Plan B: Australia’s foreign policy white paper
10 Feb 2018|

As we look at the foreign policy white paper published in late 2017, it echoes some of the remarks in the 2016 defence white paper about the importance of the rules-based global order. Indeed, the frequent use of the term belies a gnawing concern about the fragility of that order, and a hope that repeating the mantra might help bolster that order in the face of numerous challenges. But the defence white paper predated Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Brexit, and post–19th Party Congress Xi Jinping. The world certainly looks different nowadays. If anything, those developments have added urgency and clarity to the foreign policy white paper.

Overall, it’s a strong and balanced document. But it’s worth seeing it not as some set of platitudes reinforcing Australia’s age-old commitment to the American alliance, although the alliance does, of course, feature. Instead, it looks and feels like Australia’s ‘Plan B’. Until now, we have relied successively on Britain and the United States. The white paper makes declarations about alliances and the enduring utility of remaining a US ally, but it also implicitly and diplomatically recognises that the dynamics have fundamentally changed.

The document stresses the Indo-Pacific space and has the Indo-Pacific featured on the cover. Arguably, it should be spun 45 degrees, with Australia metaphorically hanging from the bottom and Southeast Asia more visibly seen as the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific. One criticism that could be levelled at the white paper is that, while it does address Southeast Asia, it could have and should have placed greater emphasis on the significance of regional ties. After all, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, when aggregated, is Australia’s third-largest trading partner and most immediate area of strategic concern.

Some might say that it’s appropriate to place little emphasis on ASEAN, describing the 10-nation grouping as a ‘broken reed’. They see it as unreliable for security purposes. With that in mind, it appears that the paper’s drafters sought to emphasise ‘the Quad’ instead—the relatively informal arrangement among Australia, Japan, the US and India. Given that trilateral ties were already in place with Japan and the United States, the key to the Quad, from the white paper’s perspective, is India.

It remains to be seen how enthusiastic India will be over the long term in being closely associated with a country in the South Pacific that, as Alan Gyngell put it, has a long-held fear of abandonment. In addition, the benefits expected to accrue to Australia from the quadrilateral arrangement aren’t that clear—particularly beyond the already robust bilateral ties with India, Japan and the United States.

In fact, Australia has moved a long way from its post-war phobia of Japan. Canberra has established a comprehensive strategic partnership with Tokyo and undertaken preparations for a visiting forces agreement. The white paper gives due recognition to the bolstered bilateral ties.

Furthermore, there’s a concern that the messaging about the Quad may not work to the advantage of the partner nations in the way some would hope. Objections from China aren’t enough justification to dispense with the Quad, but perceptions in the neighbourhood should inform our approach and degree of enthusiasm in its pursuit.

In the meantime, we need to reimagine the importance of ASEAN. Southeast Asia isn’t some distant faraway land with which we can optionally engage. It’s our immediate front yard, in our immediate neighbourhood. It’s our future. The Australia in the Asian century white paper of 2012 gave remarkably little attention to ASEAN or Southeast Asia. That suggested that there’s a degree of discomfort among Australians in engaging with the neighbourhood, its 637 million people and its nearly $3 trillion economy. Yet Australians tend to disaggregate ASEAN. It appears we don’t like to think of it as an entity. That’s partly because it doesn’t look like the United States or the European Union. It’s a bit amorphous. It’s more indecisive than we would like it to be.

Culturally, it’s also a less comfortable space for the barely monolingual Australians who prefer the halls of New York, London, Paris or Geneva. The apparent trickiness and obtuseness of cultures in Southeast Asia makes for a degree of discomfort for many Australians seeking to negotiate a deal or set up business there. To be fair, Australia is getting better at regional engagement. Indeed, the white paper does emphasise engagement in regional forums, including the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting–Plus, the Indian Ocean Rim Association and a variety of related senior officials’ meetings. Nonetheless, I think our regional engagement remains undercooked.

On one level, the white paper is being seen as a primer for the prime minister’s upcoming ASEAN–Australia Special Summit, which is scheduled for mid-March. A number of universities and institutes are contributing to an ASEAN–Australia dialogue, which will precede the summit. These endeavours are a welcome attempt to promote greater understanding of our neighbouring proto-great power.

The paper’s emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and greater emphasis on regional ties does make one wonder why this is happening now. There’s definitely uncertainty about US resolve, about what ‘America First’ actually means, and about the consequences of having a transactional US presidency that appears hostile to regional and multilateral bodies like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to other international bodies like UNESCO. That trend is deeply worrying for Australia and much of the world. Implicit also in the paper are concerns over President Trump’s emphasis on military solutions for problems in places like North Korea. There’s an understandable wariness emerging about how Australia responds to such security challenges and how much Australia supports or disapproves of the actions of key stakeholders.

Stressing engagement with our neighbours and partners in the region is important, and there are signs that there’s a degree of discomfort with Australia’s approach to matters like the Quad. Vietnam and Singapore may be happy with this development, but our more forthright policy positions may be jarring to our immediate and important Malaysian and Indonesian neighbours.

In reflecting on the implications of such concerns, we need to be clear about the importance of Indonesia to our security and prosperity. Contentious issues—including beef, boats and spies, clemency, Timor and Papua—have generated significant friction points in the bilateral relationship. From Jakarta’s perspective, Canberra hasn’t been the most faithful or reliable of friends. Economically, ties are weak and shallow. But there’s progress underway on the Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. This is a positive step.

Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyo, in Darwin in late 2017, spoke of the need for a comprehensive strategic partnership between Indonesia and Australia. Yet it seems so difficult to attract attention for such issues from the mainstream media and in policymaking circles. In part, that may be due to a degree of resentment. Indonesia appears cavalier and irritable in its relationship with Australia, which plays poorly in the Australian media.

Many inside the Indonesian armed forces also are resentful of our apparent perfidy over East Timor in 1999, when we led an international intervention force after having endorsed Indonesian annexure of the territory for a quarter of a century.

There’s certainly scope for Australia to work on sweetening ties with Indonesia, as well as with Malaysia and Singapore. Arrangements that help bolster those ties aren’t considered in any detail in the white paper. They should be.

The paper also effectively acknowledges that today China is more influential than ever, and that its influence has grown exponentially across the globe. Yet as recent research indicates, countries like Thailand, for instance, still want the US to remain engaged. They also see ASEAN as significant for their future prosperity and security. Australia needs to think more about how the member states view ASEAN for their own security and prosperity.

As a Plan B, the foreign policy white paper is a sound attempt to articulate a vision of Australia’s engagement in an uncertain and dynamic world. As indicated, there are areas where further developments may be explored, but, in the main, it sets out to chart a safe course for Australia in increasingly troubled waters.