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The new foreign affairs white paper – the first comprehensive review in 14 years – acknowledges the shift in power in our region from the United States to China, but has no prescription for how Australia should deal with it. By Karen Middleton.

Foreign policy depends on US priorities

Launching the country’s first comprehensive foreign affairs white paper in 14 years, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joked that Australia was planning to take over the world.

“As a regional power, with global influence, we are not entirely without ambitions of global dominance,” Turnbull declared.

He was talking about the imminent summer of cricket, as Australia launched its 2017 Ashes campaign that same morning.

But there was also a tentative suggestion woven into the diplomatic language in the white paper’s 100 pages that Australia is preparing to stand more on its own feet in the world, if not quite going it alone.

“More than ever, Australia must be sovereign, not reliant,” Turnbull wrote in his introduction to the paper.

“We must take responsibility for our own security and prosperity while recognising we are stronger when sharing the burden of leadership with trusted partners and friends.”

It was a hopeful two-bob-each-way statement, parked at the top of a paper that lays out the real possibility of a dramatic global power shift over the next decade, away from Australia’s major ally, the United States, to China, a shift that potentially threatens the very security and prosperity of which Turnbull speaks.

The message is somewhat mixed. The white paper suggests China is challenging US supremacy and leaves open the possibility that it might be successful, with even Americans at home raising doubts about the value in maintaining their country’s position as the global superpower.

“The United States remains the most powerful country but its long dominance of the international order is being challenged by other powers,” the white paper says. “A post-Cold-War lull in major power rivalry has ended. These trends are converging to create an uncertain outlook for Australia.”

At the same time as the paper suggests Australia’s old ally may be reconsidering its role, the prime minister and foreign minister continue to insist the US is deeply engaged, especially in Asia.

“The United States’ interests and equities and investments in the Indo-Pacific are longstanding, are deep and will endure,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said after the white paper’s launch. “So, there’s no question about the United States’ engagement in the Indo-Pacific. It is there and it will continue, and successive administrations may have different nuances but the overall commitment and the investment of the United States in the Indo-Pacific is deep and broad.”

The government is hoping that the order of things in our region doesn’t much change, while acknowledging that it may do so, and not in a way that necessarily benefits Australia.

It’s this strategic fence-sitting that is raising some eyebrows among analysts.

The Australian National University’s professor of strategic studies, Hugh White, has dubbed it “the Doolittle doctrine”.

“All I want is American primacy in Asia,” White says, parodying My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle lamenting: “Oh, wouldn’t it be luv-er-ly.”

Praising the franker-than-usual language in the white paper, and its focus on a few often-underdone areas such as the south-west Pacific, White says nevertheless that its thesis remains anchored more in hope than reality. Simply stating the belief that America will continue to run the world will not make it so.

White told The Saturday Paper that while the white paper correctly diagnoses the looming challenge of China rising to overtake the US as the most powerful nation, and the risk of the end of the current “rules-based order” that keeps rogue states in line, it does not say what Australia is going to do about it.

“There are quite explicit references to doubts in America about sustaining its global leadership role,” White says. “But they don’t analyse what that means.”

The white paper is built on the assumption that the US agrees that remaining supreme is in its own best interests. But Hugh White is not convinced that’s true.

“It was so feckless of [the government] to assume America is going to do what we wanted them to do,” White says. “They don’t address the reality that Australia may live in an Asia in which the US doesn’t remain involved.”

While there hasn’t been a comprehensive Australian foreign affairs white paper since 2003, the Gillard government produced one focused on “the Asian century” nine years later, a year after then US president Barack Obama’s much-vaunted “pivot to Asia” speech to the Australian parliament.

But since well before the Donald Trump presidency began last year, fears had emerged that America was pivoting away again.

Gillard’s foreign minister Bob Carr says Australia needs to work harder at understanding the transformation under way in America and its implications for the region.

“It’s mistaken for Australia to imagine that, at our urging, America is going to pour military resources into Asia,” Carr tells The Saturday Paper. “They are probably at their high point. The pivot is over. Trump tore up the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], he can’t find anyone to serve as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. The white paper talks about a positive agenda with China but doesn’t spell out what that would comprise.”

Carr and White both highlight the paper’s clear demonstration that China’s economic growth path was greatly outstripping other countries, including the US.

The paper estimates China’s economy will be worth $US42 trillion dollars by 2030 – double what it was last year – while the US’s will be $US24 trillion. Australia’s is projected to reach $US1.7 trillion and Indonesia’s $US5.5 trillion.

And as Hugh White notes: “2030 is only 13 years away.”

The prime minister whose government produced the last comprehensive white paper, John Howard, declared regularly during his 11 years in office that Australia did not have to choose “between its history and its geography”.

But White argues in his Quarterly Essay Without America, written before the white paper’s release and to be published this week, that the choice is coming.

After reading the white paper, White says he believes there were Australian officials who thought that choosing between China and the US should be discussed, but not in a government document.

“How can we get this right if we don’t have a national conversation about it?” he asks.

He says the fact that China is primarily discussed in a chapter headed “The United States and China” suggests that the two countries’ relationship is the dominant consideration.

“It’s a very striking presentation,” he says.

