Today Labor Party branches in my electorate of Grayndler hosted the second annual Tom Uren AC Lecture, which was delivered by former Labor Foreign Minister Professor Gareth Evans.The text of Professor Evans’ speech Australia in the World – It’s time to Punch our Weight, follows.
SUNDAY, 2 DECEMBER 2018
AUSTRALIA IN THE WORLD: IT’S TIME TO PUNCH OUR WEIGHT
2018 Tom Uren Memorial Lecture by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, hosted by the Hon Anthony Albanese MP, Balmain Town Hall, Sydney, 2 December 2018
I am delighted to be here at the invitation of Anthony Albanese, and in the presence of Penny Wong, who are both going to be playing critical leadership roles in the Shorten Labor Government – a government to which Australia is now looking forward with mounting impatience, and desperately needs, including for all the foreign policy reasons I will be spelling out today.
I have gone on public record a number of times – to the bemusement of some people, but not anyone with eyes to see – saying that I really do think that the current Labor team will prove in office to be at least as good as, and maybe significantly better than, the fabled ministry of the Hawke-Keating years of which I was privileged to be a part, which is now almost universally accepted as the gold standard of Australian government. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the extraordinary quality shining through the current Labor front bench, not to mention quite a few of those waiting hungrily behind them. And Albo and Penny – you hardly need me to tell you – are two of the brightest stars in that whole stellar cast. It’s a privilege to be sharing a platform with them today.
And it’s also a privilege, and a pleasure, to be giving this lecture in honour of the memory of Tom Uren, one of the great, iconic figures of the Labor movement: a superbly creative and path-breaking Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam Government, elected 46 years ago today; Deputy Leader of the Party in the mid-1970s; my colleague as Minister, variously, for Local Government, Territories, and Administrative Services in the Hawke Government from 1983 to ‘87; affectionately-regarded Father of the House of Representatives from 1984 until he retired from politics in 1990; and of course, throughout his political life, a very uncompromising hero of the Left and an inspiration and mentor to an army of idealistic young Labor activists, not least our host here today.
Back in those days of the 1970s and 80s, before we all became progressives together, when there really were heavy-duty ideological issues dividing significant sections of the Party, I have to acknowledge that Tom and I did not have a complete love-in during out time together in Parliament. I don’t think we were ever far apart on peace and disarmament issues, and certainly got on fine for most my brief and less than glorious career as Attorney-General, when my quixotic enthusiasm, inter alia, for implementing Lionel Murphy’s unfinished human rights and law reform agenda was getting up the nose of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and quite a few of my other factional colleagues.
But we slugged it out when I was Resources and Energy Minister on issues like uranium sales to France. Again, he thought that I was part of the axis of evil on East Timor, about which he felt passionately: I felt passionately too about the need to redress the terrible wrong of Indonesia’s invasion in 1975 and, as has been publicly acknowledged for many years now by my friend Jose Ramos Horta – who gave the inaugural Uren Lecture last year – worked very hard as Foreign Minister to do just that, but Tom was one of the legion who remained to be persuaded. And we never saw eye to eye on issues like government process, where I had played a leading role, in the transition to government period, in getting adopted new rules on Cabinet-Ministry-Caucus relations in order to overcome the manifest dysfunctionality of the Whitlam Government, but Tom remained an unabashed supporter of extreme Caucus democracy: as he writes in Straight Left, ‘I never believed in the principle of Cabinet solidarity’. I hope in this respect there are some limits to Albo’s discipleship!
I think Tom always saw me as basically a captive of the forces of right-wing darkness, but that was always a misperception (and I don’t think you’ll hear much evidence otherwise in what I have to say today). I certainly was no friend of the Hartley-Crawford loony Left in Victoria, whose dinosaur legacy kept twitching for quite some time after the 1969 federal intervention, but nor was I ever comfortable with the extreme social and foreign and defence policy conservatism of the NSW Right, Tom’s real bete noire. The truth of the matter is that the centre of gravity of the Victorian Branch was always two or three standard deviations to the left of that of the NSW Branch, and our Labor Unity group, the so-called Victorian Right, was in fact pretty indistinguishable from the mainstream NSW Left, certainly as it became under John Faulkner, and colleagues now like Albo and Tanya Plibersek. Anyway, whether Tom agreed with me then, or you agree with me now, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
For all that we might have disagreed about various things, Tom and I did have one rather unusual little bond in common. He and my mum have both recently became exhibits, would you believe, in the Woolworths Head Office Company Museum – Tom because of his very successful post-War career, before entering politics, as a Woollies store manager in Lithgow (believed to be the firm’s only boss ever to join the Shop Assistants Union!), and my mother because she became, at the age of 20, before I was born, with all the men away in the war years, one of Woollies’ youngest ever store managers, at the Smith Street Collingwood branch.
