Foreign policy white paper 2017: of speaking softly and carrying a big stick

The cover of the Turnbull government’s 2017 foreign policy white paper shows Australia large and at the centre of our universe—but still dwarfed by the imposing vastness of Asia stretching right over it. Europe, at the top, looks a very long way away.

And the subtitle—‘Opportunity, security, strength’—sums up succinctly the document’s key message that being poised on the edge of such a dynamic region brings economic opportunities, but also a sense of future uncertainty that the nation needs to prepare for. The ‘security’ and ‘strength’ parts of the equation could easily be replaced with the unspoken ‘threat’ and ‘need to be stronger’.

The paper acknowledges that the decade to come will bring unprecedented change, and it notes that while the United States has been the dominant power in the region through Australia’s post–World War II history, ‘today China is challenging America’s position’.

It says that navigating the decade ahead will be hard because, as China’s power grows, the region is changing in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history.

‘Our alliance with the US is central to Australia’s approach to the Indo-Pacific’, the paper says. It warns that ‘without strong US political, economic and security engagement, power is likely to shift more quickly in the region and it will be more difficult for Australia to achieve the levels of security and stability we seek. The government will broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation, including through the US force posture initiatives.’ The paper doesn’t go into detail but it is those US force posture initiatives that are bringing up to 2,500 US marines to northern Australia for several months of training each year, as well as increased visits by long-range US bombers.

Australia and its regional and global ‘partners’ face diverse threats, ranging from North Korea’s long-range missile and nuclear programs to Islamist terrorism, the paper says.

The fragility of states, demographic shifts and environmental challenges like climate change will continue to shape our world and demand policy responses. ‘Powerful drivers of change are converging in a way that is reshaping the international order and Australia’s interests.’

While acknowledging the economic and other benefits a stronger Asia could bring to Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull noted the presence of the head of the ADF, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, at the paper’s launch:

He understands, as does the Defence Minister, Marise Payne, and the Defence Industry Minister, Christopher Pyne, as do all our defence leaders; they all understand that we live in times, yes, of uncertainty and indeed times that are more dangerous than we’ve seen for a very long time. That is why we are investing in the largest revitalisation of our armed forces, in the air, on the land and on the sea, in peacetime history. Security and prosperity, they go hand in hand.

The prime minister continued, ‘Uncertainty is a fact. Rapid change is a fact. They’re realities. The challenge for us is not how to resist them, let alone deny them, but how to prosper with them, how to hedge against the risks and seize the opportunities the times offer us.’

Turnbull said the white paper was clear-eyed and hard-headed. ‘It sees our world, and our region, as it is, not how we wish they could be, or fondly imagine they once were. Prosperity and security, I repeat, go hand in hand and you can’t have the former without the latter. If the Minister for Finance were here, he would remind us you can’t afford the latter without the former.’

The simplicity of the Cold War was long gone, Turnbull said. ‘The world is a much more complex environment. It’s a world in which over the last 30 years we have seen the greatest rise out of poverty in all of human history, but in which the number of civil wars tripled between 2007 and ’14. Conflicts and lawless spaces have generated 65 million displaced people, more than at any time since the Second World War.’

The prime minister said there was no more important bilateral relationship in the world than that of China and the US. ‘I have seen firsthand that Presidents Trump and Xi respect and understand each other, both on the issues on which they agree and those on which they differ.’

The white paper says Australia will have to be agile to catch the benefits flowing from dynamic Asian economies, but that along with those benefits, the risks are building too, and the stability of the Indo-Pacific region can’t be assumed. Any significant rise in protectionism globally could create strategic friction, damage economic growth and undermine the rules that support flows of trade and investment.

The rules and institutions that have helped maintain peace and security and guide global cooperation are under strain, the document says. It notes that in some cases major powers are ignoring or undermining international law. It doesn’t mention China in that context, but it appears to be a clear reference to Beijing’s building and fortifying of islands in the South China Sea and its rejection of an international arbitration court’s ruling that such activity was illegal. Deep inside the report, it observes that the South China Sea is a major fault line in the regional order and says Australia is particularly concerned about the unprecedented pace and scale of its island-building activities.

‘In this dynamic environment, Australia must seek opportunity while protecting our interests in the face of complexity and uncertainty’, the white paper says.

‘We will require active, determined and innovative foreign policy built on strong domestic foundations—a flexible economy, strong defence and national security capabilities and resilient democratic institutions within a cohesive society.’ An outward-looking Australia fully engaged with the world is essential to our future security and prosperity, the paper says.

‘For Australia, the stakes could not be higher.’