38 Foreign and defence policy

Nicholas Bromfield and Thomas S. Wilkins

Key terms/names

ANZUS, defence strategy, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, foreign aid, liberal internationalism/liberalism, middle power, National Security Committee, non-traditional security, realism, regionalism, securitisation, three pillars

The foreign and defence policies[1] of Australia have been marked by periods of continuity and change since the country slowly decoupled from the UK and forged a more independent international posture from the postwar period to the present. This short introductory chapter cannot do justice to the full scope of Australian foreign and defence policy, which is a process of immense complexity, but rather seeks to highlight the key actors, events and enduring issues that face Australian policy makers from the present and into the future. By necessity, an introductory chapter cannot be comprehensive, and examples are therefore chosen representatively and selectively. Before proceeding to the main text of the chapter, which examines a range of selected contemporary aspects of Australian foreign and defence policy, it is necessary to provide some relevant historical background since current issues all have their historical antecedents.

Historical background

Contemporary foreign policy making takes place against a historical backdrop which informs current mindsets and policy. Australia relied upon the UK for defence, trade and even foreign affairs until the Second World War, despite the ‘tyranny of distance’ from the motherland. This dependence was cruelly exposed by the Japanese defeat of Imperial forces in Singapore in 1942, marking a watershed in Australian thinking. Prime Minister John Curtin famously declared that ‘Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom’[2] and soon after, he belatedly ratified the 1931 Statute of Westminster that devolved full sovereignty over international policy to the Dominion of Australia. During the postwar period, leading diplomats such as H.V. Evatt sought to carve out a greater role for Australia and other medium-sized powers in the shaping of global governance, for example, through the foundation of the United Nations (UN) and the San Francisco Peace Treaty settlements in 1951. At the same time the pivotal ANZUS (Australia–New Zealand–USA) alliance treaty was inaugurated, indicating a shift from the UK to the USA in terms of defence reliance.

During the Cold War, Australian foreign and defence policy focused on the putative communist threat emanating from Soviet and Chinese expansion. Canberra acceded to the ANZUS alliance at the same time as the Second World War San Francisco Peace Treaties in 1951. This was tied to the ongoing process of decolonisation as European powers sought to preserve their influence in South-East Asia against nationalist, and often Marxist, independence movements and conflicts. Canberra provided diplomatic and military support for the UN-led coalition in the Korean War (1950–53), the British in Malaya against ‘communist terrorists’ (1948–60) and against the Indonesian ‘confrontation’ policy in Borneo (1963–66), and deployed substantial military force to support the USA in Vietnam into the 1970s (including through membership of the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation Pact). At this time Australia also withdrew from its own colony in Papua New Guinea (1975) and sought to manage relations with the diverse array of newly independent countries in the South Pacific making up the British Commonwealth.

Serious challenges arose around this time. President Nixon’s Guam Doctrine (1969) signalled that America’s allies would henceforth have to provide more resources for their own defence, prompting a more self-reliant defence policy in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan’s postwar economic recovery had also encouraged increasing Australian economic engagement with Asia. But continuing Australian economic prosperity was undermined by protectionist policies, the economic rupture with the UK when the latter joined the European Economic Community in 1973, and a series of Middle Eastern ‘oil shocks’. At this time, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam also ended the isolation of communist China by his visits to Beijing, which ultimately ended in the recognition of the Peoples Republic of China in 1973, and the removal of the Australian Embassy from Taipei in the Republic of China. The 1970s therefore saw a ‘torrent of change in Australian foreign policy’.[3]

Against this backdrop, the Department of Foreign Affairs was established in 1971 (replaced with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1987). These economic problems also led to a reappraisal of trade and financial policy and the embrace of a ‘neoliberal’ economic agenda in the 1980s: a progressive elimination of tariffs, privatisation, and opening of markets under the Hawke and Keating governments. These moves re-established Australian economic competitiveness and encouraged closer engagement with the Asian region, avoiding the possibility – in Keating’s words – that Australia might become a ‘banana republic’.[4] Australia also drove the building of regional multilateral institutions such as Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and was at the forefront of peace-keeping operations in Cambodia (1992–93) and East Timor (1999).

The long-running Howard Coalition government (1996–2007) continued these regionalist and globalist policies, while simultaneously taking a ‘hard-headed’ approach to the national interest despite its nostalgia for the UK–USA ‘Anglosphere’. By the 21st century, Australia’s firm attachment to the American alliance and active participation in the Asia-Pacific region was firmly established and deepened. But the post–Cold War and post-9/11 periods unleashed a range of new and unfamiliar policy challenges such as the rise of China, international terrorism, migration, and climate change. While Australia benefitted from the rise of Asian power and prosperity, the longstanding certainties upon which its foreign policy settings had been predicated have been called into question.

