Agenda for Change 2016: foreign policy

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This piece is drawn from Agenda for Change 2016: strategic choices for the next government.

Australia confronts a stream of global and regional ordering challenges, almost none within its ability to solve single-handedly. At the top level, we face a looming problem in global leadership; at the regional level, our priority must be to find new inputs from the major Asian players for an ongoing liberal order; and locally, we confront a set of worries about the South Pacific—a region where our friends and allies expect us to lead.

US foreign policy’s been uneven since 9/11. But the 2016 US presidential election primaries suggest a worrying long-term fracturing of the mainstream in US foreign and defence policy. The ‘America First’ current is now flowing strongly in US politics. Even Clinton might find it hard to renew US global re-engagement if she’s elected. In relation to the US presence in Asia, the big question must surely be ‘Does the rebalance survive and, if so, in what form?’ Signals of American disengagement would weaken the hub-and-spokes model of regional security, and quicken a trend towards increased multipolarity.

Over recent decades, China’s economic growth has been spectacular. Australia’s been a major beneficiary—so it isn’t a fiction to say that Australia wants to see China succeed in its economic and societal development, and in its emergence as a great power in 21st-century Asia. But those hopes don’t blind us to other aspects of China’s re-emergence that are more concerning. In particular, China’s maritime assertiveness in the East and South China seas suggests it’s not buying into a liberal regional order of laws and rules, and Xi Jinping has spoken openly of a future regional order best characterised as ‘Asia for the Asians’.

Australia’s relationship with Japan remains our closest in Asia even after our recent decision on the future submarine contract. A deeper defence relationship with Japan presents an opportunity for Australia to pursue our interests while demonstrating our willingness to shoulder some of the regional security burden with a like-minded liberal democracy. Moreover, it’s in Australia’s interests to support a responsible and active Japan that seeks to make a greater contribution to regional security, stability and prosperity. Some commentators worry that a deeper defence relationship with Japan could entangle Australia in North Asian security contingencies. But the 2016 DWP already recognises Australia’s ‘deep and abiding interest in peace, stability and security in North Asia’. Pursuing that declared interest is the principal driver of our engagement in the subregion.

As the rise of the Asian great powers shifts the balance of power in the Indo–Pacific region, maritime Southeast Asia is becoming a locus of strategic contest. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and a number of ASEAN nations are a primary concern in the subregion. The effects of those disputes are amplified by the Sino-US competition for regional influence and the growing determination of Japan and India to pursue their own interests in Southeast Asia. As the relative tranquillity that ASEAN states have enjoyed in recent decades fades, Australia will need to consider how best to secure its own interests in the region.

The relationship between Australia and Indonesia has long been characterised as a roller-coaster, where each new improvement in relations is succeeded by a period of disillusionment and division. It’s important Australia works to build the relationship while also tempering the expectation that we’ll do more than our fair share of the heavy lifting. We should be trying to strengthen bilateral bonds both inside government and beyond.

We have important interests as well as a strong security stake in the South Pacific. Starting at the broadest level, Australia needs to consider its approach to the ‘patchwork’ regional architecture that now holds sway. The current arrangement is arguably inefficient, but there may be greater value in pursuing harmonisation rather than rationalisation. A related task—perhaps of greater value in the long run—will be to advance an agenda of economic integration. Redoubling efforts to give island governments what they unequivocally want—labour integration with the Anzac economies—might spur their interest in the other forms of integration they’d eventually benefit from.

Of course, even if we do succeed in building a closer economic relationship with the Pacific island countries, a more complex South Pacific awaits us. Issues of demography, underemployment, resource exploitation, poor governance and transnational crime will remain. Climate change threatens devastation for some. And separatist and nationalist movements could alter the political make-up of the region, including through upcoming independence referendums in Bougainville and New Caledonia.

Australia’s reliance on multilateral institutions to support its international interests abroad was admirably demonstrated during our term on the UN Security Council in 2013 and 2014. We used the seat wisely to complement our foreign policy engagement. The challenge in future will be to leverage that experience and identify areas where we can sustain our work with the UN. Australia’s inaugural candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council (2018–2020) is a good example of maintaining that engagement.

Peacekeeping should be a specific part of that engagement. Next year will mark 70 years since Australia first deployed personnel to a UN mission, yet our contributions of personnel continue to decline. There’s a risk that Australia will diminish its claim that ‘we do what we say’, despite our rhetoric on the importance of supporting the global rules-based order. Furthermore, Australia is losing operational experience and understanding of how complex UN peace operations work. That’s a liability, particularly if there’s a need for a UN operation in our region in the near future.

Part of the challenge of sustaining Australia’s operational support to the UN is that a lot of engagement on peace and security issues takes place in Africa. We should be seizing opportunities to strengthen relations with a range of African partners and regional organisations. Moreover, Australia’s efforts to address global security threats will ultimately be less successful if there isn’t a more comprehensive effort to integrate women’s participation and gender perspectives into our foreign policy engagement.

In short, Australia’s need for a creative and energetic foreign policy is as great as it’s ever been. With fundamental change either already in train or in prospect in virtually all major areas of foreign policy, the incoming government should commission a new Foreign Policy White Paper to underline its priorities and optimise the fit between tasks and resources.