It is becoming abundantly clear that Australia needs to firmly commit to its own brand of foreign policy, as some of the world’s most powerful leaders wield their influence to substantively impact the global political sphere.
Since coming to power, American President Donald Trump has progressively implemented programs with serious international implications. This includes the significant changes resulting from the recent heavy trades tariff. The Chinese labelled the move a "disaster" in the making, whilst various other countries have stressed that such a move would incite a global trade war and are potentially considering pursuing retaliation through the World Trade Organisation.
Although Australia has been excluded on the basis of its strong relationship with America, which is a significant achievement for our economy, there is certainly a need to remain conscious of the international fallout this move has prompted. Many of Australia's regional neighbours will be deeply impacted by the tariffs. China, Japan and South Korea are alarmed by the potential damage that could be done to the “normal order of international trade”.
Trump is executing a foreign policy that continues to disturb normal patterns of international relations, and this decision will not be received positively by any countries impacted and thus could lead to potentially disastrous impacts upon the global economy.
President Xi Jinping of China has also made a strong move that is expected to have a lasting impact in the global community, having successfully received the Chinese Congress’ support to rule for life. President Xi Jinping is now able to maintain his position indefinitely, inciting Chinese activists who are calling for international criticism against the change. President Trump controversially supported the move, claiming that such a tactic was “great” and in the future would be worth “a shot” in America.
The uncertainty and authoritarianism associated with one-man rule is not unknown to China or the world, and in many previous instances has left indelible marks domestically and globally. Such a move by President Xi Jingping reaffirms the authoritarian model that is increasingly becoming part of the present Chinese political ideology, and can only be considered the developing reality of China’s approach to its bilateral and multilateral partnerships. Echoing the influence of Mao, the last example of all consuming power held by one leader in China, the current President has successfully inserted his political theory into the constitution and embedded his leadership so deeply into the government that it is close to infallible.
A China that exists with an all powerful and permanent ruler would pose significant problems for Australia, along with the Asian region and the international community more broadly. Although this is a leader that Australia is familiar with and has worked with for a number of years, the accrual of power could potentially lead to greater discontent within China that could accelerate rapidly into a dangerous domestic situation.
Then there is Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has recently declared that his nation has a suite of new weapons that are “unstoppable” and demonstrate the West’s failure “to contain Russia”. In the annual state of the union speech, President Putin made it clear that Russia could not be contained nor ignored, and that new weapons would be used to support global stability. Although many questions have been raised as to whether the weapons are new or as highly capable as what is being marketed, there is still a level of risk that must be appreciated, and Australia cannot ignore the threat to global order that Russia continues to advance.
Earlier in the year, both Prime Minister Turnbull and Foreign Minister Bishop made it clear that neither Russia nor China are considered to be threats to Australia. Prime Minister Turnbull claimed that no other countries in the region show hostility towards Australia beyond North Korea. Although Australia may not face any direct, weaponised threats, there still exist challenges associated with the rising militarization and authoritarianism in both China and Russia that warrant greater consideration by Australia.
However, these countries and the potential threats associated with the changes being implemented by their respective leaders are not to be ignored. Australia may have escaped devastation on this occasion with the trade tariff, but what could be the impact of inevitable future Trump schemes?
For Australia to ascend to position of leadership in the region, it needs to focus on building strategies to engage with key players and building up recognition as a strong willed country. This includes capitalising on opportunities to be a spokesperson, to launch new initiatives and partnerships and critique behaviour that is unaligned with the politics, values and attitudes held by the Australian Government and people.
If Australia is to seriously engage in international matters, and in light of the $3.8 billion budget boost for the defence industry, more assertion and strategy is required from Australia in considering its foreign policy priorities. Downplaying concerns over the bold moves made in these three countries and not focusing on strategic approaches with regional neighbours may yet leave Australia in an unwanted and powerless position.
Kate Jennings is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.