Australian foreign and defence policy: a thematic approach

In his seminal study of Australian foreign policy from 1942 to the present, Allen Gyngell identified three perennial aspects of Australian policy: a ‘great and powerful friend’, ‘regional engagement’, and a ‘rules-based international order’.[5] These have also been officially expounded as ‘three pillars’ (the USA alliance, engagement with Asia and membership of the UN) under the Rudd–Gillard Labor governments. Moreover, subsequent Coalition governments have not significantly departed from these aspects, even if their emphases have differed. This introductory chapter takes these three elements as a point of departure and expands upon them to cover 10 key themes through which Australian foreign and defence policy can be understood and appraised. Indeed, former Ambassador to the USA, Kim Beazley, suggests that the ‘dramatic shift from state-centric diplomacy and the rise of non-state challenges has meant foreign policy must be dealt with thematically’.[6]

The 10 themes treated here are grouped under four sections. The first section, ‘contexts’, looks at: foreign and defence policy machinery, Labor versus Liberal Party policy traditions, and liberal internationalism; all of which set the stage for Australian policy engagement. The second section investigates three core platforms of foreign policy engagement: economic diplomacy, defence strategy and non-traditional security. The following section concentrates on Australia’s regionalist policies through Asian engagement and foreign aid. The final section considers Australia’s relations with the two superpowers in the Asia-Pacific: China and the USA, before offering conclusions. These themes interrelate and overlap, and should be considered as such – they are presented separately for analytical convenience and do not reflect any order of priority.

Section 1: Contexts

Australia’s foreign and defence policy machinery

Australian foreign and defence policy making primarily resides within three major organs: the Prime Minster and Cabinet (PM&C), the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Department of Defence (DoD). At the apex of policy making, the government, headed by the prime minster and their foreign and defence ministers, as well as other portfolios, will normally play a significant role in shaping policy directions. Indeed, with the ongoing trend towards a more ‘presidential’ system of government, power has become more concentrated in the PM&C. Yet prime ministers have varied in their inclination and ability to put their stamp on foreign and defence issues. For example, at one end of the spectrum was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who effectively usurped the role of his foreign minister during his tenure, while his successor Julia Gillard, who had scant interest or experience in foreign affairs, found herself substantially delegating to her ministers (including her foreign minster: Kevin Rudd!). Indeed, the relationship between the prime minister and their foreign ministers has been a key aspect in executing a harmonious and cohesive foreign policy posture, with great combinations such as Prime Minister Paul Keating and Foreign Minister Gareth Evans juxtaposed with highly fractious ones such as Prime Minister Gillard and Foreign Minister Rudd.

The National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSC) is the peak decision and policy-making body for security. It conducts high-level consultations aimed at shaping and implementing broader security policy and brings together the prime minister, relevant ministers, PM&C, heads of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and key national intelligence organisations (Office of National Intelligence [ONI], Australian Security Intelligence Organisation [ASIO], Australian Secret Intelligence Service [ASIS]). This is in line with the trend towards ‘securitisation’ of foreign policy, indicated throughout this chapter. The objectives of foreign and defence policy are also periodically outlined in government commissioned white papers, which are indispensable for a full understanding of current affairs.

The government of the day is supported by DFAT and the DoD, permanent bureaucratic organs that are designed to advise and implement foreign and defence policy respectively. Other actors, such as the Department for Homeland Affairs (DHA), which was established in 2017, also play a significant role in selected issues. DFAT is charged with the implementation of foreign policy, foreign relations, foreign aid, consular services, trade and investment. Yet, in the last two decades DFAT has been subject to significant budget cuts, organisational restructuring, loss of oversight to a range of other agencies, and a revolving door of foreign ministers (and prime ministers) at its helm, despite its apparently pivotal role in the foreign policy process. Though the department saw a measure of revitalisation under Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and head of its policy planning unit, Peter Vargese, it is still affected by resource shortages, poor morale, and lack of strategic focus.[7] The DoD, on the other hand, forms part of the Australian Defence Organisation (ADO), along with the ADF. Its remit is more narrowly focused upon defending Australia and its citizens and engaging in overseas coalition and peace-keeping activities. DoD has also suffered from attacks upon its ‘bloated bureaucracy’ that has emphasised ‘front-end’ material capabilities but has remained relatively unscathed from the cuts that DFAT has experienced due to its unique bureaucratic culture and enormous size.[8]

Generally speaking, foreign policy issues do not attract great attention among the Australian public (with some exceptions, such as asylum seekers), and civil society groups have traditionally struggled to influence the foreign policy establishment just described. An exception are think tanks such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and the Lowy Institute, which command some influence. However, in the age of social media and activism, foreign policy increasingly needs to take into account civil society preferences on one side and the ramifications of external polices on the domestic landscape on the other (a process known as ‘intermestic politics’).