Quite apart from that rather implausible tie of sentiment, I remain undiminished in my admiration for the contribution Tom Uren made to Australian public life – his character and instincts honed by his harrowing wartime experience as a prisoner in Changi, his commitment to the core values of the Australian Labor Party absolutely unwavering, and (for all the occasional triumph of his inner pugilist) his essential human decency always shining through. I hope I can do justice to his memory today.
Punching Below our Weight. One of the many unhappy realities about life under the present Coalition Government is that when it comes to Australia’s place in the world, protecting and advancing our national interests in the international arena, we have been punching way below our weight. In a world, and a region, which is becoming alarmingly more uncertain and fragile, it has never been more important to recover the credibility and effectiveness in foreign policy of which we have shown ourselves eminently capable in the past, and which I’m sure that under a new Labor government, with Penny Wong as Foreign Minister, we can and will again. It’s time for Australia to punch not above our weight, but at the very considerable weight we already have.
To be as fair as I can be – and I have always believed in maximum possible bipartisanship in the conduct of our external relations – the present Coalition government, at least under Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, has done some positive things. Although there was no Coalition enthusiasm for nominating for UN Security Council, when we got there in 2013-14 Australia was generally a very constructive contributor on a number of global security issues (not least with our leadership on the path-breaking resolution on humanitarian access in Syria). We have played an important leadership role in the General Assembly on a normative issue very close to my heart, the responsibility to protect (‘R2P’) peoples against genocide and other mass atrocity crime. Some mportant bilateral agreements have been successfully concluded and advanced. A serious commitment has been made to the Asian education of next generation Australians through the new Colombo Plan. And, very recently there have been some significant steps taken, with strong support from the Labor side, to significantly refocus on, and upgrade, our relations with our Pacific Island neighbours – albeit driven much more by strategic anxiety about China’s growing influence than genuinely neighbourly instinct, which has not gone unnoticed in the region.
But, and it’s a very big ‘but’, along the way we have gone missing on arms control, dragged our feet on climate commitments, and have exposed ourselves to a great deal of criticism for this government’s behavious on many fronts. Among other things:
- being caught eavesdropping on the Indonesian President and his wife and refusing subsequently to apologise;
- prosecuting whistle-blowers now for exposing the equally egregious eavesdropping on Timor-Leste’s cabinet in 2004;
- the extreme isolation of the positions we have regularly taken on Israel-Palestine, taken to grotesque extremes this year with our vote, alongside only the United States, in the Human Rights Council against establishing an independent commission of enquiry to report on the Gaza massacre;
- and taken to even more counterproductive extremes with Prime Minister Morrison’s enthusiasm for relocating our Israel Embassy to Jerusalem – alone in the world with the US and Guatemala – in response to no conciliatory move whatever from Israel that could possibly help advance the two-state solution, comprehensively alienating our Muslim neighbours, and putting at extreme risk not only an important bilateral trade deal, but our whole critical relationship with Indonesia;
- the international shame of some aspects – most notably the Manus and Nauru detention centres – of our asylum seekers policy (although I have to unhappily acknowledge our side, while we have been modifying our position recently and hopefully will further do so in government, has been part of the race to the bottom on this issue );
- our unwillingness to seriously call out or respond punitively to major human rights abuses in Cambodia, Myanmar and elsewhere in our region;
- the unbelievably savage slashing of our forward aid commitments, now at their lowest level (at 0.22% of GNI) since our development assistance began, and heading for a disgraceful 0.19%; and
- the way in which we are now beginning to stumble into zero-sum game territory in managing relations with our major economic partner and our major security ally, unnecessarily clumsily putting ourselves in the freezer with China for most of the last two years, while putting too many eggs into a US basket where they are all too likely to be broken.
Australia’s Strengths. In confronting the many external challenges we will face in the future – and I will be saying a fair bit more about what they are and how I think we should be responding to them – I think it is important to begin with an understanding of the very real strengths and capabilities Australia has, and how we have exercised them in the past.
