In this special Policy Forum Rapid Round-up, experts share their key takeaways from Australia’s new foreign policy White Paper.
The Australian government has just released its first foreign policy White Paper since 2003. Much has changed in the last 14 years for Australian foreign affairs, from the growing power of China, global economic uncertainty, technological upheaval, and the election of Donald Trump. So what did the 2017 White Paper get right, where did it miss the mark, and what was neglected altogether? We asked the experts.
Jacinta Carrol, National Security College
“The Foreign Policy White Paper: Opportunity, Strength and Security devotes a chapter to how Australia will address non-traditional security challenges such as terrorism, cyber and border security. While there is little new in the content, the White Paper brings together for the first time key security and migration policy statements that have been driving a range of initiatives, and elevates them to endorsed national priorities directing how all elements of the nation engage internationally.
“This is notable as it is the first clear and comprehensive strategic policy guidance on Australia’s approach to national security. And it provides a glimpse of what we might expect from the national security approach under the new Home Affairs portfolio.
“At a practical level, the White Paper provides useful guidance to Commonwealth, state, and territory government agencies and to business, and important messaging to Australia’s international partners.
“After a decade and a half of countering terrorism in Afghanistan and more recently the Middle East, the White Paper clearly established our region as the priority area for Australia’s counter-terrorism focus. Australia’s assistance to the Philippines to recapture Marawi and ongoing counter-terrorism engagement with Indonesia and other ASEAN partners now emerge as part of a conscious and broader plan for the long term.
“Australia will continue to play an active role in countering terrorism globally, with the Middle East and Africa affirmed as areas of ongoing interest, but the White Paper usefully frames this as part of a strategically-consistent continuum of local, regional and global action. This is a welcome development in a security environment that bears little regard for institutional divisions between foreign and domestic, government and business, and even the concept of the nation-state.
“Border security and countering organised crime are presented in similar fashion, noting the critical role of regional and global cooperation, with multilateral institutions brought to the fore as enablers to address these and other issues of international concern.
“It was expected and necessary that the new Foreign Policy White Paper would outline Australia’s approach to countering terrorism and other non-traditional threats. But the document goes beyond expectations to articulate values that provide the foundation for Australia’s national interest and use these as the basis for articulating a comprehensive approach to dealing with these challenges at home as well as abroad.”
Ashlee Betteridge, Development Policy Centre, Australian National University
Positives, but aid and development still siloed
“The Foreign Policy White Paper provided the opportunity for the government to finally articulate a vision for an integrated foreign policy inclusive of aid and development, which was the rationale cited for the abrupt abolition of independent aid agency AusAID in 2013. But very little in the White Paper has justified the integration of the aid program into DFAT — it continues to situate foreign aid and development as ancillary to wider foreign policy objectives, rather than a crucial component.
“The aid and development community was consulted through the White Paper process, and there are several sections touching on aid and development issues. But much of this was articulated when Foreign Minister Julie Bishop laid out her ‘new aid paradigm’ in 2014. There’s no problem with consistency in aid policy, but this seems a missed opportunity for vision and future planning.
“One very welcome announcement was the increase in Australia’s humanitarian funding to $500 million, and the reiteration of a focus on gender equality (“Australia’s foreign policy pursues the empowerment of women as a top priority”). My colleague Stephen Howes highlights some other pros and cons, particularly the very positive inclusion of Pacific labour mobility.
“Yet aid and development is clearly still seen as an add-on. For example, in the section on “People, Cities and Migration” there is not a single mention of the Sustainable Development Goals, which touch on nearly all the issues raised in the section (Goal 11 in particular). Conversely, the gender section mentioned above only lists development programs, with nothing from other areas of foreign policy (like trade or security policy) also sorely in need of equality initiatives. There are many other examples throughout the document of these missed opportunities to really integrate aid and development approaches with other foreign policy concerns. So it seems these silos are still very much silos.”
Professor Steward Firth, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific
“The security and stability of the Pacific Islands region is an enduring national interest of Australia and has been so since before Federation. Australian policy towards the region, therefore, is characterised by continuity and enjoys mostly bipartisan support.
“The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper once again commits Australia to close cooperation and ongoing development assistance to the Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste, while recognising key shifts in the region.
“The first is ‘increasing competition for influence and economic opportunities and influence in Papua New Guinea, other Pacific countries and Timor-Leste’, an oblique reference to the rise of China, whose soft loans have the potential to create unmanageable debts for Island countries such as Tonga.
“The second is climate change and the rising sea levels that threaten ‘low-lying atoll states’, with the promise that Australia, which a few years ago stopped its contribution to the Green Climate Fund, will assist Island countries to access that Fund and Australian aid as well in order to build resilience.
“The third is the proven value of labour mobility, where the government can rightly point to a considerable opening of access to our labour market on the part of Pacific Islanders and Timorese under the new Pacific Labour Scheme.
“And the fourth is the recognition that Australian can help in novel ways, such as testing pharmaceuticals for Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu in Australia.”
