Security and economic worlds collide in DFAT White Paper
27 Sep 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user half alive - soo zzzz.

In Canberra, the orbits of the economic world and security world are coming closer and their different gravitational fields are reacting as China conundrums confront the coming Foreign and Trade White Paper.

The inhabitants of EcWorld and SecWorld world are getting snarlier and snappier with each other because of the gravitational disruptions. DFAT can’t dodge the biggest science question facing Australia’s polity. In producing a White Paper that thinks about the trade and diplomatic dimensions of Oz international relations, DFAT must address both EcWorld and SecWorld.

As usual, Paul Keating gives the issue dramatic point, with his claim that Australia doesn’t have a foreign policy capable of negotiating the rise of China and the diminishing influence of the United States: ‘Australia needs a foreign policy, and it needs it urgently. Australia does not have a foreign policy.’

The White Paper can tick at least one Keating box. This will rate as Formal Foreign Policy. Capital F. Capital P. Lots of other Ps apply: Policy statement and Political position but, inevitably, it must be only a Polite and Partial answer to the central conundrums.

Why polite? Because it’s a policy statement by government, so the White Paper can’t be too honest or blunt in expression. As a government document, the White Paper must point towards the big orbiting questions while not crashing into them. Is China a revisionist power in SecWorld? How quickly is US power receding in both Worlds?

As with the Defence White Paper, the DFAT effort will come at the ‘China-as-rogue-or-revisionist’ conundrum by using positive rather than negative language. Rather than negative revisionist thoughts, the positive side is to spruik the importance of the extant ‘rules-based global order.’ The codes aren’t that complicated but politeness is ever a virtue.

For a quick glimpse of what the White Paper can’t actually say on such posers, see the Briefing Book the Parliamentary Library did for the MPs and Senators of Australia’s 45th Parliament. In it Dr Cameron Hill ponders whether China’s ‘legitimate interests’—as demonstrated in the South China Sea—include the establishment of ‘spheres of influence’, the revision of existing regional and global norms, and the right to resort to unilateral action.

Hill expresses the complexity of the conundrums with this judgement:

‘Whether coming to terms with China’s rise should involve an element of genuine strategic ‘accommodation’, as opposed to simply ‘engagement’, is a question that Australian policymakers often appear reluctant to publicly canvass.’

Not talking doesn’t mean not knowing; Canberra understands the size of the issues and feels the gravitational disruptions.

Greg Sheridan provides the context with his report on last year’s multi-agency survey of China’s efforts seeking both intelligence and influence in Australia: ‘Overall, the project revealed an unprecedented Chinese effort to penetrate and manipulate Australian elites in order to further Beijing’s strategic policy.’ Little wonder that the Turnbull government is contemplating ‘a major independent review of the nation’s intelligence agencies.’

The White Paper can’t re-set the clashing gravitational fields of EcWorld and SecWorld, yet it has to make some effort at alignment. The policy statement must offer balanced analysis, accurate description and some attempt at prescription.

How ambitious a prescription? That depends on how high the Foreign Minister wants to reach and what her government will grasp. On the SecWorld side, DFAT will replicate the ‘rules-based’ language of the Defence White Paper. Along with the plea for international rules, Foreign can go further, to examine the need for rules in Australia’s relationship with China.

The ambition—even creativity—can flow freely in EcWorld to see what fresh rules Australia and China need. As China moves from being the great consumer of Oz minerals to the prime source of everything from tourists to foreign students to investment, lots of thinking is needed.

A great source of new thoughts is the Australia-China Joint Economic Report (ACJER), which outlines a vision of the economic and social benefits of stronger engagement and cooperation. While supported by both governments, the ACJER is a study by the Australian National University and the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges.

The report was presented to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney and the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on 15 August. It argues that the Australia–China relationship will become more, not less, important to both countries as the Chinese economy continues to change and upgrade: ‘There is no economic or geopolitical future for China, Australia or the world that would not be improved by China’s sustained and balanced economic growth’. Beijing and Canberra, it says, broadly accept the need for an upgraded policy approach, to build ‘a new set of national capabilities in both countries.’

The central thought about future rule writing in the coming decades is the need to create a comprehensive bilateral framework treaty that:

  • embeds frequent high-level government dialogue
  • institutionalises and enfolds official bilateral exchanges and technical cooperation programs between economic and foreign affairs ministries, including branches of the military
  • pools approaches between federal–state governments in Australia and central–provincial governments in China
  • provides for the comprehensive setting of strategic bilateral objectives in a forward agenda.

The model used by the Australian editor of ACJER, Professor Peter Drysdale, is the 1976 Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Australia and Japan. It’s notable that the Chinese side would accept a Japanese precedent.

Drysdale has been making the case for a similar grand bargain between China and Australia for at least five years and the need becomes ever more pressing. I’ve even ridden the Drysdale idea to the extent of producing a draft of such a treaty, calling it the Pact of Engagement, Amity, Cooperation and Economic—the PEACE Partnership.

It’s time for Australia and China together to do some serious rule writing—a joint endeavour that will be both fascinating and vital.