Labor versus Coalition leadership and foreign policy traditions

The Coalition’s and Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) foreign and defence policy traditions are frequently thought to conform with the international relations paradigms of realism and liberalism respectively.[9] The Coalition is commonly associated with international relations realism, which assumes that the competitive interaction of states, acting in their self-interest in an anarchic international system, results in ‘a politics of power and security’.[10] Both scholars and Liberal Party members alike tend to agree that the Liberals reflect elements that can be characterised as ‘realist’: a strong preference for alliances to ensure security, a scepticism towards the utility of multilateral forums and agreements, and a tendency towards pragmatism, rather than idealism in decision making.[11] Prime Minister Howard’s government epitomised such an approach to foreign and defence policy. His government’s 1997 Foreign Policy White Paper, entitled In the National Interest, made the argument that the Coalition’s approach was ‘the hard-headed pursuit of the interests which lie at the core of foreign and trade policy’.[12] More recent foreign and defence policy decisions from Prime Ministers Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison have continued to reflect the realist mindset with the continuing centrality of ANZUS to defence strategy, the ongoing proliferation of bilateral defence co-operation and free trade agreements (FTAs) since the Coalition returned to power in 2013, and the ‘pragmatism’ of the Liberal Party approach evident in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.[13]

In contrast, the ALP is often linked with international relations liberalism, which assumes democracy, free trade, and multilateral institutions and norms are viewed as the most conducive means of achieving co-operation between states and international peace.[14] The ALP has thus placed faith in international law, the UN, and global/regional organisations as a means for pursuing Australia’s national interests and values. ALP Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam, with his rapprochement with China, and Paul Keating, with his drive for Asian engagement, set the precedents for such approaches. The Rudd–Gillard governments continued to evince these tendencies – the championing of multilateral forums like the G20, the bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and norm entrepreneurship and activism at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. This approach has often been referred to, especially in Labor rhetoric, as ‘middle power diplomacy’ – and scholars have adopted the ‘middle power’ framework to characterise and understand such behaviour.[15] The ‘middle power’ concept emphasises a combination of sufficient power resources (normally measured as the countries ranked globally from about 6th to 30th in terms of GDP), with an inclination towards foreign policy activism on key global or niche issues, such as climate change or disarmament. Middle powers have traditionally viewed themselves as good international citizens, supporting international laws and norms through multilateralism, rather than as self-interested mercantilist or military powers. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s initiative on creating an Asia Pacific community (APC), a new multilateral pan-regional grouping to improve stability and security among the region, was exemplary of such self-styled creative middle power diplomacy. It has become firmly established in the lexicon of Australian foreign policy, despite the Liberal’s distaste for the middle-power descriptor itself.

This fact, and further similarities between the parties, reflect the structural constraints that guide the decision making of middle powers like Australia in the international system. A core of bipartisanship regarding Australian defence policy can be identified ‘including a focus on defending the Australian continent, an alliance with the United States, and the capability to contribute to regional and global coalition efforts’.[16] Similar levels of bipartisanship exist regarding issues of foreign policy – trade policy is broadly neoliberal in orientation and supports the principles of free trade and marketisation (not to be confused with international relations liberalism or the Liberal Party). As such, the differences between the Labor and Liberal foreign and defence policy traditions may be better characterised as different means to similar middle-power ends.

Liberal internationalism

There is considerable bipartisanship between Australia’s major parties regarding how to engage with the international system. This may be captured by the principle of ‘liberal internationalism’.[17] Yet, liberal internationalism stands more broadly for the extroverted role of Australia in engaging with international institutions, participating in free trade and upholding a ‘rules-based international order’ (anchored in USA global primacy). This has its basis in the identification of Australia as a liberal democratic country with associated interests and values that should be pursued and defended. This liberal internationalism – defined as an ‘activist foreign policy that promotes liberal principles abroad, especially through multilateral co-operation and international institutions’[18] – reflects Australia’s self-perception as a ‘good international citizen’.

Australia has been active in foreign policy spheres aligned with its national interests and has pursued its values and support for an international rules-based order in areas like trade and finance, global governance, human rights and justice, the environment and aid. For example, the Rudd government played an entrepreneurial role in encouraging the elevation of the G20 to a leader’s summit in the context of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Such multilateral forums have reflected the consensus that Australia’s economic needs are best served by free trade and open markets,[19] but also that better global governance can be achieved through such forums, too. Australia has been similarly active pursuing international action on environmental issues that affect Australia, including the Montreal Protocol of 1987 that addressed the role chlorofluorocarbons played in ozone depletion and anti-whaling action against Japan in the International Court of Justice in 2010 (though Australia has had a more mixed record regarding climate change negotiations). These actions demonstrate the liberal internationalist belief in institutions to provide opportunities for dialogue, mediate disputes and promote good global governance.

Similarly, Australia identifies the liberal world order established by Pax Americana (the relative international peace ensured by USA hegemony) as a key security interest, with the 2016 Defence White Paper arguing: ‘The growing prosperity of the Indo-Pacific and the rules-based global order on which Australia relies for open access to our trading partners are based on the maintenance of peace and stability.’[20] Australia has been active in multilateral agreements that uphold this ‘rules-based order’, such as pursuing service as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, sanctioning illiberal states like North Korea or Syria, and advocacy for the Responsibility to Protect, a principle that seeks to prevent mass atrocity war crimes.

