist coming to terms with this new reality.

More Self-Reliance. Preparing ourselves to rely less on America certainly means being more of a diplomatic free agent: adding to our reputation and credibility with an activist foreign policy that is creative, proactive, value-adding and unconstrained by the constant urge to look over our shoulder to Washington. But more than that, it does entail, in military terms, building defence capability that involves not only more bucks than we are usually comfortable spending but getting a bigger bang for each of them – focusing as Hugh White argues in his new book on Australian defence on maritime denial, with a necessary complete rethink of our major equipment expenditure priorities (although I certainly don't agree with his willingness to even contemplate Australia acquiring its own nuclear weapons capability: that way lies madness). More self-reliance certainly means maximising our capacity to protect our shores and maritime environment (including the South West Pacific) from hostile intrusion, but also means having a capacity to engage in military operations wider afield if there is a good national interest (including responsible global citizenship) reason for doing so.

While defence expenditure has been increasing – with both sides of politics committed to maintaining it at a credible 2 per cent, or slightly more, of GDP – given the size of our continent, our capacity to defend ourselves against any really existential threat is limited. I am optimistic enough to believe that in today’s world the costs and risks of waging war so wildly outweigh any conceivable benefits for any significant player that the likelihood of a major conflict in the foreseeable future is actually very low. But defence planning always has to be based on worst case assumptions, taking into account potential adversaries’ capabilities, not just known intent, and in that context we are going to have to get used to doing more.

More Asia. This to me has two dimensions: on the one hand, strengthening our relationships at all levels with key regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, as a collective counterweight to a potentially overreaching China; and on the other hand trying to develop a more multidimensional relationship, not just a one dimensional economic one, with China itself.

As much as I would welcome Australia developing an even closer relationship with ASEAN as a whole – with all its potential for harnessing the region’s collective middle power energy and capacity – and to see that relationship perhaps extending in the future to some form of associate membership rather than just partnership, I suspect that for the foreseeable future internal divisions, and the organization’s culture of extreme caution, make that unlikely, and that our efforts in South East Asia should be focused on its two heaviest players, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as our traditional partners Singapore and Malaysia. Which means, among other things, that just about the last thing we should be doing is gratuitously putting any of those relationships at risk by the kind of unbelievable folly involved in Scott Morrison’s pre-election Jerusalem Embassy thought-bubble. I do give credit to Morrison for recognising the significance of Vietnam as a strategic partner and making a bilateral visit there after the election, but there is a lot more for the government to do with other potentially like-minded significant regional players.

So far as China itself is concerned, it is critical – and I am glad to see the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper spelling this out quite clearly, and this focus becoming evident in policy statements from our own side – to approach the relationship in a spirit of multi-dimensional engagement. We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for our prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on anything to do with security issues in the hope and expectation, almost certainly now misguided, that the US will do the heavy lifting for us on that front. None of this means becoming Beijing’s patsy, any more than we should be Washington’s: we should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values, and should be prepared to push back strongly when China overreaches, as it has in the South China Sea, and of course have to strongly resist any undermining of our national institutions.

But it does mean recognizing the legitimacy of many of China’s own security and economic national interest claims, including the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative: with us being a little less anxious about its regional security implications, and being prepared – with appropriate commercial caution – to be an active participant in the enterprise. And it certainly means recognizing the legitimacy of China’s demand to be now not just a rule-taker but a participant in global rule-making.

In that context, one of the most productive ways of building content into Australia’s relationship may be to work more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to nuclear arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on many of which issues China has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised. Some will say Xi Jinping’s rapid occupation of the climate space abdicated by the US, and rush, similarly, to champion the virtues of free trade, was just cynical opportunism, but I don’t think we should necessarily assume that: we should be out there exploring the options.

More Global Engagement. I strongly believe that this should come back into focus as a sustaining theme of Australian foreign policy, picking up the idea that what I have been ‘being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen’ (Penny Wong, prefers the expression ‘constructive internationalism’, but it’s the same basic idea) is itself a core national interest, sitting alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests. Cooperatively advancing global and regional public goods is not just a matter of boy scout good deeds – there are hard headed reciprocity and reputational returns.

