From the outside, it looks like very little ever changes in Australian foreign policy, no matter who is in power. Australia has been one of America’s closest allies since the Second World War, a major military power in its neighbourhood, a decent international citizen, a strong and advanced economy, and a vigorous diplomatic player (that has latterly earned G20 membership and is currently president of the UN Security Council). From an American perspective, in particular, this is all very reassuring. Australia is a steady hand in its region and a reliable source of niche military support.
Australia’s recently completed election campaign, which on Saturday saw the election of a center-right Liberal-National government after nearly six years of Labor rule, would only have reinforced that sense of reassurance. Sure, the two parties fought like Tasmanian devils over the comparatively small problem of illegal immigration. But they are as one on the sanctity of the U.S. alliance and on the near limitless opportunities for Australia arising from Asia’s growth. For most of the post-World War II period, the appearance of steadiness and predictability in Australian foreign policy was genuine and made perfect sense, because Australia was in the fortunate position of having, in the United States, a major economic partner that was also its major strategic partner. In the 1970s, the weight of Australia’s trade relations moved towards Japan, but it too was a steady US ally. And through it all, America’s maritime power, regional alliances, and troop concentrations in Northeast Asia gave it a position of primacy that was never really challenged, even at the height of the Soviet Union’s military’s power.
Now though, where once there was synchronicity, the gears are starting to crunch. The circumstances that underpinned Australia’s foreign policy consensus are rapidly changing, most importantly because our major economic partner is now China, a country which is at the very least a strategic competitor with our ally the United States, if not yet an outright rival. Yet during the election campaign, neither side of politics wanted to talk about the challenges posed by this profound change, nor is there is a sense that the new government will give it high priority.
When the rise of China (and the rest of Asia) was addressed in the campaign, it was almost solely in the context of opportunity: what could Australia do to profit from the growth of the Asian middle class? This economic focus is reflected in incoming foreign minister Julie Bishop’s priorities. She has promised to run a trade-centred foreign policy, a stance no doubt encouraged by the view she has of the Asian century from her home state of Western Australia, which is at the heart of Australia’s commodities export boom to China. Earlier this year a Lowy Institute opinion poll found that, while 41% of Australians considered it likely that China would become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, that figure was just 26% in Western Australia. ‘Australia is under new management and is once more open for business’, Tony Abbott said in his victory speech on Saturday night, a sentiment that will likely extend to his foreign policy.
While Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition has promised to return defence spending to 2% of GDP, the fact that this promise has ‘within a decade’ tacked to the end of it reveals something about the new government’s priorities.
Back in 2009, the Rudd Government caused ripples in its relationship with China by releasing a Defence White Paper that proposed a dramatic increase in Australia’s maritime power (including a doubling in the size of the submarine fleet). The unstated but obvious target was China, embarking on a dramatic expansion of its military capabilities. Since 2009, that expansion has taken on more a more disquieting character. Where once the region was reassured that China’s military modernisation was focused on defending Chinese territory and its maritime surrounds, with a doctrine that emphasised efforts to deny adversaries the ability to operate freely near its coast, now China is emphasising maritime power projection. If possible plans to develop multiple carrier battle groups can be realised in the next decade, China will be comfortably the region’s strongest maritime power other than the United States.
Yet in the same period as we have begun to see the outlines of a formidable Chinese maritime presence, Australia’s military spending has declined and the 2013 White Paper used noticeably softer language to describe the risks to Australia’s security. The Abbott Government promises to arrest the spending decline and, as already mentioned, has made a vague commitment to boosting defence spending. But there is no urgency, and no public case from the incoming government that it recognises the gradual transformation of the strategic environment.
It’s understandable that this should be the case. Nobody seriously thinks China will be a direct military threat to Australia, and it is difficult to pin down exactly when and how China’s growing strategic strength will impinge on Australia’s place in the world. What’s more, China is a key economic partner and played a huge part in keeping Australia out of recession during the global economic crisis, making the latter the only major OECD economy to do so. So how does any government explain to its voters and to the region that it needs to spend more money on defence?
Yet the changes provoked by China’s rise are real. Most importantly, China’s rise forces the United States to choose whether its strategic primacy is worth defending at all costs. As Australian strategic analyst Hugh White has argued, it is unlikely that a country which might soon have the biggest economy in the world will accept a subordinate strategic status in the Asia-Pacific. So will the U.S. be prepared to share power? Australia has benefited enormously from America’s primacy, and life is becoming a whole lot more complicated for Australia as U.S. primacy erodes.
There was some sense that outgoing prime minister Kevin Rudd had internalised this problem and had developed some ideas for managing it. There is little evidence that incoming prime minister Tony Abbott has done so, though there are signs that his thinking is developing.
Abbott’s pugnacious persona and the few comments he has made on foreign policy have created an impression of a figure with whom the American neoconservative right could find some common ground. They would have cheered his recent description of the Obama administration as “the most left-of-centre government in at least half a century” (which should make for an awkward first joint press conference with Obama when a cheeky journalist asks the inevitable question). It is also true that Abbott has adopted some of the campaign tactics and small government rhetoric of the American right and has professed to an almost embarrassing degree his admiration of the United States and his fidelity to the U.S.-Australia alliance.
But ‘conservatism’ doesn’t quite mean to Tony Abbott what it means to the U.S. right. Abbott’s conservatism has British roots. His influences are figures such as Edmund Burke, Roger Scruton, and Michael Oakeshott, who in their different ways championed a pragmatic worldview that is skeptical of political radicalism and foreign adventurism. It’s an anti-ideological form of conservatism that has almost no connection with what Americans call ‘conservative’. Abbott championed the Iraq war in 2003 in almost neoconservative terms, but he has since walked back his enthusiasm to a great extent. His British conservative streak peaked through in the closing stages of the election campaign, when his language on the proposed American military intervention in Syria (“Obviously it is the general disposition of the Australian Government…to be supportive of the United States…I just think we need to be very careful in a situation like this because we can easily make a bad situation worse by acting precipitously…”) was noticeably cooler than that of incumbent Kevin Rudd. It revealed a heretofore-unseen streak of realist thinking in Abbott’s otherwise strong instinct to support the U.S. in its military adventures.
That sense was reinforced late in the campaign when Abbott distanced himself from his earlier affection for the idea of an ‘Anglosphere’ by saying that he favours an ‘Asia-first’ foreign policy. He described Indonesia as “overall …the most important country to Australia” and stated that “Decisions which impact on our national interests will be made in Jakarta, in Beijing, in Tokyo, in Seoul, as much as they will be made in Washington.” The U.S.-Australia alliance relationship is rock solid and its basic settings are well entrenched. But should Abbott’s personal evolution continue, he may be a slightly less amenable and predictable figure than Washington is counting on.