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Lukewarm, tepid, chilly? Australia’s foreign policy temperature

The snow on the Brindabella Range was icing Canberra’s wind as I slipped into Old Parliament House to take the temperature of Oz international policy and check the strategic weather forecasts.

The prophets of the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs were holding their annual ‘Australia 360’ (PDF) foreign affairs stocktaking. The academic gurus had to give the last 12 months of Oz policy a temperature grade—hot, cold, lukewarm …

The consensus tended towards tepid. This column loves a metaphor, so there’s our theme.

The shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, kicked off with a prediction of sunny days ahead under a future Shorten Labor government. If her forecast arrives, everyone in Canberra better find a copy of Julia Gillard’s white paper on Australia in the Asian century. If you tossed it into the recycling bin when Abbott arrived, fear not. While the PM’s department was Orwellian and deleted the paper from its site, Defence still has a sense of history and has the Gillard white paper here (PDF).

Wong said a Labor government will take tone and temperature from Australia in the Asian century, adding these four items:

  1. Climate change: renewed energy and vigour in negotiating international agreements.
  2. China: a policy that begins with what China actually is, rather than peering at it through the lens of risk management. No ‘reflexive negativity’ about the Belt and Road Initiative—embrace it case by case according to Oz interests.
  3. US alliance: ‘the US is of paramount importance to us’. The alliance needs to be built around shared interests in global stability, peace and security. ‘We need to ensure that it is both sensitive to the changes underway in the Asia Pacific region and conducive to creating a more confident, vibrant and robust regional security dialogue.’
  4. Foreign aid: re-establish aid programs that give real benefits to struggling nations, ‘especially in our own region—Timor-Leste, PNG and the South Pacific’. My aside: While Tony Abbott went at aid with an axe, Julia Gillard started the cuts. If Labor goes big/bigger/biggish on aid, it’s ditching Gillard’s heritage in favour of Kevin Rudd (and John Howard), who delivered aid’s golden age.

Now to the ANU temperature reports.

Meeting on the 50th anniversary of the day ASEAN was founded, Matthew Davies said Oz–ASEAN relations are lukewarm, trending upwards towards the ASEAN summit in Sydney in March.

Dr Amy King worried that things have got chilly with China: ‘Australia has gone very negative on China.’

By contrast, James Batley felt balmy South Pacific breezes (‘warmish, going even warmer’). At last year’s Pacific Islands Forum, Malcolm Turnbull promised a new Oz strategy for the islands, a weather system that’s yet to arrive. More, please, in the foreign affairs white paper and, presumably, at the Pacific Islands Forum summit, if the prime minister gets to it. Ministers have been out and about in the South Pacific, and the Governor-General, Peter Cosgrove, is a useful deployable asset. Batley’s list of significant events in the previous 12 months:

  1. The French territories—New Caledonia and French Polynesia—gained full membership of the Pacific Islands Forum. The regional diplomatic system is in flux, and the new French role will have unpredictable consequences for the forum.
  2. RAMSI was wrapped up after 14 years, a huge event for Australia in the region, for Pacific cooperation and for Solomon Islands as a nation.
  3. PNG’s election returned Peter O’Neill to power, a prime minister who has ‘changed the way PNG is governed, centralising and reducing accountability in the system’.

Looking at climate change and the South Pacific, George Carter said the islands are using climate issues to reinvent their diplomacy and get fresh streams of finance and aid. The forecast: always tropical.

Surveying the United States, Geoffrey Wiseman was lukewarm. America, he said, has ‘crowned a fool king’ who’ll run a ‘military-centric foreign policy’. Australia has given Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt, but he’s like the broken clock—only right twice a day.

On China and the South China Sea, Greg Raymond said Australia has found the Goldilocks position—not too hot, not too cold, continuing air patrols and naval transits as we have for decades ‘but not launching a program aimed at trying to contain China’.

Mixing the metaphor, John Blaxland sees Australia’s glass half full while Hugh White worries about the emptiness of the glass. Blaxland blessed our luck in living next to ASEAN as a ‘proto great power’. Despite the froth and narcissism of Oz politics, he said, Australia is doing ‘remarkably well’ in Asia.

Hugh White’s response is that Australia ‘is in the midst of a huge shift in the way Asia is working and we’re still pretending it’s not happening’. Australia hasn’t confronted a binary choice between China and the US, he said, but rougher weather looms: ‘We haven’t faced that choice yet, but we might have that choice in the future if the strategic rivalry between China and the US continues to escalate as it has over the past few years.’

From the audience, ASPI’s maven, Rod Lyon, commented on the clustering around tepid/lukewarm, showing Oz foreign policy can’t do everything simultaneously: ‘Are we just struggling to prioritise and focus?’ Ever a mighty metaphor man, the Lyon judgement over coffee crammed it into one line: ‘Australia doesn’t have enough butter for all our toast!’ Warmed my day.

Graeme Dobell is an ASPI journalist fellow. This article was first published by The Strategist.

Author Bio

Graeme Dobell

Graeme Dobell is a journalist fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He has reported on Australian and international politics, foreign affairs and defence and the Asia Pacific since 1975.