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After AUKUS: Australia's role and relevance

Presentation to the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC), Australian National University, Canberra, 14 March 2023

On the day that Australia is announcing its AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine acquisition decision, it is timely to be asking what kind of country we aspire to be in the conduct of our international affairs. Can we conduct our foreign policy and build our defence capability and relationships in a way that wins us respect and relevance internationally, or are we destined to be forever a bit player, adding some marginal additional weight to US military capability but not having much credibility or influence as an independent international player in our own right?

To me the answer has two main dimensions. First and most obviously, how we handle the challenges that every country has in protecting and advancing its hard-core traditional national interests in security and prosperity. For us that comes down primarily to how we navigate our relationships with the United States and China in the current increasingly fraught competitive environment between them – including how in that context we manage the AUKUS commitment – and how we rebuild our relationships with our other Asia and Pacific neighbours.

Second, and perhaps less obviously, but to me equally important in determining our international standing – and, as well, our sense of self-worth as a nation – is how we handle ourselves on the wider regional and global stage on what I like to call good-international-citizenship, or selfless decency issues: how we act, and are seen to act, when it comes to genuinely caring about poverty; about conflict and human rights atrocities and the misery of those fleeing their impact; about environmental catastrophes, weapons proliferation; and about other problems afflicting people very often in places far from our own shores, and very often having little or no direct or immediate impact on our own security or prosperity, a dimension of our foreign policy which has too often gone missing in Australia in recent years, including in our aid policy; our contributions to peacemaking and peacekeeping, and arms control and disarmament; our support for refugees and asylum seekers; and above all in our climate policy.

Context. We need to acknowledge, in setting the context for that discussion, that Australia has a lot of history both to live down, and to live up to.

As Allan Behm meticulously documents in his book last year, No Enemies No Friends: Restoring Australia’s Global Relevance, what we still have to live down is most obviously the awful racism at the heart of our foreign policy for decades, with the lowlights including Billy Hughes’s campaign against Japan’s efforts to include an anti-racial discrimination clause in the Treaty of Versailles, and Menzies’s support both for the continued domination of Asia by the ‘white man’ and for apartheid South Africa, not forgetting Percy Spender’s casting vote as President of the International Court of Justice in the South West Africa Case in 1966 which delayed Namibian independence for a generation and won Australia opprobrium throughout the developing world which took a long time to shake off.

And we also have to live down some cringe-making acquiescence – in the service of buying, or thinking we were buying, insurance from great and powerful friends – in fighting wars utterly without either legal or moral justification, most obviously Vietnam and the Second Gulf War of 2003.

But it is also important to remember that, when it comes to assessing our international impact, we have a great deal of history to live up to: including Evatt’s role in the founding of the United Nations, Chifley’s role in supporting Indonesia’s independence, Spender’s role (in an earlier incarnation) in initiating the Colombo Plan, Fraser’s embrace of Indo-Chinese refugees, the Howard Government’s role in bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to fruition in the UN, and Rudd’s central role in crafting the G20’s response to the global financial crisis in 2008

  • along with all the other achievements in global and regional leadership that are generally credited to Australia under the Hawke-Keating governments: the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, the Antarctic Wilderness Treaty, the Cambodian peace plan, the creation of APEC, the finalisation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the initiation of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and our advocacy of the financial sanctions which were the final nail in the coffin of apartheid.

So we have shown often enough in the past that Australia is capable of having real impact and relevance both regionally and globally. But it has to be acknowledged that we have squandered a good deal of our international credit, particularly over the last two decades and that – while the new Albanese government is very conscious of that, and is off to a flying start, particularly in rebuilding diplomatic relationships – we have a lot of ground to make up if we are to have that relevance and impact again.

Navigating US-China Strategic Competition

This is a challenge faced not just by us but most of our regional neighbours. We are hugely economically dependent on China, the major trading partner for most of us, but at the same time have legitimate security concerns about its new assertiveness under Xi Jinping, accompanied by significant modernization and expansion of its military capability, some of which has direct territorial dimensions —not least its continued overreach in the South China Sea – which demands a degree of pushback.

In that context it is difficult to argue against the utility of the Quad. While still reluctant to characterise itself as a new fully-fledged military alliance, the new grouping has very significant combined military clout, and by its existence sends a very clear signal to Beijing that any significant further adventurism in the region cannot be expected to be cost free.

AUKUS – and in particular the submarine acquisition program at its heart – is a more complicated story. It is always prudent for defence preparedness to be based on a potential adversary’s known capability, and not its present or presumed future intent. In that context, there can be little argument about the need for Australia to lift its game and acquire, probably at significant additional cost to the national budget, a fit-for-purpose defence capability. But there needs to be much more honest and open debate than we have had so far about what that means.

I remain basically untroubled by the nuclear dimension of this purchase. Nobody, a handful of familiar suspects apart (who keep getting a bigger platform than they deserve, including in last week’s wildly over the top Age/SMH ‘Red Alert’ series) has suggested that it heralds the prospect of our own nuclear weapons, which I would certainly regard as catastrophic; and as to the proliferation risk of the nuclear propulsion technology, I am sure there will be effective IAEA-endorsed and monitored safeguards.