There is a lot to be said for modesty in the conduct of foreign policy, as in life itself, and there are obvious constraints limiting the exercise of Australia’s diplomatic authority. We are not a great or major power, with economic or military might to match. We are somewhat geographically isolated, though much less than in the past. As a rusted on US ally – at least until now – with an unbroken record for more than a century of fighting Washington’s wars alongside it, we are not always seen, especially by the global South, to be as independently minded as we like to think of ourselves. Memories linger of our past racist policies, and we have to be more careful than most about charges of double standards or hypocrisy if our immigration or other policies are either wrong-headed or misunderstood internationally.
But against all this we have wonderful strengths: assets and capabilities giving real weight to our standing and reputation – some of them inherent or of very long standing, some much more recently acquired. We are by most measures the thirteenth largest economy in the world; by any measure we are the sixth largest by landmass and with the third largest maritime zone; we are one of the most multicultural countries in the globe, with a very large pool of fluent Asian language speakers – hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Australians alone – constituting a fantastic but so far under-appreciated and underutilised resource; and we have, belated though it may be, a strong commitment to our Indigenous people, as the whole world applauded with our apology to the stolen generation.
We bring to the table a unique geopolitical perspective, bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; Australians working in international organizations, both official and non-governmental, and Australian peacekeepers, have won almost universally outstanding reputations; we have had a strong and longstanding commitment to a rule-based global and regional order; and we have had a long record of demonstrated national commitment to the United Nations system in all its security, social and economic justice and human rights dimensions.
Beyond all that, we have been seen for many decades as a creative middle power with global interests and a long – though certainly not unbroken – record of active and effective diplomacy, on global and regional as well as bilateral issues. What should give us confidence in facing the future is how well, particularly under past Labor governments – but, to be fair again, not exclusively so – Australia has played that international role in the past, in defending and advancing our national interests: our national security interests, our national economic interests, and (the third pillar too often neglected by conservatives) our national interest in cooperatively advancing global and regional public goods. This third pillar is what I like to call our national interest in ‘being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen’: Penny prefers the expression ‘constructive internationalism’, but it’s the same basic idea.
A Past Record to Build On. While Australian political leaders were not entirely absent from the world’s stages in our first decades – most obviously (though not very helpfully for our reputation), with Billy Hughes’s performance at Versailles after World War I – Australian foreign policy, in the sense of a desire to pursue our interests combined with some independent capacity to do so, really only dates from the early 1940s. And the creation of any kind of systematic Australian foreign policy really came only with H.V. Evatt, whose most striking contribution was his internationalism. The part he played in the founding of the United Nations is the stuff of which legends are made, and rightly so – especially in his fight for the rights of the smaller powers against the great powers in the respective roles of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and in his faith in the UN as an agent for social and economic reform and as a protector of human rights.
But there were of course aspects of Evatt’s worldview, very much shared by the Labor Party of the time, which were not remotely broad-minded. Right up until the Whitlam era, White Australia and the prejudices which nourished it, and the perception of the world (and particularly our own region) as a dangerous place from which Australia needed to be protected, were very strong strands in the party’s thinking. The early support from Evatt and Chifley for Indonesia’s independence struggle against the Dutch was the closest we came to understanding the new forces at work in our region, and our need to reposition ourselves accordingly. This never became, however, a sustaining or dominant theme in our foreign policy at the time, and it certainly did not become one in the conservative era that followed, from 1949 to 1972.
There wasn’t much left of Evatt’s cooperative internationalism by the end of Menzies’s and his successors’ long reign. It is true that with the Cold War rendering the UN more and more impotent, and multilateral processes generally more and more sterile, there wasn’t much to pursue – other than as a regional extension of alliance relationships. And true it is that we developed, particularly under Casey, cordial diplomatic relations with the emerging new nations of the region; that Spender’s Colombo Plan made a very useful contribution to our long-term relations with Asia; that McEwen deserves credit for the 1957 treaty with Japan and the optimism and foresight that went with it; and that men like Hasluck, and particularly Gorton and Holt, had a quite open-minded international outlook.
But against all this there has to be weighed Menzies’s excruciating Anglophilia; the maintenance until the late 1960s of the full vigour of the White Australia policy; the stridency of our support for Verwoerd’s South Africa; the intensity of our antagonism toward China; the totality of our dependence upon the US; and the ultimate comprehensive misjudgement of our intervention in Vietnam. All this combined to reinforce the image, and the reality, of an Australia largely isolated and irrelevant in its own region.
