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Challenges for Australia's Foreign Policy

Presentation to Monash International Affairs Society Symposium, Melbourne, 19 April 2022

Although Russia's legally and morally indefensible invasion of Ukraine continues to dominate global headlines, foreign policy issues seem no more likely than has usually been the case in recent decades to feature heavily in Australia's current national election.

The Morrison Government would like to be able to paint the ALP as soft on defence and security, and especially on China, but has found it difficult to get any such traction with the Labor leadership so desperately anxious to avoid being wedged on these issues that it has been cautious to the point of paralysis about opening up any differences with the Government.

I can politically understand that caution, but can't help but be disappointed by it. On the five biggest challenges I see as facing Australian foreign policy makers the response of the present government has not been a thing of beauty, and I can only hope that the ALP in government – if it ever gets there – will be more credible and effective.

Those challenge are resetting our relationship with China, navigating our relationship with the United States, strengthening our relationships with our Asian and Pacific neighbours, restoring our global credibility as a good international citizen, and – in the conduct of all our international relationships – restoring diplomacy to centre stage.

One: Resetting our relationship with China.

Getting our currently deeply fraught relationship with China back on track does not mean Australia becoming Beijing’s patsy, anymore than – as I will come to in a moment – we should be Washington’s. We should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values, and should continue to be prepared to push back strongly when China overreaches externally, as it has in the South China Sea, or domestically as in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. And of course we have to resist strongly any undermining of our national institutions.

But we also have to recognise how hugely dependant our economy continues to be on China – still by far our largest trading partner, a third of our global total, despite successful diversification of some of our exports in response to China's blocking measures. And to recognize that other countries in our region, with similar interests to protect and values to project, have been much more successful than we have been at simultaneously getting along with China while also standing up to its excesses. To be listened to on sensitive and difficult subjects, like human rights, you have to at least be in the same room, and in recent times our diplomacy has failed to deliver even that basic precondition for influence.

In that context whoever is in government after the coming election needs to do everything it reasonably can to try to reset the relationship. That means reining in the counter-productive stridency of much of our public rhetoric, recognizing the legitimacy of many of China’s own security and even own self-interested actions (for example, our very heavy reliance on anti-dumping trade rules). It means looking for reasons to support, not block, Beijing’ stated interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It means acknowledging the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative, and while being right to be cautious about its governance, being a little less over-wrought about its regional security implications. And we certainly need to recognize the legitimacy of China’s demand to be now not just a rule-taker but a seriously participating rule-maker in global policy-making institutions.

Australia needs to be particularly careful about talking up as a given, as so many now are, the prospect of Taiwan becoming the likely trigger point for war. China’s new assertiveness under President Xi Jinping is very clear, with China making no secret of its ambition to match the United States as a global player, to carve out its own strategic space in the Western Pacific, and to become a regional hegemon to which all its neighbours pay deference. But Beijing also fully understands, and wants to avoid, the catastrophic horror and misery its people would suffer in any major modern war. No Chinese political or military preparations suggest an invasion is remotely imminent, and so far from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine emboldening it to advance those plans, as that conflict is now playing out I think the converse is the case.

What has rightly been described as, the ‘delicate balance of ambiguities’ of the One-China policy has long served everyone’s interests and, if cooler heads prevail, can do so for a long while yet. If that prediction proves too optimistic, and it did come to a fight – and one unprovoked by Taiwan – it would be a tough call for Australia, if pressed hard by Washington, not to join in the defence of a fellow thriving democracy. But Australia has little or no capacity to influence the outcome, a great capacity to suffer if drawn into war at any level, and we should be much more careful than the Morrison Government has been about creating expectations that our participation in such a fight is a given.

When a relationship is under the kind of strain ours has been with China, the smart diplomatic course is to focus hard on potential shared interests, issues that can unite rather than further divide. In that context I think we need to recognise that in areas like international cooperation on peacekeeping, counter-terrorism, and – for the most part, if not wholly – climate policy, response to pandemics, and arms control, Beijing has been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised.

