Australia’s Foreign Policy Roadmap for an Uncertain Era
November 22, 2017
Q1: Why did Australia do a Foreign Policy White Paper now?
A1: This is the first Australian Foreign Policy White Paper since the Gillard Labor government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper was launched in 2012, and it is the first prepared by a Coalition government since the Howard government’s 2003 Foreign Policy White Paper. The 2017 White Paper represents a considered response to both the rapid shifts in the balance of power in the region and the accompanying challenges to the rules-based international order that has underpinned stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific for the past 70 years. It should be seen as complementing the 2016 Defence White Paper, which outlined a detailed investment plan for a more capable Australian Defence Force – including a substantial naval build-up.
Q2: How is this White Paper different?
A2: This White Paper goes further than its predecessors in highlighting how rising great-power competition (and growing protectionism) is straining the international order – “the rules and institutions that help maintain peace and security and guide global cooperation”. It seeks to prepare Australian public opinion for a more challenging, contested and ultimately uncertain future in which Australia will have to work harder to maintain its influence, secure its interests, and shape the character of the region: “the stability of the Indo-Pacific region … cannot be assumed.” It also makes more explicit than its predecessors that in doing so Australia will implement a balancing strategy resting on not only a strong alliance with the United States but also values-based cooperation with like-minded partners including Japan, India, Indonesia and South Korea to limit coercive behavior and support a rules-based international order.
Q3: What does the White Paper say about the United States and the Trump Administration?
A3: Like the 2016 Defence White Paper, the Foreign Policy White Paper places the U.S.-Australia alliance at the center of Australian strategy: “Our alliance with the United States is central to Australia’s security and sits at the core of our strategic and defence planning.” It assesses that the United States will retain its significant lead in military and soft power for the foreseeable future. Yet there is also a clear subtext of concern about the direction of U.S. policy – notwithstanding the careful official language.
The White Paper highlights greater debate and uncertainty in the United States about the costs and benefits of sustaining its global leadership, and flags that power will shift more quickly in the region absent strong U.S. political, economic and security engagement. Nevertheless, the White Paper insists, “[w]e believe that the United States’ engagement to support a rules-based order is in its own interests and in the interests of wider international stability and prosperity.” Additionally, it reaffirms Australia’s commitment to supporting U.S. leadership, including the commitment to grow defense spending to 2 per cent of G.D.P. – no doubt with an eye to President Trump’s baleful view of freeriding allies. But it also admonishes that “A comprehensive U.S. economic strategy for Asia will be as important as the United States’ extensive security engagement.” Similarly, it goes out of its way to note that the rules-based order supports not only the interests of Australia and other regional countries but also the United States itself, and that the effectiveness and liberal character of the order will decline without U.S. leadership.
Q4: What does the White Paper say about China?
A4: The language in the White Paper is circumspect about China, reflecting the complex challenges posed for Australia (and other countries in the region) by China’s rise and increasing assertiveness. It acknowledges China’s economic importance and growing capacity to influence virtually the full spectrum of Australia’s international interests, and commits the government to strengthening the bilateral relationship in order to advance those interests. The White Paper is often oblique when it comes to the challenges China poses to the international order, to regional stability, and to Australian interests. Yet the underlying message is clear: China’s regional power and influence now matches, and in some cases exceeds, that of the United States’; China will compete more aggressively with the United States and assert itself more in the region; these trends are changing the region in ways deleterious to Australia’s interests; domestic political interference by China is a serious problem; and frictions over different interests and values will be a feature of Australia’s bilateral relationship with China. Additionally, the White Paper also singles out China for the pace and scale of its land reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea.
Q5: What does the White Paper say about Japan, India, Indonesia and South Korea?
A5: Perhaps the most interesting departure represented by this White Paper is its focus on maintaining the rules-based international order and strengthening ties with like-minded partners who support strong rules and institutions. Australia’s support for re-establishing the quadrilateral dialogue in the margins of the recent East Asia Summit (after the Rudd government pulled out in response to Chinese pressure in 2008) should be seen in this light. The White Paper identifies the “Indo-Pacific democracies” of Japan, India, Indonesia and South Korea as being of first importance to Australia and commits to closer bilateral and “mini-lateral” cooperation with these countries to influence the shape of the regional order.
The White paper will be read carefully in Beijing, Tokyo and Jakarta. It should also be read carefully in Washington for its polite warning about the consequences for the closest of allies if U.S. power and values are not harnessed to sustaining a rules-based, free and open Indo-Pacific.
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