The Whitlam Government well and truly broke this mould, undaunted by Cold War constraints and showing a great capacity, as Evatt had done, to match Australian foreign policy to the mood and needs of the time. Recognising China; bringing home our last troops from Vietnam; finally burying the White Australia policy; taking France to the World Court for its nuclear tests in the Pacific; and accelerating Papua New Guinea’s independence, were just some of the decisions in that tumultuously active 1972-75 period which set Australia on a new, confidently optimistic internationalist path.
While the Fraser Government which followed from 1975-83 was more than happy to re-embrace Cold War verities, and all the East-West division of friends and enemies that went with it, it is to the credit of Malcolm Fraser himself that on the issues which mattered most for Australia’s long-term capacity to advance its interests, especially in the region, Whitlam’s policies were not only continued, but reinforced. Certainly both Fraser and his Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock both understood, as many in the Coalition for a very long time did not, the critical importance of abandoning government-legitimised racism in any form whatsoever, at home and abroad, not least in his embrace of Vietnamese refugees, in fact less reluctantly than Whitlam.
The Hawke and Keating Governments that took us through the next thirteen years renewed that spirit of activist, optimistic adventure, which had so characterized the Whitlam period, but – at least as I remember it! – in a rather more focused and systematic fashion. And we were able to achieve a great deal, including helping create the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and other new, cooperative, regional economic and security architecture; crafting the peace plan for Cambodia; securing the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention and advancing some major nuclear weapons objectives; playing a central role throughout during the Uruguay Round trade negotiations; building, with France, a strong coalition to save the Antarctic environment from mining and oil drilling; and in being a key player in crafting the financial sanctions strategy which finally brought down apartheid in South Africa.
Throughout John Howard’s long term, to 2007, foreign policy was dominated by the Prime Minister himself, and that was not to Australia’s advantage. He was over-focused on hard rather than soft power, deeply comfortable in following the US alliance lead wherever it took us, unadventurous in seeking global or regional policy change, profoundly uninterested in the UN and the whole idea of transnational problem-solving by creative multilateral cooperation, and generally inward-looking. In his relationships with our Asian regional neighbours, and especially China, the wheel did turn back in his latter years, and his government did make major contributions to regional stability with Australia’s role in leading the East Timor and Solomon Islands peacekeeping operations. But Howard remained manifestly uncomfortable with the whole idea of our primary relationships needing to be in our own region, and quite unaccepting of the notion that our geography now mattered more than our history.
When the Labor Government was returned in 2007, with Kevin Rudd the dominant foreign policy player – as Prime Minister, Foreign Minister under Julia Gillard, and then as Prime Minister again making common cause with Bob Carr – I think it is fair to say that those who Manning Clark used to describe as the ‘enlargers’ rather than the ‘straiteners’ were back on centre stage in the conduct of our international relations. That was most evident in Rudd’s work on climate change (for all the domestic horror that issue generated for him); in playing a brilliant role in getting Australia into the G20, playing a blinder there in forging a response to the global financial crisis, and building its role in global economic management and potentially on a wider front; in trying to give serious content and energy to a new global debate on nuclear disarmament; in creating (albeit after a few diplomatic slips along the way) important new regional architecture in the expanded East Asian Summit; and in moving to claw back a seat at the table for Australia in the UN Security Council. It was also evident in Australia’s support – driven by Carr, and supported by Rudd in backbench exile, but opposed by Gillard – for moves toward recognition of Palestinian statehood in the UN General Assembly, which I hope very much will be embodied in our National Platform at the ALP National Conference later this month
The two year Abbott administration, from 2013 to 2015, was back to the early Howard days, with the US alliance relationship front and centre, little regional focus, and multilateral diplomacy seen as of second or third order importance (except insofar as it involved the ‘Anglosphere’). Things improved a little under Turnbull, but with Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister, generally professionally competent though she was, maintaining an essentially transactional rather than any kind of creative or adventurous policy-focused approach; with Scott Morrison now showing himself to be totally cloth-eared on anything to do with foreign policy; and with Marise Payne as his Foreign Minister, however decent her instincts might be, being an almost invisible bit-player, the overall record of the present Coalition government has been at best limp, and at worst very damaging for Australia’s interests.