But there are real questions, so far unanswered, about just how compelling is the need, which this purchase clearly embraces, to shift the whole decades-long focus of our defence posture away from the defence of Australia and our archipelagic near north to distant forward defence; and as to why in that context the eye-watering cost involved – likely to be around $200 billion – would not be better spent on a much larger fleet of smaller and nimble conventionally powered boats.

And while some of the concerns about a capability gap seem to have been met by the two-stage acquisition now proposed, starting with off-the-shelf purchase of up to five US Virginia-class boats and only much later moving to a new US-UK-Australia purpose designed and presumably jointly-built model, the extraordinary complexity of the operational challenge involved for us in all of this has been described by one commentator I know and respect (James Acton at the Carnegie Endowment) as a ‘goat rodeo in the making’, using the American vernacular for a chaotic fiasco.

But the question that worries me above all is the loss of agency that seems inevitable as we yoke ourselves so comprehensively to this US technology. 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’. And we will see constant repetition of the line that Australia will retain complete operational independence in the use of these boats. But my own experience, particularly in working with the Americans in the First Gulf War in 1991(the good one) is that that is not quite the way the real world works.

The most immediate concern should be that we will be drawn, against our will and against our interests, into a war over Taiwan. There is nothing inevitable about the so-called Thucydides Trap (the claimed tendency, when a rising power challenges an established one, for things to end in tears) and every reason to believe that, despite all the rhetoric, caution will prevail over Taiwan on both sides for the foreseeable future. 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 Taiwan has always been a special case with its sovereignty never recognised internationally in the same way as Kuwait’s or Ukraine’s, Australia has little or no capacity to influence the outcome, but a great capacity to suffer if drawn into war at any level. My very strong view is we should not follow the Morrison Government in creating any expectation at all that our participation in such a fight is a given.

The crucial need for all of us in the region is to maintain our balance, and national agency, and not get completely sucked into the orbit of either Beijing or Washington. We need to get along with them – and recognize their positive contributions to prosperity and stability – where we possibly can, but stand up to them where we must.

With the US, we all need to recognize the extraordinary stabilizing role it has played in the region for many decades, and its continuing capacity – with its allies and partners – to act as a military counterweight and deterrent against a potentially over-ambitious Beijing. But its inability to conceptualise its own role – both in the region and globally – in terms other than the ‘p’ words – primacy, predominance, and pre-eminence – makes for continuing real, and potentially acute, tensions, and we know from the past (not least Vietnam and Iraq) that Washington is capable of making some terrible judgment calls.

What all of us in the region can probably most usefully do – and middle power voices have a critical leadership role here (and Australia will always remain a middle power, however many nuclear subs we possess) – is to emphasise, over and again, the crucial importance of approaching all these issues with not a confrontational but a cooperative security mindset - that approach which focuses on finding security with others, not against them; on confidence-building strategies; on seeing security as multidimensional, with many economic and social as well as military and other hard-edged traditional components; and above all on building habits of dialogue, consultation and cooperation between nations.

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 – and with the Albanese visit to India this week there are at last some signs of our government and 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.

On all these fronts there is plenty of evidence that Penny Wong fully appreciates the nature and extent of the challenges, and is fully up to meeting them. Her own mixed Asian-Australian heritage has shown itself already to be a huge asset in cutting through the old stereotypes about the kind of country we are.

We also need to pay much more than lip-service to developing helpful and mutually respectful relationships with our Pacific Island neighbours. 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. 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. Penny Wong has been obviously determined to do just that, and her initial response has been exemplary.

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 published last year – 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 its election campaigning the current ALP leadership has tended to submerge its better instincts – on issues like offshore processing – in the interests of avoiding being wedged, but I live in hope that our new government recognises the need to 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– was been among the least generous of any developed country. A dismal fail on climate change, where our response has until the change of government 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. And on that the jury is to some extent still out. Penny Wong prefers to talk about ‘constructive internationalism’ as a national interest rather than my concept of ‘being and being seen to be a good international citizen’. She basically means by that support for effective rules-based international institutions – I share that objective, but regard it as only one part of the story.

Restoring diplomacy to centre stage.

There is one big remaining challenge to overcome if Australia is to regain the international relevance and impact to which we aspire – and it is one on which I know Penny Wong completely shares my perspective – and that is to ensure that credible, professional, well-funded and well-led diplomacy returns to centre-stage in the conduct of our international affairs.

The decline in influence of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade since the late 1990s has been sad to behold – totally marginalized by successive Coalition governments’ obsessive preoccupation with defence and intelligence, a manifest failure to appreciate the crucial role of traditional diplomacy in advancing peace and security.

The DFAT budget was 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.' The new government is on the case, but there is a long way to go in getting back, in budgetary terms and otherwise, to where DFAT should be.

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 that has been in abundant recent supply, but we live in hope.