When the going gets tough…
20 Dec 2016|

…the tough get going—trite, perhaps, but appropriate in our current circumstances. 2016 ends in a much darker place than it started. The sense of reluctant resignation with which the year began has morphed into doubt and uncertainty, tinged with a level of global concern that borders on fear.

The refugee pressures on the borders of Europe at the beginning of the year may have abated, but the root problem—the humanitarian disasters attendant upon the civil wars in central and northern Africa and across the Middle East into Afghanistan—has intensified.

The Brexit vote not only initiated what will prove to be a significant decline in Britain’s strategic position in Europe but also, and more dangerously for Europe, encouraged separatists and populists on the left and especially the right to press more actively for the disintegration of the euro and eventually the EU. Russia, in the meantime, is strengthening its position on its southwestern and northwestern borders, and exploiting the political and economic uncertainty that is at the heart of Europe’s woes.

Then along comes President-elect Donald J. Trump with a raft of half-baked policies that are capricious where they are not downright dangerous.

His early foray into foreign policy exhilarated the Taiwanese government and left China’s bemused. Three and a half decades of painstaking diplomacy between the US and China now appears to be on the line, and to what strategic or diplomatic purpose? It’s difficult to see any strategic advantage to the US from challenging the ‘One China’ policy, while the strategic consequences for Japan and South Korea are all on the debit side.

Closer to home, developments in Southeast Asia don’t offer much joy. President Rodrigo Duterte continues to drive The Philippines’ domestic and international policy as if he were at the wheel of a runaway jeepney. The Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, is facing court on charges of blasphemy against Allah. Malaysia continues to embed the kleptocratic authoritarianism of its Prime Minister, and Thailand contemplates a range of constitutional uncertainties following the death of King Bhumibol. And all the while, PNG teeters on the brink of political and economic collapse.

With so many of its basic assumptions overturned by events, Australia’s much-vaunted 2016 Defence White Paper is now dead in the water. The strategic fault lines in the Asia–Pacific region, to which I drew attention in an earlier post, are even more apparent than they were in February 2016. Events have also rendered the force structure changes minimalist, which will demand yet another review of the Defence Capability Plan. Given the precedents, that will take years.

But the gloomy entry to 2017 offers some surprising opportunities to the Australian government.

The best way to deal with doubt and uncertainty is to establish a plan and chart a course, establishing a measure of ambition to which others need to respond. For Australia to set down some policy markers, and, of course, the plans to implement them, would be a positive contribution to regional security and to the efforts of our neighbours to act in the collective interest in confusing times.

The forthcoming Foreign Affairs White Paper is a timely chance to do this.

The first policy marker it might consider is a structured regional approach to refugees, a policy issue that successive governments have handled abominably. Our international reputation for compassion and fairness has been trashed. Australia’s approach has been to incarcerate, without any respect to either the ancient principle of habeas corpus or humanitarian law, the victims of the criminals who conned them onto unsafe boats and simultaneously exploited their desperation and their hope. And our policy annihilates the latter. At its simplest, the regional refugee problem can’t be resolved unless the refugees’ problems are resolved.

A second policy marker that might lend additional credibility to a regional refugee initiative would be a concerted effort, with like-minded countries, to bring about negotiated settlements to the various civil wars that are the basic causes of the global refugee flows. Such action would certainly support Australia’s bid for membership of the Human Rights Council, though it would demand a decidedly more nuanced approach to our own involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a diplomatic rather than military approach to generating a settlement in Syria. Quite simply, ISIS is a symptom of the problem in Syria, not the cause of it.

A third policy marker that might contribute substantially to reducing regional tension is a carefully designed and articulated co-management and co-development mechanism that would bring the various South China Sea claimants to the negotiating table. To have any credibility in this, Australia might need to adopt a more cooperative and reasonable approach to East Timor’s claims to the Greater Sunrise gas fields, rather than await a determination by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

A fourth initiative, given President-elect Trump’s intention to quash the Trans-Pacific Partnership, would be to press for an Asia–Pacific Free Trade Agreement—hopefully including the US—to mitigate the threat of trade wars resulting from resurgent protectionism. Australia’s economic outlook is even gloomier without an open regional trading system.

And, finally, the uncertainty surrounding future US engagement with Asia is the elephant in the room. DFAT’s White Paper should consider the pressing need for an Asia–Pacific security cooperation forum that looks at both security and cooperation in the broad. Such a body would both mitigate the consequences of US disengagement (if that were to occur) while simultaneously providing the US with a new avenue for regional participation. Perhaps the Foreign Affairs White Paper could consider building on an association such as The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) to establish a new type of integrated consultative mechanism that is less a hybrid ‘one and a half track’ dialogue than a way of investing whole-of-nation expertise in maintaining long-term regional security and prosperity.

Let’s hope that the forthcoming White Paper is able to transcend motherhood statements and provide some transformational regional leadership.