Foreign Policy Challenges. There is no doubt an incoming Labor government will face an international environment, both regionally and globally, more challenging than it has been for a very long time. Big and often disconcerting geopolitical shifts have been occurring, most of them faster and going further than almost any of us would have believed possible not very long ago. They include China’s rapid rise; America’s rapid comparative decline; North Korea’s rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons capability; ASEAN’s loss of a significant amount of its coherence and credibility at a time when both have never been more needed; the re-emergence of our own immediate South Pacific region as a potential playground for major power contest; India’s long awaited emergence as a major player; Russia playing the role of regional hegemon and global spoiler whenever and wherever it can (although, we often forget, its economy remains no bigger than Australia’s); Europe struggling to maintain its own coherence in the face of Britain’s Brexit brain-fade and surging nationalist and populist sentiment across the continent; and a deteriorating worldwide commitment to multilateral problem solving, with diminishing confidence in the capacity of a global rules-based order to constrain those who are big and strong enough to think they can act unilaterally. And that list doesn’t even mention what is happening in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America.
Any one of these challenges could occupy us for the rest of the afternoon, but it is the contest between the United States and China which is dominating almost everything else, and certainly concentrating the minds of Australian policymakers more than anything else.
China’s economic rise has been breathtaking in its speed and magnitude, and is now being accompanied by much more geopolitical assertiveness. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the longstanding injunction of Deng Xiaoping for China to ‘hide its strength, bide its time and never take the lead’ internationally has now been completely abandoned. China wants to be a global rule-maker, not just a rule taker. It is no longer prepared to accept second-rank status in international financial and policymaking institutions. Its economic strength is now being parlayed into geopolitical influence on a massive scale across the Asian continent and its maritime surrounds, including the Pacific, through the Belt and Road Initiative. Strategically, China wants its own space in East Asia, and is no longer prepared to play second fiddle to the United States. Militarily, while its expenditure and overall firepower does not match America’s, and catch-up globally will be a long time coming, there has been a very significant modernization and expansion of its capability, certainly along the East Asian littoral, and into the Indian Ocean. Most disconcertingly, some expansionist territorial claims have been pursued, most notably in the South China Sea, with the continuing creeping militarisation of the reef installations in the Spratlys.
As China’s authority has been rising, that of the United States has been manifestly waning, notwithstanding the enormous economic and military power the US continues to have, and the alliances and partnerships it continues to maintain. Its President has forfeited by his behaviour any claim to personal respect, and he Trump administration has squandered US credibility, not just in Asia but worldwide, at multiple levels. By tearing up the painstakingly negotiated and so far totally successful nuclear agreement with Iran; by insulting and alienating his NATO partners, and making clear in multiple ways that he regards allies as expensive encumbrances rather than assets; by walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, trying to destroy the WTO, and showing less understanding than a junior high-school student of the economic benefits of international trade; and by mounting a host of other assaults on multilateral institutions and processes, above all walking away from the Paris Climate Accords.
Responding to the Challenges. So how should Australia, and in particular an incoming Labor government, be reacting to these and other stress-generating international developments in our own region and beyond? I have been carefully reading Penny’s speeches, and those of Bill Shorten and Richard Marles and others with external responsibilities: they are all on the case, and there is very little, if anything, in what they are saying with which I would want to argue. But given that as a political has-been, with my diplomatic future behind me, I have a little more freedom than they do to cut to the chase in a pre-election environment, let me spell out in my own words what I think should be the primary elements in our policy response in government. In short, there are four of them: Less America, More Self-Reliance, More Asia and More Global Engagement.
Less America. I am not suggesting for a moment that Australia walk away from the US alliance, from which we unquestionably benefit in terms of access to intelligence and high-end armaments, and – however flimsy the ANZUS guarantee may prove to be in reality – the notional deterrent protection of America’s massive military firepower. Continued counter-balancing US engagement in our region is certainly highly desirable, but less reflexive support by Australia for everything the US chooses to do is long overdue. As I have often said, ‘Whither thou goest, there I goest’ might be good theology, but it is not great foreign policy for a country that values its independence and wants international respect.
My own experience strongly suggests that periodically saying “no” to the US when our national interests are manifestly different, makes for a much healthier and productive relationship than one of craven dependence. While Simon Crean’s position in 2003 that we would not support the US invasion of Iraq in the absence of a UN mandate gave Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd, among others, the vapours, he was absolutely right and I hope we would take that stance again if a similar situation arose: I am glad to see Bill Shorten effectively saying as much in his major foreign policy speech last month.