The willingness of ALP governments in the past to take seriously the pursuit of global and regional public goods, even when there was no direct or immediate economic or security return, has been a fundamental point of differentiation between us and most of our conservative opponents for decades now, and it’s time in my judgement for this to take centre stage again. Particularly since Morrison’s pathetic Trump-lite speech to the Lowy Institute in October, talking about ‘negative globalism’, not only manifesting his obvious discomfort with any kind of international process on issues like climate change and refugees, but turning his back on decades of largely bipartisan support for effective global institutions, and an influential Australian role within them.

Australia has been at its best, and our standing in the world highest, when we play to the national strengths I described at the outset, and have projected ourselves effectively on to the world stage as a country deeply committed to our common humanity and determined to do everything we can to make the world safer, saner, more prosperous and just.

In the contemporary world, every state’s security, prosperity and quality of life is best advanced by cooperation rather than confrontation, and Australia should be a relentless campaigner for just that. There are many public goods issues on which we could make a positive difference, using our own strengths as a capable, credible middle power and the strategies of international coalition building that are the essence of effective middle power diplomacy.

To take just one example, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, where we have played a major role in global agenda setting in the past with the Canberra Commission initiated by Paul Keating in 1996 and the Australia-Japan Commission initiated by Kevin Rudd in 2009, and can play a major role again, including – I don’t think it’s too naïve to hope – by working with China, which has long been among the least enthusiastic of the nuclear-armed states.

I don’t disagree with those who say that the recently negotiated UN Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty – the Nuclear Ban Treaty – is aspirational rather than remotely operational in its present form, and is never likely to win the support of any of the present nuclear-armed states. But I do think we should be more prepared to knowledge the normative – moral, if you like – significance involved in two-thirds of the world’s countries participating in its negotiation, and not in any way accept that support for the Ban Treaty somehow undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): it does not.

My own view is that the most useful way forward is to develop a broad-based international coalition aimed at bridging the widening gulf between those who clamour hopelessly impractically for global zero now, and those who want to do nothing at all about nuclear disarmament. This is not the occasion to spell it out in detail now, but I think the beginning of wisdom here is a serious step-by-step process of the kind proposed in the Rudd Australia-Japan Commission I co-chaired, focusing initially on the ‘4 Ds’ – Doctrine (‘No First Use’), De-alerting (to build in launch-time delays and reduce the possibility of catastrophic error), Deployment (reducing the number of weapons actively deployed) and Decreasing overall numbers to a small fraction of the 14,500 presently in existence.

We know that complete elimination of nuclear weapons is going to remain out of reach for a very long time, but we just have to do something to reduce the salience and legitimacy of the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, and the most immediate risk to life on this planet as we know it. The other great existential risk is, of course, climate change: but nuclear weapons can kill us a lot faster than CO2. Nuclear disarmament should be core business for any Australian government worth the name.

My own strong belief is that Australians just don't accept that we are another also-ran, and that any government which adopts a posture which concentrates just on our more obvious bilateral relationships, and just on our immediate neighbourhood (though I support completely the re-engagement and re-focus on the South Pacific which has been capturing so much attention in recent months), and which remains myopic about what is capable of being achieved if we engage in a whole variety of multilateral forums with the skill and stamina which has served us so well in the past, will be a government that will simply not be playing the confident external projection role which most Australians want it to.

Our track record over many decades overwhelmingly shows that Australia and individual Australians are decent and committed international citizens, independently minded – and with a real egalitarian streak, something which plays well with a great many other countries with our strong record, everywhere from peacekeeping missions to diplomatic forums, of neither sucking up to the powerful nor kicking down at the powerless.

Playing to that instinct of decency, focusing on cooperative problem solving, working through forums like the G20 and East Asia Summit and APEC where as a result of past Labor government efforts we have a top-table place, using all the energy and creativity that has traditionally been associated with Australian middle power diplomacy at its best – and above all with ALP governments – will be far and away the best way of ensuring in the years and decades ahead, in a region and world in which the tectonic plates are shifting and every possible kind of uncertainty abounds, that this great country of ours not only survives but thrives.

Australia really would have been in very good hands now with Bill Shorten leading a new ALP government and Penny Wong leading our external relations team, fully realizing our capability in a way that we have almost completely failed to do over the last five years, and doing so in a way that will bring real and lasting benefit not only to our own people, but those of our region and the wider world. That’s not to be for now but it’s critically important, under Anthony Albanese’s leadership, that we keep our distinctive flame alive in foreign policy until the next election.