CANBERRA – Australia’s 2017 white paper on foreign policy sketches the global geopolitical transition with remarkable precision and elegance. The document is exceptionally strong on principles, rules and norms as the foundation of world order. The word “rules” is used 70 times, “norms” 22 times, “principles” 15 times and “international law” 26 times.
The paper documents how a connected world is becoming more competitive and contested, reshaping the world order and putting global rules and institutions under strain. These present opportunities alongside threats. The most consequential challenge for Australia is the growing power, wealth and influence of China enabling it to contest U.S. primacy.
Australia’s response is to restate the fundamental importance of the U.S. alliance as the core of strategic and defense planning, and encourage a strong U.S. security and economic engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. Canberra will look to stronger bilateral engagement with China but also to enhanced engagement with the regional democracies of Japan, India, Indonesia and South Korea.
However, the paper suffers from three conceptual flaws that have direct relevance to Japan’s foreign policy. It ignores the emerging split between the geopolitical balance of power and the normative center of gravity; fails to connect changing geopolitical equations to the evolving normative structure; and artificially conflates the Pacific and Indian ocean regions. It betrays a transactional approach to foreign policy, not a commitment to a norm-based security order.
International politics used to be a struggle for power. Now it is a struggle for the ascendancy of competing normative architectures for world order conducted on two axes. The first axis consists of military power, economic weight and geopolitical clout; the second, of norms, principles and ideas. The two can be congruent or divergent.
The world’s geopolitical balance circa 1945 is reflected in the U.N. Security Council, but the normative center of gravity is the U.N. General Assembly, where all 193 member states have a vote. There have been three recent instances of the General Assembly asserting normative primacy over Security Council geopolitical dominance. In 2016 the assembly inserted itself in the process for selecting the ninth U.N. secretary-general; all previous choices had been made solely by the Security Council and ratified by the assembly. Had a similar process of public consultations with all member states and civil society been followed in 2006, the charisma-challenged Ban Ki-moon would most likely have faltered. Nor would Antonio Guterres have succeeded last year under the old process.
Second, a new nuclear ban treaty was adopted by 122 states on July 7 despite the unanimous opposition of the five permanent Security Council members, known as the P5. Third, on Nov. 20 in an unexpected contest for re-election to the International Court of Justice, India’s Dalveer Bhandari defeated Britain’s Christopher Greenwood. Going into the voting, Greenwood had the support of nine of the 15 Security Council members, but Bhandari had support from almost two-thirds of the General Assembly. For the first time since 1946, a P5 member will not have a judge on the world court. Thus the era of P5 privileges may slowly be coming to a close.
The final flaw is that although Australia faces both the Pacific and Indian oceans, there is no strategic integration between the two. The regional dynamics among the states around the two oceans are totally different. While China is contesting U.S. strategic primacy in the Pacific, India as the dominant Indian Ocean power has edged steadily closer to the United States, Japan and Australia. While it makes sense for Canberra to push for closer ties to Delhi and encourage a growing Indian footprint in Southeast Asia, the “Indo-Pacific” is not a coherent analytical frame, merely a convenient device for incorporating India in an anti-China strategic arc.
Australia strongly supports continued U.S. global leadership and pledges contributions to coalition operations to underwrite global and regional security, but in the very next paragraph emphasizes the importance of “collective efforts to limit the exercise of coercive power.” In recent decades the U.S. has exercised coercive power far more than any other actor, often with Australia as a coalition partner, including in violation of international law in Iraq in 2003. Yet all the examples of impermissible behavior cited in the document are to actions by Russia, Syria, North Korea and China.
The vision outlined is of the rear-view mirror of a world already fading from memory, namely the liberal international order created and underwritten by the U.S.-led West. This would deny China agency as the rising power to write global rules, and design and control the institutions of global governance. An editorial in the South China Morning Post, “Australia turns its back on the new Asia with white paper,” correctly concluded that Canberra has chosen to stick to the U.S. line rather than recognize the reality of China, work to improve relations with Beijing and commit to global organizations.
Thus the white paper calls on all parties to accept the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling on the China-Philippines maritime territorial dispute. Noting that Canberra is not a party in the South China Sea disputes, China’s foreign and defense ministry spokespersons criticized Australia for “carping” and “irresponsible” comments, insisting that “interference from countries outside the region can only complicate the … issue and will be of no help to regional peace and stability.”
The paper boasts that “Australia is a principled and pragmatic member of the United Nations.” Moreover, “threats to international rules come from countries directly challenging, ignoring or undermining international law” and from the emergence of new rules and norms “that are not consistent with Australia’s interests and values.” The last is tacit admission that Canberra supports a rules-based order only if the West gets to write, police and enforce the rules. Yet the document is right in noting that the leash function of strong rules is “becoming more important to Australia as the distribution of power changes in the international system.”
On nuclear matters, the paper repeats the familiar mantra of the nuclear powers that a complex security environment requires “a patient and pragmatic approach” that imposes immediate, precise and binding non-proliferation obligations against vague, indefinite and rhetoric-only promises of disarmament. It restates the importance of the U.S. nuclear force for the security of U.S. allies. And it simply ignores the adoption of the U.N. nuclear ban treaty, pretending it does not exist. All of which suggests that Australia is neither principled, pragmatic nor U.N.-friendly in its strategy of global engagement in reducing nuclear risks and eliminating nuclear threats.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University.
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