The bottom line is that neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that, for all the insurance we might think we have bought with our past support, the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat. While that was almost certainly also the reality under previous administrations, it has been thrown into much starker relief by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, and it should not be assumed that anything would be very different in a post-Trump era. I think the reality is, as my ANU colleague Hugh White has repeatedly put it, that ‘we need to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America’.
None of this positioning is as breathtakingly adventurous, or politically dangerous, as it might once have been. Recognition that the US is a much less reliable ally than it once may have been is alive and well in Europe, is creeping into the writing even of the conservative commentariat here (certainly that of Pope Paul Kelly, if not Cardinal Greg Sheridan), was clearly a subtext of the Government’s own Foreign Policy White Paper last year. While Penny and her colleagues will no doubt use more polite language than I am presently capable of, I don’t think the ALP should feel too bashful about joining the crowd.
More Self-Reliance. Preparing ourselves to rely less on America certainly means being more of a diplomatic free agent: adding to our reputation and credibility with an activist foreign policy that is creative, proactive, value-adding and unconstrained by the constant urge to look over our shoulder to Washington. But more than that, it does entail, in military terms, building defence capability that involves not only more bucks than we are usually comfortable spending but getting a bigger bang for each of them. It certainly means maximising our capacity to protect our shores and maritime environment (including the South West Pacific) from hostile intrusion, but also means having a capacity to engage in military operations wider afield if there is a good national interest (including responsible global citizenship) reason for doing so.
While defence expenditure has been increasing – with both sides of politics committed to maintaining it at a credible 2%, or slightly more, of GDP – given the size of our continent, our capacity to defend ourselves against any really existential threat is limited. I am optimistic enough to believe that in today’s world the costs and risks of waging war so wildly outweigh any conceivable benefits for any significant player that the likelihood of a major conflict in the foreseeable future is actually very low. But defence planning always has to be based on worst case assumptions, taking into account potential adversaries’ capabilities, not just known intent, and in that context we are going to have to get used to doing more.
More Asia. This to me has two dimensions: on the one hand, strengthening our relationships at all levels with key regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, as a collective counterweight to a potentially overreaching China; and on the other hand trying to develop a more multidimensional relationship, not just a one dimensional economic one, with China itself.
As much as I would welcome Australia developing an even closer relationship with ASEAN as a whole – with all its potential for harnessing the region’s collective middle power energy and capacity – and to see that relationship perhaps extending in the future to some form of associate membership rather than just partnership, I suspect that for the foreseeable future internal divisions, and the organization’s culture of extreme caution, make that unlikely, and that our efforts in South East Asia should be focused on its two heaviest players, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as our traditional partners Singapore and Malaysia. Which means, among other things, that just about the last thing we should be doing is gratuitously putting any of those relationships at risk by the kind of unbelievable folly involved in Morrison’s Jerusalem Embassy thought-bubble.
So far as China itself is concerned, it is critical – and I am glad to see last year’s Foreign Policy White Paper spelling this out quite clearly, and this focus becoming evident in policy statements from our own side – to approach the relationship in a spirit of multi-dimensional engagement. We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for our prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on anything to do with security issues in the hope and expectation, almost certainly now misguided, that the US will do the heavy lifting for us on that front. None of this means becoming Beijing’s patsy, any more than we should be Washington’s: we should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values, and should be prepared to push back strongly when China overreaches, as it has in the South China Sea.
But it does mean recognizing the legitimacy of many of China’s own security and economic national interest claims, including the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative: with us being a little less anxious about its regional security implications, and being prepared – with appropriate commercial caution – to be an active participant in the enterprise. And it certainly means recognizing the legitimacy of China’s demand to be now not just a rule-taker but a participant in global rule-making. In that context, one of the most productive ways of building content into Australia’s relationship may be to work more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to nuclear arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on many of which issues China has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised. Some will say Xi Jinping’s rapid occupation of the climate space abdicated by the US, and rush, similarly, to champion the virtues of free trade, was just cynical opportunism, but I don’t think we should necessarily assume that: we should be out there exploring the options.