Dr Steven Rood, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific
The Philippines in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper
“In the past decade Australia has grown closer to the Philippines, with a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement and an Australia-Philippines Comprehensive Partnership. Most recently two RAAF Orion aircraft provided surveillance assistance to the Philippine Armed Forces during the five-month takeover of Marawi City by violent extremists linked to Islamic State – leading IS in turn to label Australia the United States’ “guard dog” in their propaganda video about the Marawi clash.
“Thus, the 2017 White Paper discusses the challenges of countering terrorism and takes note of the subnational conflict in the southern Philippines that provides recruiting opportunities for extremists. Australia’s engagement both in development activities and in support of the peace process in Mindanao provide a platform to assist the Philippine government to implement previous peace agreements and so dry up the troubled water in which extremists fish.
“The White Paper reaffirms ‘that the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the Philippines South China Sea Arbitration is final and binding on both parties’ – despite China’s utter rejection of the ruling and the current Philippine administration’s disinterest in holding China to the ruling. This disinterest limits options for moderating Chinese activities in the SCS but the White Paper is correct to emphasise respect for international rules-based order.
“Given the White Paper’s emphasis on Australia’s values as a foundation for foreign policy, there are limits to how close the bilateral relation can be, since any talk of human rights is an anathema to the current Philippine administration. Skilful diplomacy will be necessary to advance shared bilateral interests in “Opportunity, Security, Strength” while avoiding the appearance of endorsing Philippine acts and rhetoric that offend liberal democratic values.”
Dr Anthony Bergin, National Security College, Australian National University and Australian Strategic Policy Institute
“The foreign policy White Paper gives a huge run to the terminology of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as our primary international policy focus. The ANU National Security College’s Rory Medcalf pointed out four years ago in The American Interest that Australia was an early adopter: we were the first government to formally name the region ‘Indo-Pacific’ by employing the term in our 2013 defence White Paper.
“Rory did note, however, that US Vice President Biden, Secretary Clinton, and Assistant Secretary Campbell employed the term regularly when travelling, particularly to India, and that ‘Indo-Pacific’ had also been used by Prime Ministers Singh and Abe and a host of academics.
“President Trump in his recent Asian summit diplomacy used the term in preference to Asia-Pacific, but he got significant Chinese push back: the Chinese see ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a way of complicating China’s strategic domain, particularly by encouraging India to work more closely with Japan.
“Whether ‘Indo-Pacific’ is useful when discussing geopolitics can be debated, but it’s a very useful construct in the maritime context.
“And here I say ‘hats off’ to the foreign policy White Paper: there’s a serious recognition given to the importance of safeguarding maritime security and the oceans to advance our security, diplomatic and economic interests.
“This is evident in the discussion of key bilateral relations with India, Japan and Indonesia, but it’s also a very strong theme in the section on building a resilient Pacific (the islands get a place in the five objectives of fundamental importance to our security and prosperity), and the discussion of regional fisheries. Protecting the oceans gets special treatment in the chapter on global cooperation. It was useful to be reminded in a ‘box’ in the White Paper that we have sovereignty over 42 per cent of Antarctica, including sovereign rights over adjacent offshore areas.
“The White Paper usefully incorporates the view that the oceans around Australia are central to our future prosperity and security and that the seas are a bridge that links Australia with the world.”
Professor Ramesh Thakur, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific
“The ‘organising principle’ of the 2017 foreign policy White Paper is the importance of and commitment to a rules-based order. At the heart of that order lies the United Nations and “Australia is a principled and pragmatic member of the United Nations, contributing to its vital security, environmental and humanitarian endeavours” (p. 81).
“One of the most critical components of the UN-centred rules-based world order is the prohibition on the unilateral use of force to attack another country. Australia joined the US to do just that in Iraq in 2003. Most independent analysts hold it was an illegal war of aggression. Australia has never conducted a comprehensive inquiry into the politics of its war-making decision, is arguably still engaged in illegal combat operations in the Middle East and still preserves to the executive the anachronistic privilege of committing us to war without parliamentary debate and vote.
“The White Paper contains no hint of a fundamental re-think on why and how we would go to war in the future. On this vital issue the document is more of a whitewash than a White Paper, despite the acknowledged fact that, as power shifts away from the hitherto dominant West, strong rules that constrain the exercise of power contribute to global security and are becoming more important for Australia’s own national security (p. 82).
“Similarly on nuclear weapons, there are multiple references to North Korea’s challenge, a reaffirmation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a restatement of Australia’s reliance on US nuclear weapons for security – but no mention of the new UN ban treaty adopted by 122 countries.
“On 11 January 1962, in his “State of the Union” address, President John F. Kennedy described the bomb as having turned the world into a prison in which humanity awaits its execution. Nuclear risks have escalated dramatically and Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un – like Australia, opponents of the ban treaty – have increased the visibility of nuclear weapons and are normalising the possibility of use. The character and leadership flaws of these two ‘godfathers of the ban treaty’ have heightened global anxiety about nuclear peace being hostage to the quality of their decision-making.
“The ban treaty looks for security from, rather than in, nuclear weapons. Ignoring the new institutional reality of its existence is neither principled, pragmatic nor UN-friendly.”