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Yearning for a bygone era: The White Paper’s anachronistic overconfidence

Image credit: US Embassy Canberra (Facebook: Creative Commons)

On 23 November of 2017, the Australian federal government released the long awaited Foreign Policy White Paper. As the framework that will guide Australia’s future international engagement, the paper deftly wrestles with many issues that must be pondered during this period of unprecedented ‘uncertainty and change’. Among others, these include: US protectionism, Chinese growth, Pacific resilience and the rise of the Indo-Pacific region as an economic powerhouse.

The defining feature of these issues is an overwhelming concern about how to balance between a recalcitrant US and a globally ascendant China. Australia is now well aware of the intrinsic tensions that exist between its security interests and its trade interests. The White Paper advocates hedging against China by pursuing stronger ties with the US and other Indo-Pacific countries.

Central to Australia’s attempts to hedge China is a framework commonly termed the ‘rules-based international order’, a term favoured in Australian foreign policy circles. This is a reference to the liberal global order established post-World War Two that depends on a system of rules codified into international law, and that positions the US as world leader and rightful global hegemon.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s favoured catchphrase is now ‘uncertainty’, and the White Paper recognises the rules-based global order is under threat as Australia faces its ‘most complex and challenging geostrategic environment’ since the Cold War. However, while the White Paper rightly posits that this rules-based international order is in Australia’s interests, it fails to consider whether it is realistic to expect that this order can and will endure.

Instead, it assumes that the rules-based international order will outlast any challenges to its legitimacy. This relies on several fundamental assumptions—namely, that China can be convinced to preserve the rules-based global order and that US nativism began and will end with Trump’s presidency.

However, it is too optimistic to believe that China, now a leading world power, will be happy to wholly endorse a status quo that does not reflect its interests, or to subscribe to a system of customs and rules that it had no say in establishing. Moreover, the liberalism of the current global order openly threatens the philosophy of the Chinese Communist Party.

As China’s power grows, so too does its drive to remodel aspects of the rules-based international order to protect its own strategic interests and reflect those of other non-Western countries. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Bank proved China’s maturation as a leader in global governance willing to challenge Western leadership.

By focusing on mitigating China’s increasingly hawkish approach to international engagement, the White Paper fails to provide strategies for adaptation lest the lauded rules-based international order is redefined as China seeks a greater say on the world stage.

Likewise, the White Paper also makes the assumption that US leadership in the Indo-Pacific will endure. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made repeated assurances that the US alliance remains Australia’s ‘single most important bilateral relationship in the world’. While the White Paper does recognise that US protectionism and isolationism poses serious threats to Australia’s interests, this is undercut by the judgment that the US’ ‘long-term interests will anchor its economic and security engagement in the Indo-Pacific’.

By emphasising the importance of a US-led global order, the White Paper presupposes that the Trump administration is the sole reason for the US’ about-turn on international engagement, and assumes that Australia can overlook Trump’s populist success as an impermanent anomaly. Yet the issues that propelled Trump’s meteoric rise – anti-elitism, increased fear of terrorism, structural inequality and lack of economic opportunities – are showing no signs of subsiding. While the US may retake its place on the world stage after Trump, this is by no means a foretold conclusion.

When the White Paper assumes that Australia can hedge against China by relying on a powerful US alliance in the Indo-Pacific, it fails to take into account the possibility of a new global order emerging. There is consequently little consideration of what this order would look like and how we can cement our prosperity and security within it.

It must be noted that the White Paper does acknowledge that the forces buffeting the world are unprecedented and likely to change our region in unpredictable ways. It places priority on securing deeper ties with other like-minded democracies in the region in order to contain Chinese power, namely Japan, India, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea. This policy stance doubtless influenced the reconvening of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in November.

Nevertheless, there is too great an emphasis placed on minimising the risk of change at the expense of debating viable strategies of adaptation. By relying too heavily on the perceived infallibility of the current rules-based international order, the White Paper has undertones of the bygone era of containment, presenting Australia as a country resistant to change that is clutching nostalgically at the clearer world order of the Cold War.

Emma Squires is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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