Australia has also defended such principles, including participation in operations in Afghanistan and Syria against global jihadism; humanitarian intervention in Timor Leste in 1999 and again in 2006; a long history of peace-keeping efforts; and attempts to hold Russia accountable for the downing of the airliner MH17 in 2014 while on the UN Security Council. Australia has also trod a ‘middle path’ on nuclear weapons – advocating for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, supporting international efforts to control horizontal proliferation by actors like North Korea and Iran, but not supporting recent multilateral pushes to eliminate nuclear weapons, as seen through the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. Australia’s actions demonstrate the liberal intolerance of non-democratic countries and their attendant challenge to the liberal order.[21]

Section 2: Core policy platforms

Economic diplomacy

Soon after Federation, Australian policy makers agreed to regulate and protect the economy with tariffs, wage arbitration, state-led development, and British Imperial Preference for Australian goods. This Australian Settlement and Keynesian economic management underpinned the long postwar boom.[22] The collapse of British Imperial Preference, the problem of slow economic growth combined with high inflation known as ‘stagflation’, and the unravelling of the Keynesian orthodoxy in the 1970s challenged this consensus. The Hawke–Keating governments responded by liberalising the Australian economy and opening it up to international market forces in an effort to ensure economic security.

These policy shifts also advocated multilateral agreements to lower tariffs for Australian resources and agricultural goods – an area where Australia retained a comparative advantage. The record here was mixed – the conclusion of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in 1994 did contain successes for Australia, but the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which set the framework for the EU single market, the creation of the North America Free Trade Agreement (now USMCA), and moves by ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) to negotiate a free trade agreement that excluded Australia, concerned Australian policy makers.[23] Reducing trade protection barriers further was of particular concern given the increasing importance of Japan, China and South-East Asian countries as growing economies and important markets for Australian exports. APEC was therefore a forum that Labor has embraced to promote liberalisation in the region, but a pan-regional APEC free trade agreement remains elusive.

The Howard government faced many of the same challenges as Labor and, acting upon a preference for neoliberal principles, took the view that bilateral trade negotiations could supplement multilateral efforts. This was informed by the difficulties of the Doha Round of the GATT and was especially a concern about trade access in East Asia, where Australia was making little headway with ASEAN+3[24] and signs were developing of regional and bilateral trade agendas that excluded Australian participation. The Howard government negotiated bilateral FTAs with Thailand, Singapore, and more controversially the USA (AUSFTA), where political imperatives to solidify the Australian–USA relationship seemed to be as paramount as economic considerations.[25] Multilaterally, the Howard government was instrumental in the negotiation of the ASEAN–Australia–New Zealand free trade agreement[26] and provided funds to the International Monetary Fund as part of the bailout package during the Asian Financial Crisis (1997–98).

Since then, further bilateral FTAs have been negotiated with Chile, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan and China and multilaterally with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after the withdrawal of the USA from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations in 2016. This reflects the continuing significance of the neoliberal consensus in trade policy that has remained even after the shocks of the GFC. Australia particularly championed the CPTPP, pushing hard to revive negotiations after the USA withdrawal from the TPP.

This story of Australia’s international economic engagement reflects its position as a middle power. Canberra has attempted to ensure the comparative advantage of its resources, services and agricultural goods in the international marketplace, but has also reflected its geographic position by negotiating key bilateral and multilateral agreements centred in the Asia-Pacific rim. This has been especially important as the resources boom is a story closely intertwined with China’s rise. In the context of growing regional rivalries and USA rejection of the free trade agenda under President Trump, strategic security begins to come to the fore just as much as economic security. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the abandonment of the TPP by the USA will continue to concern Australian policy makers worried about challenges to the orthodoxy of the international rules-based order.

Defence strategy

Australia’s defence strategy has undergone several iterations since Federation, but its strategic interests have remained largely in the Indo-Pacific arc as, historically, threats to the Australian continent have emerged from South-East Asia.[27] While the area of interest has remained consistent across time, the nature of the threat, the balance of power among great nations, and Australia’s own capability to respond have not remained the same, leading to different strategies being adopted since the Second World War: the expeditionary school of ‘forward defence’ until 1972; and the ‘continental defence’ of Australia school until 9/11.

The Second World War demonstrated that the British were no longer the pre-eminent power in Asia. But the war also crushed Japan and saw China consumed by civil war. This left Australia in the peculiar situation of continuing its alliances with powerful allies, but also capable of projecting power with these allies into South-East Asia to resist communism.[28] This ‘forward defence’ policy led to Australian military commitments to Korea and Vietnam with the USA, and to Malaya and Borneo with the British. Australia was able to defend the continent far from its northern approaches due to the relative weakness of the states in South-East Asia and the relative strength and commitment of Australia’s allies in the region.

The forward defence era ended when the fear of the spread of communism in the region reduced, the relative power of South-East Asian nation-states increased, and Australia’s allies reduced their commitment to the region in the 1960s.[29] Australian policy makers worked through the implications in the 1976 Defence White Paper, the 1986 ‘Dibb Report’ and the 1987 Defence White Paper.[30] Dibb argued for the self-reliant defence of the Australian continent in two ways: treating geography as an independent variable with an enduring effect on Australia’s strategic interests; and that Australia should maintain a regional technological edge.[31] These ideas were meant to discipline defence planners: Australia could contribute to overseas deployments with allies, but had to prioritise a military geared towards the air and sea defence of Australia’s northern approaches and relative de-emphasis upon the traditional prioritisation of the army.

