Beyond (Hugh) White papers
13 Oct 2017|

If Australian politicians are certain about one thing regarding the future, it’s that ‘we do not have to choose’ between the US and China. This panglossian optimism is easily mocked, though a small industry of scholars has devoted itself to deciphering whether Australia has already chosen, or whether a series of ‘mini-China choices’ rather than one big decision is a better way to view it.

Yet, as Voltaire points out in his novel Candide, where he mocks poor Professor Pangloss—who endlessly repeats ‘this is the best of all possible worlds’ while everything around him burns and collapses—debates about whether to be optimistic or pessimistic don’t do us much good. Like the good Enlightenment figure he was, he urged readers to instead ‘cultivate one’s garden’ and focus on practical and everyday steps.

A similar caution could be offered to the current regional security debate. Not only is it largely pointless to debate the distant future of our choices, but the debate itself is probably harmful. The very terms of the ‘China choice’ suggest that countries Australia’s size can only respond. Or that they are simply acting as the big states force them to act. For many, this is now all the explanation needed to explain Australian foreign policy.

The harm of this explanation taking root around our region or at home can hardly be overstated. It’s time therefore to move beyond the White papers—the Hugh White papers.

Rather than Australian officials merely refuting (the strawman version of) Professor White’s work, we need to hear our policymakers offer clear and practical guidance on how Australia is managing the challenge of our changing regional order.

In an otherwise eloquent speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Malcolm Turnbull clunkily said:

some commentators argue that Australia has to choose between Beijing and Washington. It is an utterly false choice … Nothing constrains us in our dealings with the other, neither constrains us in our dealings with the other—our foreign policy is determined in Australia’s national interest and Australia’s alone.

Yet this is a formless statement. It doesn’t give any evidence that this is occurring. It can also be easily misinterpreted. Ely Ratner, a well-informed scholar of Asian security issues at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted at the time that Turnbull’s line sounded like ‘Australia first’.

Rather than saying that we don’t have to choose, Australia’s leaders should be saying what they’re doing.

They should be providing an explanation that makes clear why we would support the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and yet worry about artificial islands in the South China Sea, and why we would protect our alliance with the US, and yet refuse to conduct naval freedom of navigation operations.

Without an explanation, our recent behaviour could look incoherent. Indeed, many assume it is, believing that Australia chases dollars when engaging China and seeks sanctuary when engaging the US.

As I argued in a submission to the foreign policy white paper (PDF), building a narrative for how we have acted and will act is a task ideally suited to that forthcoming document. Having a story that’s easily understood and persuasive, and that explains how and when the Australian government acts internationally, will go a long way towards improving both our international diplomatic impact and domestic support for the costs and challenges of active engagement with the world.

In the 1980s, we had the story of ‘engagement’ with Asia. Though Australian officials and businesses had been engaging with the region for several decades, this idea achieved several things. It provided transparency that allowed onlookers to understand our behaviour. It legitimated and justified that behaviour in the face of critics, and it helped the various arms of government coordinate their efforts. For a country of our size, every bit helps.

The idea of engagement was later trotted out in various forms by the governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, but it no longer worked. Our major trading partners are almost all in Asia. We’re a member of the proliferation of regional governance forums. And there are growing business, people, social and cultural links.

I wish I could end this blog post with a magic formula that could be as intuitively appealing and useful as a new narrative for our foreign policy. But I can at least offer what I think are the questions we need to have answers to in order to find a useful story:

  • What does Australia want Asia to look like in 2030?
  • What role will Australia play to help the region achieve that vision?
  • What are the right pathways, tools, partners and other mechanisms to achieve that vision?
  • How important is it to Australia that this ambition is achieved?

If we can answer those questions, we can have a sense of the purpose of our nation’s foreign policy. Saying you want to achieve your national interests isn’t being purposeful. It’s just a generic claim to want good things over bad things. Instead, we need a specific and public purpose, set out in terms of what we want to achieve. After several years of simply dismissing the challenge posed by Hugh White’s choice thesis, it’s time to provide an explanation of our own.