October 2011


Summit season

By Hugh White
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Julia Gillard, foreign policy and the summit season

It’s summit season. Prime Minister Julia Gillard will lift her head above the toxic miasma of domestic politics and breathe the purer, finer air of foreign affairs. On 21 October she’ll be in Bali for the East Asia Summit (EAS); a week later she will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth; she’ll be in Cannes for the G-20 Summit the following week; then she’ll go to Hawaii for the APEC Summit. And the following week she’ll finally host President Barack Obama’s twice-deferred visit to Australia.

No doubt the prime minister hopes that all this summitry will help change the political weather. And her hopes may well be realised. Gillard has all the attributes of a successful summiteer: she is a good listener and a capable chairperson, charming and gracious in company, and not prone to silly gaffes or inappropriate outbursts. She can master a brief, so won’t be caught short in the countless bilateral side-meetings. Most importantly, she has no awkward policy agenda – nothing for other leaders to disagree with, nothing to create summit squalls and nothing that might lead to embarrassing leaks about rifts and tiffs.

Best of all, Tony Abbott will be nowhere in sight. He’ll have nothing effective to say about Gillard’s summiteering because there is nothing of substance in Australian foreign policy on which he and Gillard disagree. The politics of our foreign policy is not so much bipartisan as non-existent.

The reason is simple. For the past 40 years – thanks mainly to American power – Asia has enjoyed the most peaceful and prosperous era in its long history, and Australia has benefited from the most benign international environment since Pax Britannica began to fray in the 1880s. As long as the United States dominates Asia, Australia’s security and prosperity are more or less assured.

Our political leaders make a virtue of the resulting political quiescence, and loftily proclaim that Australia’s foreign policy is about projecting our values, not our interests. But that’s only because our interests – the foundations of our security and prosperity – have been so well looked after by the US. Consequently Australia has not needed to make hard foreign-policy choices, which in turn has meant no real politics. It is no coincidence that the last time foreign policy really divided the major parties and determined federal elections was in the 1960s, when Australians felt at risk because the US’s strategic primacy in Asia was challenged.

Such times might be returning. Australians are quite suddenly waking up to the fact that China’s rise is more than just a splendid business opportunity. It is quite simply the most momentous strategic and political transformation in Asia since Europeans first settled on this continent. We need to renegotiate our place in the region, and indeed the world. In the past we negotiated these things with our British and American allies. This time, whether we like it or not, we will be dealing with China as well – who is not our ally and might not even be our friend.

Australia has to decide, for the first time, how to remain secure and prosperous in a region no longer dominated by American power. That does not mean we have to accept Chinese domination, but it means we cannot assume the US will continue to keep Asia safe for us. Indeed, the whole challenge is to try and find a middle path: to neither blindly cling to the US nor meekly bow to China.

No one in the Labor government has ventured a view about how to do this. The party’s leaders believe that to hold power they must outshine the Coalition as loyal custodians of the US–Australia alliance, so they shy from questions about the US’s future in Asia. The party of Gough Whitlam,

Paul Keating and Gareth Evans – a party whose modern identity was largely framed by its approach to foreign policy – seems to meekly accept that the subject of foreign policy and how it affects Australia’s core interests is out of bounds.

The Liberal Party might hold more promise. The Liberals have no fear of political vulnerability on the issue of the alliance, so are better placed to start asking hard questions about Asia and Australia. Despite their carefully cultivated credentials as foreign-policy conservatives, the party has a rich tradition of diplomatic innovation. Think of Percy Spender, Malcolm Fraser and even John Howard.

Secure in his reputation as Australia’s most pro-American prime minister in history, Howard moved Australia gently but firmly towards China, not just economically but politically and strategically. It was Howard who engineered a remarkable bit of diplomatic theatre in October 2003, when then President George W Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao addressed federal parliament in Canberra on two successive days. This unmistakable hint of parity in our relationships with the two powers was reinforced when Howard, in welcoming Hu to parliament, spoke of Australia as a neutral mediator between them.

Who might follow his example? It is unlikely to be Tony Abbott, who has gone no further than the blithe assertion in Battlelines that China’s rise makes no difference to Australia’s foreign policy. Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop is careful to follow in her leader’s wake. But Liberal politician Christopher Pyne, during a recent speech to the Henry Jackson Society in London, gave the most substantial and sustained discussion of Australia’s looming foreign-policy choices of any front-bench politician on either side of politics, even if his conclusions remained safely anchored to party boilerplate.

Perhaps if a few other brave souls in the Liberal Party join Pyne they might give one another the courage to take the plunge. Let’s hope so, because until a serious political debate begins about the choices we face in the Asian century, Australia is heading towards a future that could be much less secure and prosperous than both major parties would have us believe.

Meanwhile, back to the summit circuit: there will be three occasions – at the EAS, G-20 Summit and APEC – when Barack Obama will sit across the table from one of his Chinese counterparts. Diplomats often say that meetings such as this help to calm relations between the world’s two strongest states, but in fact such big gatherings have had the opposite effect. They are opportunities for Washington and Beijing to demonstrate their power before the crowd, so they simply display, and therefore exacerbate, the growing rivalry between them. We saw this at last year’s EAS, when China and the US clashed over the South China Sea dispute.

Is it possible that Gillard, watching the rivalry grow between our two most important international partners, will engage herself with Australia’s place in the world? She declared last year that foreign policy was not her passion, and no one should be surprised. Why should it have been a passion for any ambitious politician of her generation, when it has been so marginal to our real politics for so long? But fate has made her Australia’s leader at a time when great questions of foreign policy must again be addressed. They will be addressed by someone. Why not Gillard? Teetering prime ministerships are sometimes saved by such unexpected and courageous leaps.

–21 September

Hugh White

Hugh White is an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

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