From a framing speech in Sydney to G20 diplomacy in Osaka, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is fast putting down markers for Australian foreign policy.
By Rory Medcalf
Amid the vicissitudes of global economic and strategic tensions, he is developing a world view with large horizons and some clear guiding principles.
These include a rejection both of fatalism and simple binary choices. It will be all the way neither with Trump’s America nor Xi’s China.
Instead, there is a welcome emphasis on Australia’s agency as an independent middle power, and the strength we can sustain by combining security at home with many-sided engagement abroad.
His Sydney speech last week was more subtle than its title, “Where We Live”. It presented an expansive and inclusive vision of Australia’s region – the Indo-Pacific – grounded in an affirmation of liberal democratic values as part of this nation’s identity.
This confirms a bipartisan continuity and evolution in strategic thinking going back at least to the official introduction of the Indo-Pacific concept under then prime minister Julia Gillard in 2013.
Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy is not inherently anti-China. But nor is about ignoring or accepting China’s efforts to dominate the wider region.
Instead, as Morrison has confirmed, Australia seeks to navigate a future based on shared principles, sovereignty and mutual respect among many players, including Japan, India, the 10 states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and our neighbourhood “family” in the South Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific recognises that both economic connectivity and strategic competition are encompassing the two-ocean region around us, and that we can protect our interests through new partnerships across the blurring of old geographic boundaries.
None of this is to deny the enormous collateral impact of the US-China contest. In Osaka, all eyes were on where Donald Trump and Xi Jinping would take the immediate trade war dimension of long-term strategic and technology rivalry.
They reached a tactical truce. But Trump’s partial resumption of American commercial relations with Chinese telecommunications champion Huawei does not fundamentally change the policy landscape for Canberra.
In an act of sovereign national security policy, the Australian government has prohibited that company’s involvement in the critical 5G network.
To reconsider this decision on the basis of the latest moment of Trumpian transactionalism would be contrary to the very notion of independent foreign policy that alliance sceptics espouse. America’s more direct national security restrictions on Huawei remain in place. In a sense, America has now moved closer to Australia’s position on Huawei.
The point of middle power diplomacy is not to ignore the power play of the American and Chinese leaders, but to cope with it.
Morrison’s pre-summit dinner last week with Trump was valuable not only as a chance to try to influence America but to demonstrate to others that Australia matters – and that being a US ally increases our access, relevance and agency.
The prime minister’s other connections in Osaka showed the web our diplomacy must sustain. The conversation with Xi was brief but notable. Morrison also met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
We may cringe at Abe publicly calling his guest “ScoMo” or at Modi’s viral tweet, “Mate! I’m stoked at the energy of our bilateral relationship”. Yet like it or not, it may well be that a stereotypically Australian shrimp-on-the-barbie conservatism proves an unexpected asset for the nation’s diplomacy. And the underlying reality is that Japan and India increasingly take Australia seriously.
The G20 was also a chance also to cross paths with the leaders of Indonesia, Vietnam and France: significant partners in the emerging multipolarity.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo is working with Australia and others, however desperately, for the survival of a rules-based system of free trade.
Less high-profile has been Indonesia’s work within ASEAN to secure consensus on a Southeast Asia vision of the Indo-Pacific, sharing common principles with Australia’s.
These regional complexities provide a nuanced context for Australian decision-makers when they encounter the foreign policy debate at home.
For instance, celebrated strategic thinker Hugh White has urged Morrison to openly oppose an American “Cold War” against China.
White has a new book with a stark premise that America cannot win a serious strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, and that when it comes to defending Australia, will leave us to our own devices.
Perhaps this is one of the binaries the prime minister rejects.
Another intriguing intervention is the work of Sydney-based think tank China Matters, which has released a “new China narrative” for Australia.
It’s a detailed statement of the many opportunities and limitations in Australia-China relations, from expansion of trade and investment alongside fundamental differences over values.
The China Matters initiative may understandably have set out to offset the unsettling edges of the Turnbull government’s pushback against interference by the authoritarian Chinese state.
But in response to public consultations, the “new China narrative” ends up acknowledging a bit of everything – including that Australia needs to work with many countries in Asia to define rules for constraining Chinese behaviour.
In other words, it is not in Australia’s interests to define its future in China-centric terms.
The prime minister seems to recognise that a policy for turbulent times requires a different story – an authentically Australian narrative that ties our destiny to the whole region rather than a single power.
This article originally appeared in the Financial Review