- The Strategist - https://www.aspistrategist.org.au -

Five constants for Australia’s Asia policy

Posted By on November 14, 2018 @ 13:22

The increasing strategic competition between the US and China means one thing for most of the countries in the Asia–Pacific region: it’s going to be harder to respond to a more assertive China that challenges the international order and to a US that alternates between isolationist tendencies and confronting China.

The South China Sea continues to be one of the main theatres in which the great-power contest plays out, as the recent USS Decatur incident [1] showed. In the face of rising tensions, Canberra and other key regional players may need to show more willingness to protect their economic interests in the sea lanes of communication. An emerging wave of pushback [2] against Chinese investments in critical infrastructure in the region also hints that key US allies might be expected to collectively resist China’s overt economic expansion.

But in light of the tectonic shifts in the region, it’s important for Canberra to develop an Asia strategy of its own that reflects Australia’s national interests and sets a far-sighted policy for its interactions in the neighbourhood.

Here are five Cs or ‘constants’ for Australia to bear in mind in formulating its Asia policy in the wake of escalating great-power competition.

The first one is careful. It’s easy to get carried away by the confrontational narrative in an atmosphere that’s been heated up by speeches [3] from Washington and Beijing on the possibilities of confrontation and preparedness for war [4]. Aggression is contagious.

Australia is a responsible middle power and should keep a cool head. China’s political influence operations in Australia have already led to a ‘reset [5]’ in Canberra’s thinking about relations and a diplomatic ‘freeze [6]’ that only started thawing when Foreign Minister Marise Payne met her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi last week. Beijing will likely be involved in more incidents, such as further attempts to take advantage of Australia’s democratic and open society that could make Canberra pursue more retaliatory policies. Instead, Australia needs to strengthen domestic regulation to prevent further penetration; last year’s foreign interference law is a good example of that.

But beyond protecting its own political integrity, Australia has a larger, parallel, challenge of managing its alliance with the US. Canberra is facing both the fear of abandonment [7] and the fear of entanglement—where the more powerful ally drags its partners into conflicts. Dealing with that challenge requires strategic planning rather than ad hoc responses.

Being careful also means having a thorough understanding of regional affairs and sentiments. To achieve that, Australia needs to show the second C—committed.

Canberra’s commitment to its direct neighbourhood has fluctuated in the past. Many have identified an ‘Australian ambivalence [8]’—a tendency to be preoccupied with big and powerful, but often distant, partners, sometimes at the expense of those that are smaller but closer.

The Special Summit with ASEAN in March was a welcome initiative, but a long-term commitment needs more than sporadic gatherings. Australia needs to commit to a continued invested presence [9] in the region. That will require a level of constant attention to, and engagement with, the region, regardless the political mood of the government of the day—which brings us to the third C: consistent.

Consistency is a rare quality these days in global politics. It should be an indispensable element in Australia’s policy. Inconsistency can have catastrophic effects—just look at the Philippines’ flip-flop under Rodrigo Duterte and how that has affected developments in the South China Sea.

Canberra’s stance should be consistent with what it believes and has announced through government policy statements [10] over the years: a rules-based order and rejection of force or the threat of the use of force, in accordance with international law and UN conventions.

Notwithstanding the recent lively debate on a Plan B [11], the Australia–US alliance remains a cornerstone for Australia’s security posture. Australia is bound to work with Washington despite Canberra’s reservations about the Trump’s administration politics. Hence, there is an even a stronger need for the fourth constant: coordinated.

Alliance coordination is vital. Poor coordination among the allies can not only weaken the alliance but also erode trust between alliance members. Canberra still shares many of the fundamental goals that guide Washington’s engagement with the region. Australia and the US need to coordinate their efforts to avoid sending misleading signals that weaken confidence in the alliance, as well as undercut or raise the cost of efforts while decreasing the effect.

For example, if Australia wants to join forces with the US and Japan, and other like-minded partners, in offering ‘quality infrastructure’ [12] as an alternative to the China’s debt-trap belt-and-road projects, it needs to refrain from making individual announcements in favour of a well-coordinated cooperative response. All participants need a detailed, research-based understanding of the areas in which they can multiply the outputs and areas in which individual efforts can be complementary.

Finally, as the region grows increasingly anxious about the machinations of the great powers, Australia should double down on the fifth C and be constructive. An example of playing a constructive role is further conceptualising the Indo-Pacific strategy so that it includes as many players in the region as possible and puts collective interests at the core of regional politics.

Such a strategy would seek to promote an equal playing field, economic and trade liberalisation, and respect for international law. Support for international institutions and their continued role in a free and open Indo-Pacific region that rejects both domination and isolationism would be the most welcome constructive input.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/five-constants-for-australias-asia-policy/

URLs in this post:

[1] USS Decatur incident: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/10/01/politics/china-us-warship-unsafe-encounter/index.html

[2] pushback: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-10-24/why-democracies-are-turning-against-belt-and-road

[3] speeches: https://www.c-span.org/video/?452478-1/vice-president-pence-intimidated-china

[4] preparedness for war: https://www.rt.com/news/442625-china-prepares-war-us/

[5] reset: https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2018/august/1533045600/john-garnaut/australia-s-china-reset

[6] freeze: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/cold-winds-fifth-china-oz-icy-age/

[7] fear of abandonment: https://www.blackincbooks.com.au/books/fear-abandonment

[8] Australian ambivalence: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australias-ever-changing-perspectives-asean-time-get-right/

[9] continued invested presence: https://www.regionalsecurity.org.au/resources/Documents/Le%20Thu.pdf

[10] government policy statements: https://www.fpwhitepaper.gov.au/foreign-policy-white-paper

[11] Plan B: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/dinkus/australias-security-a-plan-b/

[12] quality infrastructure’: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/australia-joins-us-and-japan-rival-to-china-s-belt-and-road-infrastructure-spree-20180731-p4zumy.html

Copyright © 2023 The Strategist. All rights reserved.