The 20-year arc of Oz foreign policy
19 Feb 2018|

Australia’s four foreign policy white papers are windows on their moments, offering a 20-year narrative of shifting times. The arc is across four stepping stones aligned in purpose but beset by swift tides.

The white papers are two from the Howard government, In the national interest (1997) and Advancing the national interest (2003), the Gillard government’s Australia in the Asian century (2012) and the Turnbull government’s Foreign policy white paper: opportunity, security, strength (2017).

The 1997 paper basked in the US unipolar moment and Asia’s growth, accurately calling the major trends of the next 15 years: globalisation and East Asia’s continuing rise. Unfortunately for the paper’s reputation, the Asian financial crisis arrived soon after, a firestorm torching any claim to prescience. White papers sketch what the world might look like a decade out, but can’t forecast disaster 12 months ahead. A government trying to be far-sighted risks political embarrassment from what happens next.

The 1997 paper described bilateral relationships as the building blocks of policy, with the US the most important block. While denying that the paper presented ‘a strict hierarchy of importance’, it did just that in designating a hierarchy of ‘the countries which most substantially engage Australia’s interests’. The order was: the US, Japan, China and Indonesia. Then followed the ‘significant’ interests list: South Korea, the other ASEAN states and—in the South Pacific—New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. India didn’t make either of the substantial or significant groups.

The paper’s first heading, ‘Change and continuity’, was illustrated when its chief author, Peter Varghese, became secretary of DFAT 16 years later and offered a faux formula for Australia’s view of the world that built on the 1997 base using bilateral/multilateral updates. Varghese’s formula was ‘6+2+N’: the six most important countries for Australia, listed alphabetically, from Gillard’s Asian century paper (China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and the US), plus Australia’s two most significant multilateral meetings, the East Asia Summit and the G20, and ‘N’ for the neighbourhood, the South Pacific.

The 2003 paper described the age of terrorism, with the 2001 attacks in the US and the 2002 Bali bombings ‘defining events’ for Australia. A government girding to join the invasion of Iraq started the document by emphasising Australia’s ‘fundamental values and beliefs’, arguing that the nation’s security depended on promoting ‘economic and political freedom abroad’. The US loomed largest in the Australian understanding, with one of the 12 chapters devoted solely to the US.

While China’s rising economic, political and strategic weight was ‘the most important factor shaping Asia’s future’, the paper underestimated the speed of China’s arrival. It described China as ‘much less powerful than Japan’ and stated that ‘no country in Asia will supplant Japan’s importance to Australia’s prosperity for at least another decade’. Within four years, China soared past Japan and the US to become Australia’s biggest trade partner.

The Gillard government’s 2012 policy is the odd member of the four: the only Labor paper, produced in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and running to 312 pages. The three Liberal papers all came out of DFAT and are slimmer: 92 pages in 1997, 168 pages in 2003 and 122 pages in 2017.

Julia Gillard ordered the white paper as a policy tool—its first line declared, ‘Asia’s rise is changing the world’—and as a political weapon. She needed her own foreign policy document, independent of her foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, the man she’d deposed as prime minister. The Rudd factor meant that the white paper had to be written by the PM’s department, not DFAT.

The immediate Canberra/bureaucratic parentage of the term ‘Asian century’ lies with Treasury, which started using the label to discuss the mining boom and how Asia’s ‘growth and dynamism’ would have a ‘profound influence’ on Australia. Gillard appointed then-just retired Treasury secretary Ken Henry to conduct the inquiry and do the report.

Henry knew a lot about economics but not much about Asia. He discovered interesting stuff that was new to him and wrote it all down. When his draft report blew out beyond 400 pages, another part of the PM’s empire was called in to ‘help’ edit: the foreign policy remedial assistance was given by Allan Gyngell, head of the Office of National Assessments.

Reaching for a political weapon, Gillard had crunched what traditionally would be a two-stage process—first a ‘green’ paper giving Henry scope to range widely, followed by a government white paper setting out policy backed by funding—into a single effort. Henry’s behemoth was issued as government policy with 25 national objectives (productivity, education, language, tax—everything from agriculture to security) as a roadmap to 2025. However, grand announcements don’t deliver budget dollars. And as the history of defence white papers illustrates, plans without a proper pile of pennies just plop.

The Asian century paper was a sunny document, confident about Australia’s Asian future. Ditto on Asia’s two giants: ‘We are optimistic about the ability of China and the US to manage strategic change in the region … the intensity, structure and sophistication of their engagement, often underestimated, has shown it; and they have deeply interlinked interests that will push them that way.’

Five years later the Turnbull paper has bright hopes but dark visions: ‘Today, China is challenging America’s position.’ The 2017 paper affirms the US alliance, expressing Canberra’s hope/belief/prayer that the US will stay top dog: ‘The Australian Government judges that the United States’ long-term interests will anchor its economic and security engagement in the Indo–Pacific.’

Whereas the 1997 paper devoted a whole chapter to the US, the 2017 paper begins its chapter covering threats, fault lines and geoeconomic competition with a section headed ‘The United States and China’.

The 20-year arc has a troubled trajectory.