Critics argue that there is a disjuncture between continental defence and what the ADF actually does.[32] The liberal internationalist nature of Australia’s strategic culture has been reflected in its deployments and security priorities against global jihadism, humanitarian intervention, and providing backing to failing states in Afghanistan, Iraq, Timor Leste or the Solomon Islands. Such issues permeated the 2003 Defence Update.[33] More recent white papers have been criticised for planning a force structure that is too thin to credibly deter a rising China from operating in areas of strategic interest to Australia’s north, even with new capability upgrades like the F35 joint strike fighter and the planned doubling of submarine capabilities.[34] How to deal with these problems has yet to be fully resolved. The 2016 Defence White Paper’s prioritisation of a ‘stable Indo-Pacific region and a rules-based global order’[35] demonstrates how far removed current Australian strategic thinking is from actual continental defence. Such debates reflect the changing regional balance of power.

Given these facts, the size of the defence budget, the affordability of defence procurements, the question of value-for-money when purchasing interoperable defence capabilities from alliance partners, and even the effective deliverability of an Australian defence industry, come to the fore as crucial issues for policy makers. Defence is a department that ultimately needs to compete with other departments for government funding and against cutbacks. Further, policy makers must balance these strategic aims with domestic political contests, as the recent decision to build new submarines in South Australia at considerable additional cost demonstrates. Addressing these competing priorities will continue to confront defence chiefs and their ministers in the future.

Non-traditional security challenges

The ‘almost complete alignment of Australia’s foreign policy priorities with its national security agenda’[36] reflects a broadened definition of ‘security’[37] and the increasing ‘securitisation’ of foreign policy evident since the Howard government. In this respect it is more appropriate to employ the broader term security policy rather than defence policy. These policy shifts are demonstrated by budget cuts to DFAT and corresponding expansion and strengthening of the security-oriented institutional apparatus, including the ONI, ASIO, ASIS, the NSC and the DHA.

This reflects the securitisation of a new range of problems such as terrorism and migration, in addition to traditional concerns about the regional strategic environment. Cyber security has also been an area of increasing concern, with attacks launched by both state and non-state actors upon Australia’s political, economic and defence sectors.[38] Added to this are less obviously defence-related threats such as climate change and other environmental disasters, financial risks, pandemics and societal/political instability, typically described as ‘non-traditional security challenges’.[39] As such, challenges such as terrorism and irregular migration are increasingly considered as national security threats, sometimes demanding a militarised response.

In the wake of the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks upon the USA (which for the first time activated ANZUS), Australians were subjected to attacks in Bali (2002 and 2005) and Jakarta (2003 and 2004), followed by other incidents and foiled plots in Australia. Canberra responded by deploying military force alongside the USA in the Middle East. Canberra also ramped up its security apparatus domestically and regionally and initiated major counterterrorism co-operation with regional partners like Indonesia. Australia has thus provided training, equipment, and direct military and police support overseas, and is engaged in surveillance and de-radicalisation programs among domestic would-be Jihadists.

Irregular population movements have also assumed an outsized presence in Australian security policy, often involving asylum seekers. While Australia has accepted refugees from Vietnam or China in the past, such ‘illegal arrivals’ have since been criminalised and military assets are now used to apprehend them in tandem with Indonesia (Operation Sovereign Borders), and arrivals detained in offshore processing centres (earlier known as the ‘Pacific Solution’). Such policies violate Australia’s obligations under various human rights treaties and international law and damage its reputation as a ‘good international citizen’, but the Australian public sees asylum arrivals as a security threat[40] and such policies now receive bipartisan support.

Nature itself is sometimes conceived of as a ‘security issue’, especially the risk of global climate change. Kevin Rudd called it ‘the great moral challenge of our generation’.[41] Yet Australian governments have been ambivalent in their response to this issue, initially refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocols (though eventually ratified in 2008) and reluctant in implementing meaningful domestic legislation such as carbon capping/trading schemes. In contrast, Australia has been proactive in providing humanitarian assistance and relief to regional counties that have been affected by natural disasters (e.g. the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami) and assisting others with capacity-building to improve their resilience against future occurrences. This is partly driven by fears that climate/disaster affected local states will become destabilised resulting in increased migration flows to Australia itself.

Section 3: Regionalism

‘Asian engagement’

Australian recognition of its geographic place at the southern tip of South-East Asia occurred glacially, as it clung to its European roots. The gradual replacement of fading British power with the greater strength of a fellow Anglo-Saxon American ally allowed Australia to continue its limited embrace of its Asian neighbours (with exceptions, such as the 1950 Colombo Plan). Australia found itself engaged in wars of decolonisation at the behest of the UK and USA in the postwar era, and Australian contact with Asia remained confined mainly to strategic issues, even as trade with a revitalised Japan started to become increasingly important from the 1960s. One major impediment to Australia’s acceptance in the Asian region was the ‘White Australia’ policy, which was officially ended by Gough Whitlam in 1973.

