Australia’s Asian agenda after the election

Parliament House
15 May 2019
by the Editorial Board at East Asia Forum
Australia goes to a federal election on 18 May. While the campaign and political debate has been dominated by domestic policy issues, whichever party wins government will quickly confront the need to deal with a fundamentally changed international order. President Trump’s United States is undermining the global leadership role it has played since 1945. The US–China relationship is mired in talk of a ‘new Cold War’. And the Asia Pacific region — while still the major contributor to global economic growth — faces challenges on everything from the threat to the trade system on which its prosperity has been built, to the North Korean nuclear crisis, climate change, and the flow of refugees.
Australia’s two major parties both recognise that they are operating in a more contested and uncertain regional and global order. The Australian Government’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper was frank about the challenges facing Australia in this new geostrategic environment while the Labor Opposition has spoken of the "disruption" being caused by structural, economic and strategic dynamics.
Yet recognising the challenges has not necessarily equated to an ability to define the policies and strategies needed to deal with them. Australian foreign policy and strategy towards Asia has been adrift over the past decade. Both sides of politics are guilty in this. There has been an incapacity to give sustained political attention to big policy questions like the relationship with China. And despite rhetorical commitment to the idea that the Asia Pacific region is critically important to Australia’s future, that rhetoric has not always been matched by policy or resources.
In this week’s lead essay, James Curran explores the challenge of how Australia’s next government will engage with Asia, and how it will pursue security and prosperity in a more "turbulent strategic environment". He focuses in particular on the plans outlined by the Labor Opposition — the frontrunner going into the election — which has campaigned on the need for a "step-change" in Australia’s engagement with Asia. Labor has promised a host of initiatives to "rebuild Asian literacy in both schools and boardrooms, fund the development of an Australian–ASEAN Studies Centre and better harness the Australian diaspora in Asia". And on the thorny issue of managing the China relationship, Labor has pledged greater ‘clarity and consistency’ in its diplomatic messaging towards China.
Labor’s promise of a "step-change" in engaging Asia is welcome, but that change will not be easy.
As Curran cautions:
"It is worth remembering that of the three Labor opposition leaders elected to the prime ministership since the war — Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd — two came into the job with ambitious visions for new Asian architecture. Both crashed spectacularly. Jakarta poured cold water on Whitlam’s admittedly loose ideas for some kind of new regional grouping. Rudd’s Asia Pacific Community proposal was sprung on the region literally overnight and likewise dispatched swiftly to its diplomatic burial chamber."
This observation may undervalue the vision behind Hawke’s successful Asian engagement that included the establishment of APEC, but the point is that prosecution of grand new schemes for the region is likely to be an unsuccessful endeavour.
There was a risk that in the lead-up to the 2019 election, Labor might once again fall prey to similarly "ambitious visions", with both Rudd and former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating periodically calling for Australia to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While there is no doubt that Australia does need to find ways to better to get closer to Southeast Asia, proposing that it joins ASEAN fundamentally misreads the origins and purposes of the organisation — designed as it was to manage historically challenging intra-Southeast Asian relationships and prevent domination by external powers — and ignores the reality that ASEAN is unlikely to want Australia to join no matter what Indonesian President Joko Widodo says politely about the prospect.
Should Labor win the election, it must avoid getting bogged down in endless discussions about regional architecture, and focus instead on more important underlying goals: deepening Australia’s understanding of the views, strategies and policies of countries across the Asia Pacific region, and building close relationships with regional political leaders, officials, academics and businesses that can be sustained over the long term. A real "step-change" in Australia’s engagement with Asia would mean that a future Australian prime minister’s first instinct, when faced with a pressing international policy issue, economic crisis, or security threat, would be to phone his or her counterpart in Indonesia, China, Japan, South Korea, India or Papua New Guinea and mount the regional coalition needed to deal with the policy challenge. We are currently a long way away from such a reality.
Improving the management of Australia’s relationship with China will be a second major challenge for whichever party forms government. There has been a tendency in Australia to focus on poor diplomatic messaging or the lack of a good ‘narrative’ to describe the Australia–China relationship. The real problem, of course, is that messaging and narratives can only be settled upon once political leaders have answered a set of more difficult questions: what kind of relationship with China does Australia want? And what is Australia’s strategy for pursuing that relationship? The failure of Australian political leaders to engage on these questions has allowed a vacuum in which all manner of other voices have come to dominate the debate on China.
Answering these questions will therefore help us to move away from what Curran describes as the "stale and persistent frameworks populating the debate" on China, whether it be "silent invasions" or false "choices" between our economic and security interests and partners. These stale frameworks blind us to the reality of why China is so important to Australia’s future. China is important not because we will agree on every issue, for we won’t, nor simply because of the weight of the bilateral economic relationship, though that cannot be ignored. Rather, China’s importance lies in the fact that it will have the greatest impact in the region and across the world on every major policy issue facing Australia in the decades to come, whether it be the global economy, climate change, regional security, migration or technology.
Australia will have no choice but to work and negotiate with China in navigating these policy issues. But this is a task that will test our diplomatic skills partly because of the two countries’ very different political systems and histories, and partly because the responses to these policy issues are becoming increasingly shaped by the wider global contest between the United States and China. A future Australian government will therefore do well to nest its relationship with China, and its responses to the pressing policy issues of the day, within a wider focus on the Asia Pacific region. Working together with regional states to forge new rules and norms on cyber security, regional trade and investment, or freedom of navigation will make it far more difficult for either the United States or China to compel Australia to pick sides.
The incoming Australian government will have an immediate opportunity to start working with regional states and globally to forge new rules and norms at a series of consecutive regional summits to be held in June: the G20 Summit in Osaka, the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting in Fukuoka, and the East Asia Summit in Thailand. Serious engagement with these forums will be a crucial way for the next Australian government to begin to rebuild its influence in Asia.
Next week the new Australian government will face the serious task of navigating Australia’s place in a profoundly changing regional and global order. As Curran reminds us, "Australian diplomacy is getting harder. The one constant for any new government is that, issue by issue, it will get harder still." And strategic choices that Australia must now make are less easily or wisely delegated to others.
This article was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific's Crawford School of Public Policy. Read the original. Image: Nicholas Brown/Flickr.


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team