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Australia’s Foreign Policy for Dangerous Times

As the Government prepares its first Foreign Policy White Paper in more than a decade, Australia faces a strategic challenge that means it needs to strengthen ties with Asia.


The Australian Government’s Foreign Policy White Paper Taskforce invited Asialink at the
University of Melbourne to convene consultations with key stakeholders (including the Australian Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific) to make recommendations to the White Paper, a comprehensive framework to guide our international engagement over the next five to ten years. The White Paper will provide a roadmap for advancing and protecting Australia’s international interests and define how we engage with the world in the years ahead.

Asialink’s International Director, Professor Anthony Milner and Erin Watson-Lynn, Director of Asialink Diplomacy, provide their commentary on the Asialink White Paper Consultations.

It might be argued that not since the 1940s - before the forging of our US alliance - has Australia faced such a strategic challenge.

It’s true that the United States’ role in our region has for some time been declining in relative terms - but now the new Trump administration has declared a willingness to abandon long-standing alliances and policy settings.

Malcolm Turnbull speaks to British Prime Minister Theresa May at the G20 Summit. Picture: Flickr/ZA

China, with its One Belt One Road initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and other China-centred architecture – is demonstrating a new-found taste for international leadership, as well as a determination and capacity to implement its vision.

And Australia is deeply implicated in these truly world-changing developments.

On the one hand, after a seven-decade long alliance with the US, we are also embedded economically with China - embedded as comprehensively, at least in trading terms, as we have been with any country in the past, including Britain.

As well as China, three of our other top trading relationships - ASEAN, Japan and Korea - are in the Asian region. From a security as well as an economic perspective, the question of how effectively Australia can negotiate the changing and dangerous dynamics in the Indo-Pacific is one attracting genuine international attention.

The reports from the five break-out groups in the Asialink Foreign Policy White Paper Submission are measured and cautious in tone - and yet the whole process was underpinned by a recognition that Australia has reached a turning-point.

A number of the arguments in the reports have been presented many times before - arguments about economic engagement, education, the arts, and the potential for the health sector to be a vital Australian contribution to the Asian region - and yet this does not make them less important.

The view that Australia must put new energy and imagination into building bilateral and multilateral relations in Asia is probably also more urgent today than at any time since the middle of last century. Whether Australia possesses the necessary knowledge base to cope with the range of languages and political cultures in our region is a more important issue now than ever. And then, there is the added problem that the new Trump administration’s stress on transactionalism will require new political skills.

The way we build ties is changing. Alliance management has long been a demanding task for the Australian leadership - but today much past thinking about shared values and democracy-promotion will be less valuable than a talent and material capacity for deal-making.

The tone of our Asialink Consultations highlighted the urgency.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meeting with Indonesian Foreign Minister Ms Retno Marsudi. Picture: DFAT

This is a time when government leadership really matters. In their vastly different ways China and the US both demonstrate a shift to proactive government. In each of the areas we covered in the consultations there was a call for even more government leadership and often for long-term planning and bipartisan policymaking.

In the international sphere, perhaps particularly in the Asian region, government action tends to be leader-led, and Australia’s regional endeavours must also be of that character.

Proactive government encompasses the need to recognise and harness the potential of the wider community to enhance Australia’s regional influence; the private sector, youth, the cultural sector, key immigrant groups, professional associations are all highly-valuable sectors in that community.

Finally the type of activist, long-distance policy planning and implementation which were called for during this consultation, will require the support and patience of a domestic community more internationally-focused and Asia-savvy than Australia has ever needed before.

A version of this article first appeared on the University of Melbourne’s Asialink website.

Banner image: Pixabay

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