Two: Navigating our relationship with the United States.

I do not suggest for a moment that Australia walk away from the US alliance. Its great benefit for us has always been access to intelligence and advanced defence technology otherwise beyond our reach. We have also arguably benefited from the deterrent protection offered by America’s massive military, including nuclear, firepower, though I am not alone in being less persuaded about the reality of that. The AUKUS agreement will unquestionably bind us even closer than we have been in security terms to the US, not just owing to its submarine component, but also in terms of the other highly sophisticated technology – including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and missile-related systems – that also seems to be on offer.

From one point of view this simply represents a difference in degree, not in kind, from what has always been the case. But the AUKUS agreement has also, understandably, re-ignited concerns that we will become so closely enmeshed with the US in security matters that we lose all our remaining effective capacity for independent judgment and action.

We have too often in the past, above all in Vietnam and Iraq in 2003, joined the US in fighting wars that were justified neither by international law nor morality, but because the Americans wanted us to, or we thought they wanted us to, or we wanted them to want us to. But while the ANZUS treaty requires the United States ‘to act’ should we come under attack, it does not require that action to be military. We should be under no illusion that, for all the insurance we might think we have bought with all those past down-payments in blood, or a ‘century of mateship’, the US – whoever is President -- will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under threat.

Preparing ourselves to rely less on America certainly means being more self-reliant. Partly that means being more of a free agent diplomatically: 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. Less reflexive support by Australia for everything Washington chooses to do or ask for has been, and remains, long overdue. As we should have learned from past experience, we win no respect or credibility anywhere when we characterize ourselves, or allow ourselves to be portrayed by others, as America’s ‘deputy sheriff.’ I will come back later to the question of how capable we currently are to engage in that kind of diplomacy.

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.

While defence expenditure has been increasing – with both sides of politics now committed to it being at least 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. But of course defence planning always has to be based on worst case assumptions. States must prepare for possible war based on potential adversaries' capabilities, not their known or assumed intent, and in that context we are going to have to get used to doing more, and doing more for ourselves. Anthony Albanese has been unequivocal on this, and I think he’s right.

In that context, I think the decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, however poorly handled was its execution might have been, is defensible. We are an island continent with a massive coastline to defend against threats that, however unlikely now, could arise in the future, as they did in the past with the bombing of Darwin, and the actions of submarines against both Sydney and Newcastle, by Japan in World War II. In an age where surface vessels are ever more vulnerable to missile attack, it is almost universally accepted that highly capable submarines must be an indispensable part of our arsenal.

Of course there are multiple issues still to be resolved about cost, delivery time, bridging the potential capability gap with our present Collins-class submarines reaching their use-by date, and the extent to which they can be locally built – with plenty of reason for doubt, given our past history with major defence contracts in general, and submarine contracts in particular, whether we can get any of this right. But it is hard to argue with the basic proposition that we need more self-reliance when it comes to securing our future, that effective submarine capability is an indispensable part of that, and that nuclear-propelled submarines are far more capable individually than conventionally powered ones. And I don’t think the kinds of submarines now being proposed in any way contribute to nuclear proliferation – for reasons I’ll happily spell out if you want to pursue this issue in question time.

My biggest worry about the AUKUS commitment goes not to the technology, but – as I have already indicated -- the kind of relationship with the US that will come with it. At the time of the AUKUS announcement the US Secretaries of State and Defense gave clear public assurances that the deal will involve ‘no follow-on reciprocal requirements of any kind,’ and ‘no quid pro quo’. The bottom line is that Australia’s political leaders in the years ahead must be unwavering in holding the Americans to those assurances.

Three: Strengthening our relationships with our Asian and Pacific neighbours.