This policy realignment was catalysed by the 1989 government report by Ross Garnaut entitled Australia in the Northeast Asian Ascendancy.[42] However, it was not until the Labor prime ministership of Paul Keating that Canberra truly faced the reality that its natural home was as part of Asia, and not simply as an isolated ‘cultural outpost’ of an Anglo-Saxon protector.[43] Keating, with the support of his foreign minister, Gareth Evans, carved a path – sometimes controversial – of ‘Asian engagement’, and the country has assumed a strong role not only in the economy of the Asian region, but also in its institutional arrangements. Indeed, Keating and Evans were instrumental in the creation of pan-regional organisations such as APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum. The ‘region’ in which Australia resides is referred to variously as ‘Asia’, the ‘Asia-Pacific’ and more recently the ‘Indo-Pacific’. While Labor governments have typically been more proactive on this, and though Liberal Prime Minsters such as John Howard and Tony Abbott have sought to place a stronger accent on ‘Anglosphere’ partners, they have not interrupted the process (a dynamic identified as the ‘Howard paradox’).[44] Even Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott talked about ‘more Jakarta, less Geneva’ as the guiding principle for foreign policy.[45]

Canberra’s regional efforts have naturally focused upon the major powers in Asia, with which Australia has successively built deep trading, and in some cases, security ties. Successive government white papers have identified Japan, India, South Korea, India, as well as China, as the main foci of engagement. First came Japan from the 1960s onwards, as Australian natural resources played a major role in that country’s economic boom and rise to regional pre-eminence into the 1980s–90s. From a long-term foundation of economic and cultural ties, more recently the relationship has taken on a strategic aspect with the ground-breaking Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2007, which has since been reinforced and is now described as a ‘Special Strategic Partnership’.[46] Second, India’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s paved the way for its greater presence in Asian affairs and indicated the importance of strengthening long-neglected bilateral ties. With the reframing of Australian strategic policy under the mantra of ‘Indo-Pacific’, and its accompanying ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy, the possibilities of enhancing bilateral co-ordination with New Delhi, especially in the maritime sphere, have gained increased attention.[47] The ‘Quad’ dialogue between Canberra, Tokyo, India and the USA, also reinforces Australian engagement with these two leading Asian powers. Third, South Korea is a significant Australian trading partner and Canberra remains deeply engaged with the question of North Korean nuclear proliferation. Fourth, managing relations with Indonesia has presented a major challenge in Australian foreign policy, particularly as this emerging power acts as a fulcrum of both ASEAN and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept, and ties with Jakarta have been subject to a series of highs and lows related to human rights concerns, terrorism, irregular migration, and pronounced cultural differences.

Moreover, Canberra is now deeply embedded in the ‘regionalism’ process in the Indo/Asia-Pacific. Australia can count membership in a plethora of multilateral regional organisations, mainly centred upon the ASEAN, such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, APEC, which it helped found, and the Five Power Defence Agreement (including Singapore and Malaysia).[48] In 2005, a reluctant Howard government even signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Notably, due to the rise of China and India, and the now recognised importance of Indonesia and other South-East Asian states, Canberra has even sought to shape the very regional architecture itself through initiatives such as Kevin Rudd’s ‘Asia Pacific community’ and participation in the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy of Japan (since joined by the USA, and potentially India). Indeed, the Labor government’s Australia in the Asian Century white paper in 2012 emphasised the need for deeper integration and engagement with Asian neighbours (included the neglected task of developing ‘Asian [language] literacy’).[49] Thus, Canberra is acutely aware that its relations with key countries such as China, India, Japan, Indonesia and the ASEAN countries are vital to its regional diplomatic interests.

Foreign aid

Aid is an extension of Australia’s national interest, with a regionally directed focus. Prime Minister Howard once reflected upon the regional basis to this notion: ‘Australia’s most immediate interests and responsibilities will always be in our region[50] – the South Pacific (Pacific Island countries) and South-East Asia. This area is sometimes described as an ‘arc of instability’,[51] a term that conveys the connection between aid, security and the national interest. Aid was not always conceived of in this securitised fashion. Aid thinking prior to the mid-2000s was primarily development centred, with an emphasis upon economic growth and market-based solutions.[52] But global jihadism and the danger of failing states in the region shifted Australia’s approach to aid to one that sought to manage ‘the spill-over to Australia of transnational risks, potentially festering within the borders of “ineffective” states’.[53] The primary means to influence the region has largely been through foreign aid or overseas development assistance, through forums like the Pacific Island Forum, and, in extreme situations, military intervention.

Australia’s aid budget 2018–19 reflected this regional prioritisation, giving $1.3 billion to the Pacific region, $1 billion to South-East and East Asia, and smaller amounts to regions with more pressing needs – $284.8 million to South and West Asia and $258.5 million to the Middle East and Africa.[54] If aid was given on the basis of need it would be geared towards Africa and South Asia, which contain most of the world’s 47 least developed countries (LDCs). Comparatively, only five countries in the Pacific and three in South-East and East Asia are listed as LDCs.[55] But regional dangers have been brought into sharp relief post 9/11, epitomised by Australian intervention in Timor Leste, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, and ongoing governance issues and political instability in Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Chinese influence in the Pacific region has also framed Australia’s recent foreign aid commitments and prioritisation.

