Foreign policy white paper 2017: Australia and the looming power shift
28 Nov 2017|

Australia’s latest foreign policy white paper is—like the geostrategic region it purports to describe—complex and challenging. White papers usually are, because they are the product of many hands. But in this case there are other drivers—disagreement over the policy settings that best promote Australia’s interests, plus a willingness to pursue multiple pathways in the hope of finding one that works. In this post I want to explore the different recommendations contained in the paper for how to manage the principal strategic challenge of the age, the looming power shift in the Indo-Pacific.

A graphical representation of that shift is given on page 26 of the white paper, in a chart which indicates projected economic growth for key regional countries out to 2030. For those convinced that China’s run is about to come to an end, the chart’s a timely reminder that Chinese growth still has considerable upside. Australia’s own economic fortunes seem puny by comparison. True, strategic weight isn’t just about GDP size. But nor is economic size irrelevant. The prime minister’s introduction underlines the seriousness of what’s unfolding across the broader region: we face a challenge ‘unprecedented’ in modern times.

So what is Australia proposing to do? Well, if the white paper offers any indication, we’re proposing simultaneously to strengthen the current rules-based order, nurture the ties of economic interdependence, act to support a favourable balance of power in the region, and promote national resilience both here at home and across our Pacific neighbours. That suite of policies is meant to be complementary rather than competitive, because they all pull in a common direction.

Let’s start with the rules-based order. Thankfully, that phrase doesn’t appear quite as frequently as it did in last year’s defence white paper, but the sentiment is still unmistakably there. Rules temper power. Australia, a middle-power country, doesn’t wish to see the region slide into a contest of mere power. Nor, it suspects, do most other regional countries that find themselves in the same boat. So there’s a residue of hope around the notion of a rules-governed Indo-Pacific; in particular, the hope that rising great powers—including China—will be willing to buy into a system of rules and norms that codifies and constrains their own behaviour.

That policy grafts naturally to one which runs in parallel to it: encouraging economic interdependence. Yes, the white paper contains a warning that such interdependence carries with it the risk of economic coercion. But the core belief is still that competing strategic rivalries are less likely to arise in an economically integrated Asia than they are in an economically disintegrated Asia (see page 4, for example). The problem, of course, is that with China pushing its One Belt, One Road, and the US withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, economic integration is starting to look both tatty and competitive. For Australia, a renewal of the regional commitment to open trade is a critical part of the strategic glue going forward. Indeed, the white paper even claims that ‘our economic and security interests are converging’, a statement better seen in this light than as an indicator of any impending switch of our strategic loyalties to match our trade balance.

The third policy setting—power balancing— is a large and important one. At page 27, the white paper reads:

In the decade ahead, Australia will seek security and prosperity in a region changing in profound ways. We are likely to face higher degrees of uncertainty and risk. We will need to be more active and determined in our efforts to help shape a regional balance favourable to our interests.

Some readers of the white paper might well have been taken by surprise by that paragraph. Certainly there’s little in the preceding pages to hint that Australia’s about to embark upon a strategy of power balancing. The idea doesn’t find its way into the five ‘objectives’ listed on page 3, for example. Moreover, the topic is bound to provoke debate—first, over whether it complements or contradicts an order-building strategy, and second, over how such power balancing is best done. After all, the quickest way to achieve a regional balance ‘favourable to our interests’ is either to partner more closely with the US or to pursue ‘game-changer’ options in relation to our own military capabilities. In the white paper, the phrase ‘supporting a regional balance favourable to our interests’ typically appears in relation to the ANZUS alliance and growing webs of security cooperation in Asia.

Finally, we come to the fourth policy setting: enhancing national resilience both in Australia and across the arc of comparatively vulnerable Pacific islands to our north. Of the four settings, this one is obviously the most defensive. It would have minimal effect on a shifting power balance in the region. Rather, it would be aimed at diluting the political effects within Australia and the Pacific islands of the growth of coercive power elsewhere. It’s a form of hardening the target, as it were, intended—in the prime minister’s words—to ‘reduce opportunities for coercion’.

All four policy approaches aim at a single end—a regional order more favourable to Australian interests. Although different, they actually show a degree of single-mindedness about Australian foreign policy that’s not been seen for many a year.