Some Australian policymakers, and those in sections of the media and elsewhere who try to influence them, still find it difficult to accept that, whatever may have been the case in the past, what matters now and in and future is not our history but our geography. But all the yearning for the ‘Anglosphere’ that has been reignited by the AUKUS agreement – the sense in some quarters that what matters above all is our relationship with the US and UK – cannot conceal this reality. Asia is the region where our economic interests and opportunities are overwhelmingly now concentrated; the region to which – as the composition of our population continues to change – we are increasingly socially and culturally tied; and the region from which any future threats to our security will emanate.

In this context, apart from getting our relationship with China back on a credible and sustainable track, we simply have to strengthen our relationships at all levels with key regional neighbours -- India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam in particular.

As much as we should 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 –for the foreseeable future internal divisions, and the organization’s culture of extreme caution, make that unlikely. 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. While we have taken some steps in this direction in recent years – one of the few positive foreign policy contributions Scott Morrison has made was to take seriously, and visit Vietnam – much more effort is needed. Above all with our huge immediate neighbour, Indonesia, where the substance of our relationship in almost every dimension - economic, political, security, cultural, educational – has become desolately thin.

It is particularly crucial that Australia should work ever more closely with India, with its vast size and potential power and influence, to strengthen the many bonds we already share – as we have really now started to do with the Quad partnership in particular, bringing together Australia and India with Japan and the United States. We have an admirable blueprint for advancing the economic relationship with the Varghese report of 2018 (An India Economic Strategy to 2035) – identifying ten sectors and ten states where there was huge growth potential – but there has been little sign of either our government or our business community moving seriously forward.

Not every aspect of relations with India are likely to be comfortable – it is hard not to be concerned about Delhi’s failure to explicitly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or its willingness to turn a blind eye to the military coup in Myanmar, or the present Hindu nationalist government’s domestic human rights record– but, here as elsewhere, being able to have frank and constructive discussions about these issues without prejudicing the larger relationship is what competent diplomacy is all about.

We also need to pay much more than lip-service to developing helpful and mutually respectful relationships with our Pacific Island neighbours. I made my very first trip as Foreign Minister to that region but that example has not been followed by any of my successors, and our national engagement for many years has been sporadic and largely problem or crisis-driven (as with the Solomons peacekeeping intervention) rather than sustained, systematic and serious. Even with some very real crises we have dropped the ball: on pandemic vaccine supply and on climate change in particular.

I don’t think we should become over-excited or over-agitated about some of China’s attempts to gain influence in the region, but if we want our concerns on issues like the Solomon’s recent exploration of greater security cooperation with Beijing to be taken seriously our diplomacy is going to have to be a lot more engaged and responsive.

Four: Restoring our global credibility as a good international citizen.

Australia has been at its best, and our standing in the world highest, when we 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 – advancing what I like to call our national interest in being and being seen to be a good international citizen. In my new little book I have been launching this month – Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency – I argue that being a good international citizen is both a moral imperative, and also a hard-headed national interest, because of the very real returns – particularly reputational, or in term of ‘soft power’ – that decent international behaviour generates, even when there are no immediate or obvious national security or economic prosperity benefits to be gained from that decency.

To me, there are four big practical benchmarks which matter above all else when one is assessing any country’s record as a good international citizen. Being a generous aid donor. Doing everything we can to protect and advance universally recognised human rights. Doing everything we reasonably can to prevent the horror and misery of war and mass-atrocity crimes, and to alleviate their consequences, including for refugees fleeing their impact. And being an actively committed participant in attempts to meet the great existential risks posed by health pandemics, global warming and nuclear war.

Australia likes to think of itself as a good international citizen and from time to time has deserved to be so regarded. But only from time to time. Against these benchmarks our overall record has been patchy at best, lamentable at worst, and is presently embarrassingly poor.

