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China, the White Paper and the decline of the US

It is unsurprising that Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper says little of direct substance and is cautious about change. The world around us is rapidly changing and increasingly uncertain, and our foreign policy boffins generally don’t like unpredictability. But that’s what they have, and have managed to allude to it without providing a detailed way forward.

As the White Paper notes, China is a growing superpower, in our region and in the world, in both economic and strategic terms, and that economic and strategic interests are linked. This is something less than a news flash.

In partial response, Australia has recently concluded a new security agreement with Vietnam, historically and presently somewhat at odds with China. Interestingly, so too has the United States, with President Trump’s recent visit including commercial agreements worth US$12 billion and a further agreement to strengthen defence cooperation. Australia’s own strategic closeness to Vietnam could be singing off the same song sheet as the US, as has become our custom. But a different version of that song might better suit Australia’s own longer term interests.

In part, Australia’s orientation still reflects the US’ orientation. In part, too, however, there is a slowly dawning awareness – its taken about a half a century or so – that Australia’s strategic security is in, and with, Asia. As Hugh White notes in his just released Without America: Australia in the New Asia Quarterly Essay, Australia might want to rely for security on its US alliance, but that the US may not be strategically available for Australia to do so.

In this, as White notes, Australia’s trade reliance on China and all that implies in regional diplomatic terms, and Australia’s strategic alliance with the US, will cease to be an unsolvable dichotomy because the US has been and will increasingly abandon the Asian field. It will do so as China’s economic rise is reflected in its increasingly sophisticated and powerful military, and as the US continues to decline, in relative economic and geo-strategic terms.

As White notes in his Quarterly Essay, Australia’s future foreign policy will be more independent of the US ‘whether it [Australia] likes it or not’, simply because the US will no longer be there. The impossible choice between China and the US is already in the process of being made for us.

There has long been, in response to this scenario, a backroom discussion about the need for Australia to build regional alliances, hence the link with Vietnam. The White Paper begins to acknowledge this. But, beyond Vietnam and Singapore, along with most else in the White Paper, this acknowledgment is muted.

Future strategic relations will also have to be developed with Indonesia, as noted obliquely by the White Paper (no relief for the beleaguered West Papuans there). Strategic relations will also have to be sorted with other AEAN states and, not least, with India. India is China’s key rival, is predicted to surpass – or may have already surpassed China’s population and is a growing economic power and a nuclear strategic power in its own right.   

Australian foreign policy must see East Asia and India as the central game for the foreseeable future. It is already so in economic terms, with China, Japan and South Korea being Australia’s three most important export markets, and with seven of our top 10 exports markets being in Asia. This economic orientation will become increasingly reflected in strategic relations.      

Positively, and unsurprisingly, the White Paper acknowledges that planning for ‘an uncertain decade is inherently difficult’. It reasonably proposes ‘agile policy and regular reviews of our foreign, defence and national security frameworks’. While having key reference points, a reflexive approach to foreign policy would indeed be a very sensible idea.  

Perhaps Australia could be a little more humble, too, in learning how to be ‘agile’ in foreign policy. Vietnam could be a good example here, poised as it is hard against China and with a history of competition which in living memory included a fairly brief but quite nasty war, and which currently extends to competing claims in the South China Sea.

Vietnam is resisting China’s strategic advances, while at the same time seeking to forge closer diplomatic ties with China. We need to know how Vietnam – which has so much more to lose – does this.

But perhaps the one thing that China and Vietnam, and many of Australia’s regional neighbors, share in common is that the idea of developing or preserving a liberal, plural democracy is much more negotiable than most Australians are currently comfortable with. If Australia wants to keep its tatty but still functional democracy, it will likely require a return to bipartisanship on foreign policy.   

As Donald Horne noted, in 1964, in ‘The Lucky Country’ ‘it is just remotely possible that events in Asia will pass Australia by, but,’ he said, ‘it seems insane to trust to luck that they will do so’. As with so much in that landmark book, Horne was particularly insightful.

And as White noted much more recently: ‘Australia must adjust to this new order, by working out how we can relate to China and working with other countries in Asia’. In agreement with a possibility proposed by Horne, White accepted that ‘We will be changed in the process’ and, as Horne would have advised, he added ‘Let’s get on with it’.