The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper
By Cameron Gordon
This article was originally presented at the event United Nations Association of Australia, Queensland event “Foreign Policy for Peace: Clarifying Federal White Paper Implications, 28 July 2018.
As world affairs are increasingly driven by a series of well-coifed cowboys, it’s appropriate that we point out the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in the Australian Foreign White Paper, released at the end of 2017.
Firstly, the good: it’s encouraging to see that the Indo-Pacific is highlighted as the key policy priority for Australia, particularly the focus on our relationship with Indonesia. Partly this is strategic: Australia is exposed by proximity to non-state operators in Indonesia and the Philippines as a first-order threat; our other security concerns may otherwise develop as a result of regional conflict between external parties in this area. Partly, it’s trade: Indonesia is rapidly growing in terms of population and economy, and shipping routes to our largest export markets flow through the equatorial archipelago through, for example, the Malacca Strait. And partly, it is recognition that the Pacific is a region that Australia can exert the greatest heft of its diplomatic influence and leadership, in consequence of geography, well-developed governance, and financial institutions. It’s therefore comforting to see this region highlighted in the White Paper, through a focus on agreements such as the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and in particular Australian aid in the region, with the bulk directed toward Papua New Guinea.
This brings us to the bad: we should be doing more. Make no mistake, Australia enjoys a favoured position within the Pacific. Our gross domestic product is around $1.2 trillion USD, for a nation of only 25 million people. For comparison, Indonesia produces the same for around 250 million people, the Philippines $300 billion for 100 million, and Papua New Guinea less than $20 billion for around 8 million individuals. Even generously adjusting for purchasing power, per capita income in PNG is still less than $5,000. It is deplorable that for 40 years after achieving independence our nearest neighbour (at the shortest only 5km away from Australian territory) still faces such a stark level of underdevelopment. While it is encouraging that Australia provides approximately half a billion dollars a year to PNG in economic assistance, it is clear that more wide-reaching assistance will be required to achieve an acceleration in development outcomes.
This is viewed not only as a humanitarian concern, but also a strategic one. Elsewhere in the White Paper, a recurring theme is a fear that other regional powers may seek to exert strategic influence in the Pacific through the provision of infrastructure and aid. For developing Pacific nations significant investment and infrastructure vacuums still loom, and if Australia does not provide adequate means of capital, they will rationally look elsewhere.
Finally we arrive at the ugly: while the tumultuous first year of the Trump Administration has left many questioning our strategic engagement with the United States, the White Paper is a stark statement that we will be locked in step for the foreseeable future. While judicious in rebukes towards the current United States administration (directly calling out recent shifts towards protectionism and a shift towards zero-sum international policy) it is equally adamant in its commitment to the relationship.
This reflects pragmatics: Australia is externally exposed to both security and economic threats. It is an exporter beholden to demand for its mineral and energy resources, its agriculture, and education provision in the Asia Pacific region. It is a nation whose strategists look primarily to regional stability, and is risk averse towards any large potential shifts or dynamics in regional power.
Finally, to something I’ll call ‘The Frankly Bizarre’ – Australia’s position on climate policy. While the White Paper reaffirms a commitment to the Paris Accord, and pays a great deal of lip service to necessary emissions reductions both on environmental and diplomatic concerns, it immediately couples it directly to the (now defunct) results of the NEG electricity price review – which, as far as a strategic vision is concerned, is not so much missing the forest for the trees, but missing it for the weeds as well.