The securitisation of the region, coinciding with the increasing revenues garnered from the mining boom, ushered in a ‘golden consensus’ of bipartisan support for an 80 per cent increase in aid from 2003/04 to 2012/13,[56] aiming to minimise risk and improve governance and state capability. Howard began the budget increases and Rudd continued, aligning aid spending with the UN Millennium Development Goals in the process, a framework that committed states to reducing extreme global disadvantage and poverty.

The GFC of 2008 broke this consensus. The Gillard government cut aid in the pursuit of budget repair and the incoming Abbott government cut even deeper, merging the stand-alone statutory body AusAID into DFAT in 2014 and cutting aid spending dramatically – $7.6 billion over forward estimates and an additional $1 billion in the following financial year.[57] The government was able to do this as aid was only shallowly embedded in political discourses and institutions, and the cuts failed to attract public opprobrium.[58] The Coalition has subsequently argued that aid ‘both supports the strong and direct national interest we have in stability and prosperity in our region and reflects our values as a nation’.[59] The securitisation of aid, its regional focus, and recent budgetary cuts, demonstrate that the aid program is strongly geared towards the national interest as much as it is towards Australia’s liberal internationalist values.

Section 4: The superpowers

Rise of China

Since its official ‘opening up’ under Deng Xiaoping in 1979, China has risen to economic pre-eminence in the region. The Chinese economy grew from US$178 billion in 1979 to US$12 trillion in 2018, accounting for 15 per cent of the global economy and is set to eclipse that of the USA in the near term by any measure.[60]

Australia has been a major beneficiary of Chinese economic development as it has provided raw materials, and increasingly services, to China. Bilateral trade with China now amounts to $164 billion, representing 27 per cent of total Australian trade in 2017.[61] This has boosted the economy immeasurably, even more so than Japanese trade did during its 1960s–1980s boom period. Australia has engaged Beijing diplomatically (through the Australia–China annual Foreign and Strategic Dialogue) and joined regional initiatives spearheaded by China such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The important tertiary education sector in Australia has also seen an influx of mainland Chinese students, and the establishment of Confucius Institutes, exposing the nation to contact with all things Chinese as never before. Beeson and Hameiri attest to ‘the game-changing nature that China’s rise has had on nearly every aspect of Australia’s foreign policy and much domestic policy, too’.[62]

But Australian policy makers have been somewhat uncomfortable with China’s meteoric rise to power,[63] and Australian economic dependency upon China is a double-edged sword as Beijing’s national interests and values are, in many ways, inimical to those held by Australia. In the past, Australia enjoyed the happy concurrence of its trade and security centred upon the USA and its allies (especially Japan), but efforts to ‘compartmentalise’ trade and security initiated under Howard have now run their course.[64] In contrast to Australia’s liberal democratic capitalist democracy, China is a (nominally) communist authoritarian government which holds different views on domestic practice and regional affairs. For example, Australia is mindful of Chinese ‘core interests’ and refrains from aggravating Beijing over the status of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet (e.g. receiving the Dalai Lama), subdues its criticism of human rights, and weighs the support it gives to Washington and Tokyo when this conflicts with Beijing’s views.

Of particular note is Australia’s opposition to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, where Beijing has territorial disputes with neighbouring countries and is engaged in a process of militarising artificial land features, against the strong protests of the USA and others. Australia risks both diplomatic chastisement and economic retaliation (‘punishment’) for diplomatic missteps in Beijing’s eyes – such as decrying China as a ‘threat’ (as in the 2009 Defence White Paper). Moreover, Chinese influence on Australia’s domestic politics has not always been benign. The revelation of expansive industrial and defence espionage activities and attempts to shape political dynamics within the country (known as ‘influence operations’) have revealed the stark divergences in political and cultural mores among the two.[65] Australia has since sought to increase its resilience to such efforts and has passed legislation to scrutinise Chinese investment due to linkages with state-owned enterprises. Thus, Beeson and Hameiri conclude that ‘for better or worse, however, attempting to manage relations with China is going to be the litmus test of policy efficacy for any Australian government for the foreseeable future’.[66]

USA alliance

The USA alliance has remained a central pillar of Australian foreign and defence policy planning since its codification in the ANZUS Treaty of 1951, which served to shield the country from the communist threat of the USSR and China. The ANZUS Treaty created a trilateral Australia–USA–New Zealand arrangement, but is now effectively bilateral since Wellington was excluded by the USA in 1986 over its non-nuclear policy.[67] The alliance retains strong elite and public support in Australia and the country remains ‘dependent’ upon Washington for its ultimate national defence, including the important function of the USA nuclear capability to deter armed attack upon its territory (‘extended deterrence’).[68] Indeed, without American military support Australia would need to raise its defence budget significantly, and perhaps even contemplate developing an independent nuclear deterrent to secure its national defence.[69]