On overseas aid, we have been the worst-performed of any rich-country donor in terms of the decline in our generosity over the last five decades. On human rights, where what happens at home very much matters abroad – nobody likes a hypocrite – our record has been at best mixed. So too with our contributions to international peace and security. In peacemaking diplomacy, and responding to mass-atrocity crimes, we have played some important positive roles, notably in Cambodia, and I certainly think that our strong bipartisan response to the current horror-story in Ukraine – where we have no direct security or economic interests at stake, but where the issues of international law and morality have been crystal clear - has been a classic good international citizenship response.

As international peacekeepers we have always done well, but accepted too few such obligations in recent years. In the case of actual warfighting we have been at our best when making our own decision to fight just wars, lawful under the UN Charter, and at our worst when persuaded to go to war for less just causes in the hope of buying alliance insurance protection against possible future threats to ourselves.

In meeting our responsibilities to refugees and asylum seekers, our record has been at times in the past a very proud one, but in recent years little short of shameful, with my own party joining the race to the bottom. In the current election campaign the ALP leadership has once again submerged its better instincts – on issues like offshore processing – in the interests of avoiding being wedged, but I live in hope that we will in government act more decently.

In helping meet the three great existential risks to life on this planet as we know it, Australia’s international performance has been underwhelming or worse. A bare pass in the case of pandemics, though we have not matched our promise with performance in the South Pacific, and our financial contribution to COVAX – the global program for distributing vaccines equitably, which is way behind its 2021 target – has been among the least generous of any developed country. A dismal fail on climate change, where our response has been grudging, minimalist, and done nothing to redeem our now well-established international reputation as a climate laggard.

On nuclear weapons, the existential risk issue with which I have personally been most actively involved – now, extraordinarily, the subject of new threats by Russia, which cannot be entirely dismissed as bluff –Australia in fact has played in the past a major role in global agenda setting – not just on nuclear non-proliferation but disarmament – in particular with the major international commissions sponsored by the Keating and Rudd Governments. We can play such a role again in the future, if those on the non-Labor side of politics, and some on my own, can overcome their lovesickness with nuclear deterrence, and the joys of sheltering uncritically under whatever nuclear umbrella we believe the United States might be inclined to hold up for us in a crisis. A good start would be for us to support the growing international movement for the universal adoption of ‘No First Use’ doctrine by the nuclear-armed states. But that will need not only the election of a Labor government, but one that has recovered its mojo on these issues.

Five: Restoring diplomacy to centre stage.

If we are to meet the foreign policy challenges I have described it is critical that credible, professional, well-funded and well-led diplomacy return to centre-stage. The decline in influence of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been sad to behold – totally marginalized by the current government’s obsessive preoccupation with defence and intelligence, a manifest failure to appreciate the crucial role of traditional diplomacy in advancing peace and security. None of which has been helped by its current leadership, a minister making a virtue of being invisible - and as limp as last week’s lettuce when she is not – and a departmental head who is an army reservist with no previous diplomatic experience at all.

The budgetary figures speak for themselves, DFAT’s allocation shrank by 20 per cent from 1996-2008, under the Howard Government, and has barely improved since. The 2019-20 combined budget for diplomacy, trade and aid was less than one-ninth that for aid. The DFAT budget will be smaller in 2022 than it was fifteen years ago. Australia ranks 13th in the world for defence expenditure but has only the 27th largest diplomatic network. We were described recently by a distinguished former diplomat James Wise as 'a middle-weight country with light-weight foreign policy machinery drifting into the featherweight division.'

A country with Australia's general record and reputation as an energetic, creative middle power which has on many occasions in the past played a world-leading role in international diplomacy—in institution building, and on peace and security and other issues — should be doing better than we are now, both in protecting our own direct and immediate security interests, and in making the wider world a safer and better place for all its peoples. I am optimistic that we can meet all these international challenges, but we have a lot of ground to recover, and for that to happen a necessary condition is sharply focused, principled and intelligent political leadership – from both sides of national politics. That is not a commodity in abundant recent supply, but we live in hope.