Australian Financial Review
9 November 2017
Whatever the political confusion at home, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will today fly into Asian summit season with a chart for Australia to navigate a troubled region.
Through word and deed, the government is defining a policy to manage uncertainties about China and America by embedding these relationships in a larger Indo-Pacific region that suits our interests and geography.
Hints have been dropped in the Prime Minister’s recent words in Perth and his speech at the Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore in June – an enduring statement of what Australia stands for – as well as in strong remarks by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
In short, Australia is serving itself as a country that values a regional and global system in which might is not right and in which the interests of all nations are acknowledged.
Calling this a rules-based order may be too neat a shorthand. Power matters too, and our policymakers know it – how else to explain the build-up of our defence force and cyber assets?
Australia’s approach is to fuse respect for rules and norms with a healthy strategy of balancing against China’s over-reaching ambitions and capabilities.
Some critics fret this does not simply involve loosening the US alliance and hewing to a China-centric order. Thankfully, the leadership in both major political parties recognises the need for a more sophisticated approach, especially now they are mindful of efforts to erode Australian sovereignty from within.
Australia under Turnbull is recognising – in quiet continuity with Abbott, Gillard, Rudd, Howard and every other Prime Minister before – that China is not the only Asian country that matters.
Others, not least India, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea, warrant large measures of partnership and respect in a multipolar Indo-Pacific. They do not want Beijing’s interests privileged at their expense. And China has sought to coerce all of them in recent years.
Deep down, no substantial Asian country, other than perhaps Pakistan and North Korea, wants China strategically dominant.
Hence the logic that Australia is calmly propounding in its creative regional diplomacy.
We will use inclusive forums such as the East Asia Summit – which China tried in 2005 to keep us out of – to ensure that big nations are called to account when they challenge the rights and interests of others.
But this is supplemented by a new networked approach that flexibly engages capable Asian partners such as India, Japan, Singapore and Vietnam and does not rely solely on the US alliance.
This explains low-key achievements like deepened defence ties with Japan and India, and a trilateral strategic dialogue with them, where we get to talk candidly about America as well as about China.
At the same time, and despite the crude unpredictability of Trump, the US alliance remains an irreplaceable advantage for Australia, in technology, intelligence, strategic weight and deterrence.
Strikingly, the United States now embraces the Indo-Pacific concept that Australian policy has patiently promoted since the Gillard government introduced it in 2013.
This is a recognition that India and the Indian Ocean are vital parts of our region, partly in response to the fact that China is expanding its interests, power and naval presence so far afield.
Japan and India too are now active proponents of this wider regional approach. Indeed, Tokyo, New Delhi and Washington see a “free and open Indo-Pacific” as a direct answer to the geo-economic and strategic leverage Beijing is seeking through the maritime part of its One Belt One Road Initiative, an Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics.
All this means there is sense in reserving the right to pursue novel strategic dialogues that would involve the United States alongside emerging Asian partners such as India and Japan.
Another commentator for The Australian Financial Review, Beijing-based business adviser and former ambassador Geoff Raby, claims the mere act of bringing together officials from these four countries to talk about issues would be “potentially dangerous”.
Presumably the contention is that this would fuel undesirable phenomena like assertiveness, paranoia, mistrust, foreign interference and military modernisation on China’s part.
Yet similar arguments were made 10 years ago when the four nations briefly held their first dreaded “quadrilateral” – a conversation about disaster relief, based on the experience of the four democracies as the core group of responders to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The dialogue was then abandoned under Chinese pressure. Yet rather than placate Beijing, such acquiescence only encourages it. The region has seen increasingly unsettling Chinese strategic behaviour for most of the decade since. All the bad things the quad would supposedly provoke have occurred in its absence.
The fact that China and those who seem to privilege its perspective are allergic to the idea of the quad confirms that it is an option worth keeping in mind for balancing Chinese influence.
This is not about that much-abused word “containment”. That was a Cold War strategy to isolate the Soviet Union in every way, including economically. No government advocates containment of China.
Instead, Australia is right to craft a healthy diversity of diplomatic dialogues, some including China, some including America, some including neither.
Australia would not dare censor any other nation’s choice of diplomatic dialogues. It would be an affront to an independent foreign policy to allow another country to veto ours.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review and is re-published here with permission.