Sustained Australian commitment and ‘loyalty’ to the alliance has been demonstrated through its unfailing military contribution to coalitions led by the USA in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and in the broader ‘War on Terror’ against al-Qaeda/ISIS. The capabilities of the ADF are closely interoperable with those of their American counterparts and utilise much of the same USA technology.[70] Australia also hosts a range of ‘joint facilities’ such as the Pine Gap intelligence facility and ‘rotational’ deployment of the US Marine Air–Ground Task Force near Darwin. Finally, recent white papers have indicated that Canberra is committed to deepening its alliance interdependence through increased military integration.[71] As such, Canberra has been a resolute diplomatic supporter of USA foreign and strategic policy in a bid to ensure its own national security through the maintenance of USA primacy in Asia (e.g. through the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy). This is enshrined in Australian defence thinking as necessary ‘payment of an alliance premium’ to assuage ‘fear of abandonment’, thus theoretically ensuring that the USA reciprocates should Australia find itself under attack in some future unspecified contingency.[72]

Yet, debates regarding the reliability and desirability of the USA alliance have been sparked when Washington has engaged in internationally controversial and destabilising policies such as the invasion of Iraq or President Trump’s rejection of international norms. Though bipartisan support for the alliance is resolute, and the benefits are clearly enumerated above, the alliance is not without its academic and political critics, many of whom point out that the ANZUS Treaty itself is less than unequivocal about automatic American military support for Australia.[73] Indeed, the shifting power dynamics in Asia and President Trump’s disruptive ‘America First’ foreign policy have demonstrated that ‘the credibility of USA primacy has been visibly diminished’.[74] Some Australian analysts have consequently pondered if the attachment to the USA is removed from a clear appraisal of genuine Australian national interests, and perhaps impedes the development of a more ‘independent’ or ‘mature’ foreign policy for the nation: ‘The long-term efforts binding Australia to the USA have decidedly narrowed Australia’s policy options’, according to Nick Bisley.[75]

Moreover, the dominant concern is that unalloyed support for the USA raises difficulties with Australia’s primary economic partner and rising regional power: China. According to Dibb, ‘China wants to be acknowledged as the natural hegemon of Asia and to see an end to America’s alliance system in the region, including ANZUS’.[76] Not only is Beijing on record as opposing the USA bilateral alliance system in the region, but, as USA–China rivalry sharpens, Canberra risks being drawn into a conflict (‘entrapped’) in support of the USA, over a flashpoint like Taiwan or the South China Sea.[77] Hugh White, whose earlier work discussed ‘choosing’ between Washington (security) and Beijing (economy), points out that the dependence upon the USA for protection is a fading asset as Chinese power eclipses that of the USA in, at least, the Asian region.[78] As such, the credibility of American commitments in Asia are increasingly drawn into question, all while Washington continues to demand greater support in return.


This chapter highlighted a range of key themes central to the thinking and practice of Australian foreign and defence policy. Many of the long-term issues are familiar – how to balance the USA alliance with good international citizenship and Asian engagement – but these issues may develop in new ways into the future, and new pressing issues may emerge that create serious challenges to existing foreign policy settings. The stresses between these central factors are increasing as USA power and purpose in the Indo-Pacific is undermined both by American policies and structural decline (the end of ‘unipolarity’), but also by the rise of China and other Asian powers, which will substantially reshape the regional environment that Australia inhabits.

Added to this is the prospect that Australia itself will become relatively less powerful over time and thus less able to influence events into the future – a fact exacerbated by the diminution of the institutional apparatus, especially DFAT – and the seemingly unstable pattern of government that has emerged in recent years.[79] In brief, though Australia will retain a strong state capacity, including military forces, it will face the future from a weaker position than it has in the past. At the same time, Australian policy making has become increasingly ‘presidential’, with greater power invested in the office of PM&C and increasingly ‘securitised’ through the operation of multiple new or strengthened security/intelligence organs, mentioned above. Shifts in the international environment and the domestic policy-making terrain in Australia will combine to shape how foreign policy is directed in an uncertain future, full of ‘wicked’ problems – i.e. challenges that defy easy resolution, and often demand co-ordinated ‘whole of government’ responses. And yet Andrew Phillips reminds us that ‘Australians have also proved remarkably adept in adjusting to changing international circumstances’.[80] Time will tell.


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About the authors

Dr Thomas S. Wilkins is a senior lecturer in international security at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian foreign and security policy, and a senior research fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs. He specialises in Australian foreign policy and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, and has published on these subjects in journals such as Review of International Studies, Australian Journal of Political Science and Australian Journal of International Affairs, among others. He is currently an associate editor for the journal Pacific Affairs and co-area editor for Japanese Studies journal (Australia).

Dr Nicholas Bromfield is a lecturer in public policy at the University of Sydney. He researches and teaches broadly in the areas of political science and international relations. His recent publications have been featured in the Australian Journal of Political Science and the Australian Journal of Politics and History.

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