“We are still assuming that somehow America is going to work this out … But it also half acknowledges that that can only happen if China agrees, and it says at one point that this is not assured. Well it’s more than not assured – it’s absolutely certain. There’s not a snowball’s.”

The white paper says Australia may have to reassess its policy and return to the drafting table some time in the future, raising the possibility that circumstances may change for the worse.

“In the current environment, it is possible that some of the trends identified in this white paper will move against Australia’s interests in ways that require further responses,” it warns.

It doesn’t say what they might be or outline the circumstances that might prompt a rethink.

In diplomacy, it’s often a matter of reading between the lines.

Turnbull’s introduction described Australia “strengthening and diversifying” its partnerships “across the globe”.

The paper lists Japan, India and the Republic of Korea as countries with which Australia will need to work increasingly closely.

North Korea’s aggressive behaviour is earmarked as among the greatest threats, but there is no discussion of how the US’s response will affect the risk of proliferation elsewhere in the region or the implications of that for Australia.

And although the paper also describes Indonesia’s importance, the attention it pays Australia’s near neighbour is surprisingly limited.

For all its careful niceties, the paper sends a blunt message in its declaration that while the US “has been the dominant power” across the region since World War II, “China is challenging America’s position”.

“Without strong US political, economic and security engagement, power is likely to shift more quickly in the region and it will be more difficult for Australia to achieve the levels of security and stability we seek.”

Without naming President Donald Trump directly, again and again it condemns the kind of protectionist sentiment that is on the rise in the US, rejecting it as the way to prosperity.

The paper also has a message for China, which has defied international demands that it stop its own aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea: the rules-based order must be maintained.

“We will never agree that might is right,” Turnbull said as he launched the paper. “The rules-based order protects us all and it protects us in particular. It is manifestly in our national interest to advance it and defend it.”

The white paper strongly advocates Australia remain engaged in international organisations that foster global co-operation and says it must seek to help shape responses to the world’s challenges.

“Because if we do not, then others will,” it warns, “potentially in ways that diverge from our interests and our values.”

It foresees circumstances in which competition over “power, influence and ideas” dominates international affairs.

“Australia would face a difficult economic and security environment in those circumstances,” it says. “Our policy choices would be harder. Our engagement with the world might become narrower and more transactional. We might have to spend more on defence and national security capabilities.” 

The paper emphasises the importance of Australia’s economic ties, particularly through its series of free trade agreements.

It also highlights the value in people-to-people links and public diplomacy, a theme that emerged strongly out of the submissions received and consultations conducted during its preparation.

Major arts organisations in Australia had urged the government to emphasise cultural diplomacy as a way of boosting understanding between countries. The sector urged it to think laterally about the value the arts brings to diplomacy, not only through cultural exchange for its own sake but in enhancing national security by promoting better understanding and challenging stereotypes.

And travel agents had drawn attention to the dramatic imbalance between the numbers of Chinese visiting Australia and the numbers of Australians travelling to China as a percentage of those holidaying abroad. They suggested greater efforts to demystify China and make it more attractive as a destination would help boost the tourism industry at home.

Responding to the white paper, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said it began “to confront the disruption we currently face and recognises the various political, economic and strategic contributors to that disruption”.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong endorsed Malcolm Turnbull’s call for Australia to go forward with confidence and the paper’s broad direction.

But she also linked it to the government’s travails at home.

“The challenges outlined in this white paper are substantial,” Wong said. “The interest Australia has in advocating and prosecuting those national interests are substantial. Regrettably, I do not believe and, frankly, I don’t think the Australian people believe, that this divided and chaotic government is capable of advocating and prosecuting those interests efficiently.”

The white paper’s launch comes as murmurs about Turnbull’s grip on the leadership are rising, with Julie Bishop increasingly being seen as the only realistic alternative. Although there remains a strong view within the Coalition that voters would not countenance another change of leadership, there is equally no appetite to go over the electoral cliff without some attempt to hang on.

With speculation starting to mount about a possible leadership ticket featuring Bishop and Treasurer Scott Morrison, Morrison’s choice of words about the foreign minister ahead of the white paper’s launch on Thursday were intriguing.

“She has a very strong vision for the country, when it comes to particularly how we’re engaging with Asia and particularly ASEAN countries,” the treasurer said of Bishop.

“I think that’s been one of the focuses of Julie’s leadership on foreign affairs as the foreign affairs minister.”

At the white paper’s launch, Turnbull preferred to focus on foreign policy and Australia’s place in the world.

“Uncertainty is a fact, rapid change is a fact – they’re realities,” he said.

“The challenge for us is not how to resist them, let alone deny them, but how to prosper with them – how to hedge against the risks and seize the opportunities the times offer us. Now, the white paper is clear-eyed and hardheaded. It sees our world and region as it is, not how we wish they could be, or fondly imagine they once were.”

Some think it isn’t quite the triumph of hardheadedness over fond hope that Turnbull describes.

It is certainly a study in the exercise of power and the struggle to persuade others that the current order of things is worth defending.

The prime minister might find that resonates not just abroad but close to home.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 25, 2017 as "In step, lock, pivot, yearn ". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.