Australia’s “The White Paper on Foreign Policy” published on November 23 ) is important for a number of reasons. Mainly because we are talking about the first document of this kind for the last 14 years from a country, whose role is very significant in the processes occurring in the most important region for contemporary global politics, the Indian and Pacific Ocean region (IPR).
Although Australia does not belong to the group of leading regional and world players (such as the US and China), its relevance in the Indian-Pacific Region and, in particular, in the South-East Asian subregion, is quite comparable to the political and economic weight of such major Asian powers as India and Japan. With a population of 25 million people, Australia has the 13th largest volume of GDP. In terms of numbers, a relatively small but quite modern and capable armed forces of 52,000 servicemen. In 2015 defense was allocated over $23 million (12th place in the world).
However, in line with the 2016 “White Paper on Defense“, these expenditures will increase at an extremely high rate and already by the fiscal year 2020-2021 shall exceed $42 billion, i.e., 2 percent of national GDP. The third economy in the world, Japan allocates approximately the same amount on military needs in terms of absolute numbers.
Along with the United States, India and Japan, Australia is part of the project to form a quadripartite quasi-union, which has received the moniker Quad among journalistic circles. The shadow of this project, which first appeared in the middle of the last decade, again loomed on the sidelines of the regional forums that took place in November in Da Nang and Manila.
The key problem in positioning Australia in the region stems from its apparent foreign policy schizophrenia. While being part of the anti-Chinese alliance with the US (within the framework of the ANZUS pact since 1952), Australia maintains extremely profitable economic relations with that very same China, which accounts for almost a third of the country’s entire foreign trade with a positive 30 percent balance.
It is important to note the dependence of Australia’s foreign “dichotomy” on which of the two main parts of the country’s establishment is currently in power. Since 2013 it has been ruled by its Conservative half, led by current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. This reality undoubtedly affected the content of Australia’s conceptual foreign policy document.
Noting the shift in the center of world political and economic processes to the Indian-Pacific Region, its authors point to the “dominant role of the US in the region, the main challenge to which is China.”
Noteworthy, however, is the observation of “strategic tensions, threats to economic growth and the disruption of the flow of goods and investment subsequent to possible significant increases in protectionism.” This phrase imparted a negative message to the economic policy of President Donald Trump, in which, inter alia, the United States was withdrawn from the Transpacific Partnership project. But in Australia it was with TPP that there were special expectations for further economic development.
In general, the word “economy” is used most frequently, whether it is the basis of the country’s foreign policy or its objectives. For example: “A strong, competitive economy will be the foundation of our prosperity. A growing economy will maximize our weight in the world.”
The document outlines five main points of the Government’s foreign policy:
-“To promote the openness, content and prosperity of the Indian-Pacific Region, in which the rights of all States are respected;
-To provide more opportunities to our businesses everywhere and to resist protectionism;
-To guarantee security and freedom to Australians in the face of threats such as terrorism;
-To promote and protect international law, which provides stability and prosperity, as well as to cooperate in solving global problems;
-To intensify efforts to ensure sustainability in the Pacific Ocean and, in particular, in East Timor.”
The aforementioned long quote requires some commentary. As we have stated on various occasions, such texts by Chinese political opponents use the well-entrenched language of euphemisms.
Expressions such as “openness”, “freedom”, “international norms” and “rights of all States” implicitly imply the source of threats to the efficacy of the categories being referred to. These words invariably appear in the official documents of the United States, Japan, Australia itself, when, for example, the issue of territorial disputes between the PRC and its neighbors in the subregion of South-East Asia are discussed.
Similar expressions were used a year ago in Australia’s “White Paper on Defense”, which states, inter alia, that American-Chinese relations will play the decisive role in the Indian-Pacific Region for the foreseeable future. This document leaves no room for doubt as to which of the two world giants will remain a key partner for Australia in securing its national security.
The same words about the need to “maintain law-based order” in the Indian-Pacific Region were used in a press release about the meeting of the responsible representatives of the Foreign Ministries of India, Indonesia and Australia, which took place in Indonesian Bogor at the end of November.
With regard to the last of the aforementioned paragraphs of the MFA’s “White Paper”, it reflects Australia’s growing influence on the situation not only in East Timor (which, almost 20 years ago, Canberra played a decisive role in its achieving statehood), but also in the Island States of the south-western Pacific Ocean.
In China, of course, they could not fail to pay attention to the impressive conceptual document on the foreign policy of an important player in the game, unfolding in the Indian-Pacific Region. Mainly, the key thesis about the “dominant role of the United States” in the Indian-Pacific region and Australia’s intention to deepen allied relations with Washington, as well as participate in the formation of multilateral alliances.
The Chinese Global Times points out that, in security matters, Australia is even ahead of the US, because American policy toward China is much more complex than it may seem to some Australian Foreign Ministry officials. The outcome of the recent visit to Beijing by the American President is cited as an indication of this complexity.
Perhaps, in connection with this, the Chinese Global Times recalled, as a reminder, that for China, who is Australia’s largest economic partner, that the latter is not even in the top ten of its trade counterparts. And that Beijing could reorient “to the other side” in economic ties with Canberra without inflicting any significant damage to itself.
In this kind of partnership, China uses both sticks and carrots. For example, in July of this year, six Australian beef companies were denied access to the Chinese market, which accounted for about a third of the total of this product exported by Australia to China. At the end of November, the ban was lifted, resulting in a very positive reaction from the Minister of Trade of Australia, Steven Ciobo, on the “gratitude to China by the coalition government of Malcolm Turnbull“.
Still, it’s not very convenient to stand on your feet, fanning out in different directions. But it seems that, in particular, in the text of the document discussed here, Australia intends to remain in this uncomfortable position.
It is important, however, not to sit on the political “divide”, which (without special preparation) is fraught with painful consequences.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”