Charting Australia’s course in an increasingly illiberal world

Foreign policy white papers are strange creatures. As the past 14 years amply demonstrate, they’re not necessary for the conduct of effective foreign policy. They are expensive and they expend diplomatic capital by signalling policy positions that might otherwise be carefully obscured. And they can become obsolete with frightening rapidity.  In some respects, they are something of an indulgence.

Over the past half-decade, it has become clear that the international order is undergoing a number of significant convulsions. While the consequences will remain uncertain for some time, they present the most significant challenges Australia has faced since 1945. Yet there has been little public debate about the profound nature of these challenges, how we should manage them, and the costs that might be imposed on us in meeting them. The 2017 foreign policy white paper has begun what should be a wide-ranging public debate about Australia’s future.

The paper’s unequivocal advocacy for liberalism—at home and abroad—is extremely welcome. It’s important that a country like Australia nail its colours to the mast at a time when liberal ideas face significant headwinds. That the values at the centre of Australian society are also at the heart of the country’s international engagement is encouraging intellectually and politically.

The paper makes clear that the main purpose of Australian foreign policy over the coming years is to defend the economic and strategic status quo in the region. By this I mean an open and broadly liberal international economic order, a strategic balance favourable to Australia’s interests, and a set of rules and institutions that guides the behaviour of states.

The principal threat the status quo faces comes from the changing distribution of power represented most acutely by China’s revival, but also by the growth of India, Indonesia and other large emerging powers. None of those countries can be depended on alone or collectively to sustain a liberal order. Indeed, some appear to want to change at least some aspects of that order.

The other challenge comes from doubts about America’s capacity and will to play the kind of role it has in the past. The US will continue to be a large economy and considerable military power. But the election of Donald Trump showed allies and friends that Washington couldn’t be depended on to think about its stake in the international order in the same way forever. While Trump will eventually leave the White House, the forces that brought him to office aren’t going away. Moreover, the turn against an expansive global role for the US began more than a decade ago and shows no sign of abating.

Australia’s aim is to have strong relationships with both China and the US. Canberra will aim to coax Beijing into seeing the benefits of the status quo, while it will encourage Washington as much as possible to play a leadership role in Asia. But, ultimately, Australia’s foreign policy will be shaped most profoundly by the extent to which the US and China contest one another’s regional role. And here our capacity to influence events will be marginal.

The bigger question isn’t how the US manages its regional role but what China wants from Asia—and indeed the world. The ambition on display at the 19th Party Congress wasn’t especially comforting, although efforts by Xi Jinping at APEC to present China as a defender of economic openness should provide some slivers of comfort if those words can be taken at face value.

Few doubt that China will contest American influence in the region, but how much and at what cost is far from clear. It has already begun to create regional institutions to advance those interests, principally in its Western periphery. But one shouldn’t assume that its ambition will remain only on the Eurasian Steppes. The paper is fairly quiet about what Australia should do in relation to China, except for the slightly jolting statement on page 27 that Canberra will need to do more to shape a favourable strategic balance.

The paper emphasises the importance of developing partnerships with liberally inclined countries so that we share the burden of supporting the status quo—with the focus on South Korea, India, Japan and Indonesia. These are important and necessary steps to buttress an order under strain. But if the US continues to walk away from liberal internationalism, the five ‘Indo-Pacific democracies’—even if they could align their interests and significantly ramp up their military capabilities—might not fill the considerable gap that would be left.

The paper grapples with the big issues confronting Australia, but it can’t dismiss the reality that we remain dependent on the US, an ally that has become increasingly unreliable. That dependence has less to do with the bilateral security guarantee than the load-bearing role the US has played in maintaining a liberal, rules-based economic order and a stable and beneficial strategic balance.

As Washington wobbles and authoritarian powers rise, the world has become a more challenging place for liberalism. The paper does well to illustrate the nature of the challenges Australia faces and the need to take significant steps to sustain the status quo. But it doesn’t fully acknowledge how hard the defence of that order will be.