More Global Engagement. I strongly believe that this should come back into focus as a sustaining theme of Australian foreign policy, picking up the idea that what I have been calling ‘good international citizenship’, that Penny calls ‘constructive internationalism’, really is itself a core national interest, sitting alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests. The willingness of ALP governments in the past to take seriously the pursuit of global and regional public goods, even when there was no direct or immediate economic or security return, has been a fundamental point of differentiation between us and most of our conservative opponents for decades now, and it’s time in my judgement for this to take centre stage again.
Australia has been at its best, and our standing in the world highest, when we play to the national strengths I described at the outset, and have projected ourselves effectively on to the world stage as a country deeply committed to our common humanity and determined to do everything we can to make the world safer, saner, more prosperous and just.
In the contemporary world, every state’s security, prosperity and quality of life is best advanced by cooperation rather than confrontation, and Australia should be a relentless campaigner for just that. There are many public goods issues on which we could make a positive difference, using our own strengths as a capable, credible middle power and the strategies of international coalition building that are the essence of effective middle power diplomacy.
To take just one example, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, where we have played a major role in global agenda setting in the past with the Canberra Commission initiated by Paul Keating in 1996 and the Australia-Japan Commission initiated by Kevin Rudd in 2009, and can play a major role again, including – I don’t think it’s too naïve to hope – by working with China, which has long been among the least enthusiastic of the nuclear-armed states.
I don’t disagree with Penny and Richard Marles when they say that the recently negotiated UN Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty – the Nuclear Ban Treaty – is aspirational rather than remotely operational in its present form, and is never likely to win the support of any of the present nuclear-armed states. But I do think we should be more prepared to knowledge the normative – moral, if you like – significance involved in two-thirds of the world’s countries participating in its negotiation, and not in any way accept that support for the Ban Treaty somehow undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): it does not.
My own view is that the most useful way forward – and this is a cause in which Australia could unquestionably play a global leadership role under a Labor government – is to develop a broad-based international coalition aimed at bridging the widening gulf between those who clamour hopelessly impractically for global zero now, and those who want to do nothing at all about nuclear disarmament. This is not the occasion to spell it out in detail now, but I think the beginning of wisdom here is a serious step-by-step process of the kind proposed in the Rudd Australia-Japan Commission I co-chaired, focusing initially on the ‘4 Ds’ – Doctrine (‘No First Use’), De-alerting (to build in launch-time delays and reduce the possibility of catastrophic error), Deployment (reducing the number of weapons actively deployed) and Decreasing overall numbers to a small fraction of the 14,500 presently in existence. We know that complete elimination of nuclear weapons is going to remain out of reach for a very long time, but we just have to do something to reduce the salience and legitimacy of the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, and the most immediate risk to life on this planet as we know it. The other great existential risk is, of course, climate change: but nuclear weapons can kill us a lot faster than CO2. Nuclear disarmament is core business for any Labor government worth the name.
My own strong belief is that Australians just don’t accept that we are another also-ran, and that any government which adopts a posture which concentrates just on our more obvious bilateral relationships, and just on our immediate neighbourhood (though I support completely the re-engagement and re-focus on the South Pacific which has been capturing so much attention recently), and which remains myopic about what is capable of being achieved if we engage in a whole variety of multilateral forums with the skill and stamina which has served us so well in the past, will be a government that will simply not be playing the confident external projection role which most Australians want it to
Our track record over many decades overwhelmingly shows that Australia and individual Australians are decent and committed international citizens, independently minded – and with a real egalitarian streak, something which plays well with a great many other countries with our strong record, everywhere from peacekeeping missions to diplomatic forums, of neither sucking up to the powerful nor kicking down at the powerless.
Playing to that instinct of decency, focusing on cooperative problem solving, working through forums like the G20 and East Asia Summit and APEC where as a result of past Labor government efforts we have a top-table place, using all the energy and creativity that has traditionally been associated with Australian middle power diplomacy at its best – and above all with ALP governments – will be far and away the best way of ensuring in the years and decades ahead, in a region and world in which the tectonic plates are shifting and every possible kind of uncertainty abounds, that this great country of ours not only survives but thrives.
I have total confidence that with Bill Shorten leading a new ALP government and Penny leading our external relations team, Australia really will be in fantastically good hands, fully realizing our capability in a way that we have almost completely failed to do over the last five years, and doing so in a way that will bring real and lasting benefit not only to our own people, but those of our region and the wider world. This will be great Labor government, of which Tom Uren would be proud, and we will all be proud.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.