Navigating the decade ahead will be hard, because as China’s power grows, our region is changing in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history.
That’s the point. What we are witnessing is “without precedent” in Australian post-second world war history, during the various tremors that have unsettled the region from Korea to Vietnam and beyond.
Despite all of that, there has been nothing in our experience like China’s rise in all its dimensions.
The changing of the guard?
The much-used word “disruption” hardly does justice to the impact a modern China is having on age-old assumptions about a regional power balance in which US military superiority would prevail, come what may.
Starting with the above declaration, the white paper – a year in the making and more than a decade since the last such effort – does a reasonable job in laying out Australia’s choices in a new and challenging environment.
In this regard, we are spared an impression that policymakers are seeking to cling to the old order in which the US was paramount and suggestions to the contrary smacked of agnosticism about American power and influence – even an incipient anti-Americanism.
Those days – described in a 2003 white paper that underestimated the velocity of China’s rise and sought to adhere to age-old certainties about US paramountcy – are over.
Here’s the 2017 white paper on the end of the age of certainty for Australian foreign policy:
Powerful drivers are converging in a way that is reshaping the international order and challenging Australia’s interests. The United States has been the dominant power in our region throughout Australia’s post-World War II history. Today, China is challenging America’s position.
There is nothing profound in the above observation. It’s simply a statement of fact.
What is clear is that policymakers in Canberra are hedging their bets. They cannot be sure the US will remain invested in a wider security role in the Indo-Pacific, and one that will be long-lasting.
This prompts observations like the following:
The government recognises there is great debate and uncertainty in the United States about the costs and benefits of its leadership of the international system.
US alliance remains strong
However, for the foreseeable future the US will remain the “bedrock” of Australia’s security.
Interestingly, Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, addressed alliance issues on the eve of the white paper’s release.
In an important speech, at a moment when Labor itself is debating how to frame its adherence to the alliance, Wong was at pains to encourage a sense of realism about what America might – or might not – be prepared to do in the event that Australia’s security was challenged.
She spoke at length about mutual obligations under the ANZUS Treaty that are misinterpreted as a blanket requirement for the US to come to Australia’s assistance in extremis. Put simply, what is required under Articles III and IV of the ANZUS Treaty is a commitment to consult.
In the final analysis, the 2017 white paper cannot be read separately from the 2016 Defence White Paper. This laid down a reinvigorated commitment to Australia’s ability to assert power in the Indo-Pacific via a significant investment in its maritime capabilities.
Leaving aside whether you agree with spending upwards of A$50 billion on 12 new French-sourced submarines rather than less expensive alternatives that could have been bought off the shelf, the defence paper foreshadowed an Australian foreign policy that recognised a more challenging environment, and thus the need for a more robust approach.
In this regard, the foreign policy paper speaks of “shifting power balances” in an era of “greater rivalry”, and calls on the US to remain “strongly engaged in the economic and security affairs of the region to help shape its institutions and norms”.
The paper also acknowledges challenges inherent in Australia’s policy of maintaining a balance between its alliance relationship and its management of relations with China if both the US and China cannot be persuaded their own interests would be served by preserving regional harmony. The paper adds that “this is not assured”.
In the decades ahead we expect further contestation over ideas and influence, directly affecting Australia. It is imperative that Australia prepare for the long term.“
Our place in the region
The white paper’s emphasis on the need to bolster regional friendships and alliances is a clear reference to moves by the Turnbull government to resuscitate a quadrilateral security dialogue with the US, Japan and India. The Rudd government shelved this on the grounds that it would appear to be a grouping whose aim was to contain China.
In its latest incarnation, the "Quad”, as it is known, clearly has a hedging purpose. But whether it develops past an agreement to consult and perhaps conduct joint military-to-military exchanges will depend on circumstance.
In other words, China’s regional assertiveness will dictate the extent to which Australia and its like-minded partners collaborate in seeking to balance China’s inexorable rise.
The Quad’s critics regard it as an unhelpful diversion, unnecessarily antagonistic to China. Its supporters see it as a prudent step to bring together functioning democracies intent on preserving regional security.
What would seem to be more productive would be a consensus involving the US, China, Russia, the ASEAN countries, Australia and New Zealand in an East Asia Summit agreement on regional security arrangements, much like the Helsinki Accords.
An encouraging aspect of the unclassified version of the white paper (a classified version will use starker language) is that within the constraints of bureaucratic language it provides a fairly direct challenge to China to live up to its commitment to a rules-based order.
So it encourages China to “exercise its power in a way that enhances stability, reinforces international law and respects the interests of smaller countries”.
This implies that China’s recent behaviour does not meet this standard.
Finally, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Australia’s policymakers have more or less come to the view – reluctantly – that US leadership in Asia is on a downward trajectory, and there is little point in pretending otherwise. The question is how fast, and to what extent will China continue to assert itself.
In his introduction, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sets the tone for the next phase of Australian policy in a way that recognises these realities. “Australia,” he writes, “must be sovereign not reliant.”
If that’s not an acknowledgement of a disrupted security environment in which power relationships are shifting, I’m not sure what is. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper makes progress in coming to terms with that reality.