Features | Security | Oceania

Australian Election Special

The Diplomat speaks with Prof. Mark Beeson about Australian foreign policy, climate change and the importance of ties with the US.

There have been mixed reports over the fate of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s plans for an Asia-Pacific Community, with a report earlier this month suggesting Prime Minister Julia Gillard had described the project as having failed, while Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said last weekend some progress had been made. How serious do you think the current administration is, and should be, about the plan?

My guess is that they’ll probably row back a bit from the high-profile stance that Rudd took because there’s going to be a lot of rethinking generally about the Rudd agenda and how it’s been received domestically and in the region. I think they’ll want to distinguish themselves from the Rudd approach and attach less priority to some of his high-profile foreign policy initiatives.

In the case of the Asia Pacific Community specifically, they’ll probably be particularly cautious as I think it’s clear that it hasn’t been an overwhelming success in the region and hasn’t been well received. In fact, a lot of people in the region are fairly ambivalent about the basis of the proposal.

One of the paradoxes of the region at present is that it may actually have too many rather than too few initiatives of this sort, and so a kind of regional shakeout in which there are actually fewer institutions is not a bad idea.

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Something like the APC, which could do some of the things Rudd was talking about such as bringing economic, security and political initiatives under one umbrella, is potentially a good idea and so there’s some merit to the overall argument. But the key problem has been that it’s Australia that has been pushing it. The way that Rudd went about it didn’t help either, and I don’t think there was enough consultation with the region–especially with ASEAN, which is notoriously sensitive about who promotes regional initiatives and who should be in the ‘driving seat’. I think Australian foreign policy makers just underestimated how sensitive much of the region might be about these kinds of issues and there was a miscalculation about Australia’s ability to push this kind of programme.

Early in his term, much was made about Rudd’s China focus, especially with his fluency in Mandarin. What did you make of his policy toward China, and do you expect any shift under the current government, assuming it stays in office?

I think part of the problem was that expectations were unrealistically high. Because Rudd was known for being Asia literate, there was a sense that here was a guy who really understood the region, who understood China, and who would be able to get on with Chinese policymakers and dazzle them with his personal abilities. There was something in that, of course, but the complexity of the relationship meant that it was never going to possible for one person to guarantee its success.

The other problem was that Rudd was possibly sensitive to accusations that he might be too accommodating to China, and that he should consequently take a more robust stance toward it over economic issues and human rights issues. I think in some ways, Gillard might find it easier to have a pragmatic relationship with China because there won’t be the same expectations–perhaps on either side. I wouldn’t image the relationship will change dramatically, it will just be conducted on a more pragmatic basis because the underlying reality is that both countries have got no choice other than to get on because they’re so important to each other.

Do you think the shift away from the heavy focus on closer ties between the US and Australia under John Howard is a welcome move?

I think the Howard government scored some own goals and made some unnecessary errors in the way they conducted relations with Asia, especially initially, and these were partly a consequence of the importance they attached to relations with the US. However, I think it’s clear that by the time Howard left office that significant damage hadn’t been done to relationships around the region, although of course it’s hard to generalize.

With most of South-east Asia there were fairly good relations between the Howard government and its bilateral partners, again for pragmatic reasons as much as anything else. Australia isn’t an insignificant country in the region–it’s an important source of raw materials for much of the region and an important strategic actor. So people have got to get on at some level, even if a number of these relationships aren’t characterised by the sort of closeness that distinguishes ties with the US..

Having said that, I think the emphasis that was placed on the US relationship by the Howard government in particular was unnecessary in some ways. Howard famously came into office saying he needed to rebalance foreign relations, promote ties with the US and put less emphasis on Asia. This was always a bit of an overstatement because I don’t think any government since the end of the World War II neglected the US—all governments have privileged the strategic relationship with the US above all others. And Rudd was no exception–the first thing Rudd said when he came to power was that the US is the key bilateral relationship and would remain so. And I don’t think there’s any real divergence between the two main parties over the relationship.

One of the good things about the Rudd administration, while it lasted, was that they did take Asia very seriously, and they were enthusiastic about trying to institutionalize ties with the region. The fact that they haven’t been able to do it terribly successfully is interesting, but I think the attempt to do it, and the rhetoric that accompanied it about Asia’s importance, was a welcome thing. For countries like Australia with limited international influence, institutionalising ties with the neighbourhood and acting through multilateral channels is a good thing.

A lot of your attention has focused on South-east Asia. How important is this region to Australia, and how would you describe ties with countries in the region?

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My sense is that relationships around the region, and with ASEAN specifically, aren’t in bad shape at all. In recent years there have been points of friction, with Indonesia and Malaysia for example, but they’ve improved for reasons over which Australia had relatively little influence. The fact that Mahathir’s gone and Indonesia become democratic are major pluses for Australia but just a product of circumstance. Having said that, I think overall there’s recognition in Southeast Asia that Australia wants to engage with the region, and that despite the odd miscalculation and underestimation of sensitivities on certain issues, there’s a general appreciation that Australia is important to the region and that foreign affairs officials here do make an effort to get on.

The reasons for doing so are fairly self-evident. South-east Asia is Australia’s immediate neighbourhood and it’s consequently vital to Australia’s overall strategic position. Interestingly it’s not the grand strategic aspects of this relationship that have proved important though–it’s not the threat of invasion or the possible cutting of supply lines that’s been  an issue with South-east Asia, but the problems associated with issues like  terrorism and people smuggling. These are problems that need intelligence and diplomatic cooperation rather than grand alliances or massive defence spending.

How ideological would you say Australian foreign policy is, and looking ahead to the election, would you anticipate much of a change in foreign policy depending on which of the two main parties is in charge?

There are a number of aspects of Australian foreign policy that are bilaterally supported and I don’t think there are going to be huge differences in the kind of rhetoric that the two parties use. I think the interesting question will be how the two main parties deal with climate change, which plainly is not an issue that Australia can solve on its own.

One of the interesting aspects of the Rudd government in retrospect was what Australia might or might not be able to do about climate change. It’s clearly a crucial political as well as environmental issue, and the failure of Copenhagen was the beginning of the end as far as Rudd was concerned. Because he had set the rhetorical bar so high about the importance of the environment and the need to take international action, expectations were inevitably going to be unfulfilled. The political damage this caused Rudd clearly played a major part in his downfall. Australia has now lost two political leaders–Rudd and Turnbull–as a direct or indirect consequence of their attitude to climate change. This perhaps tells us something important about the nature of contemporary democratic politics generally, and it’s likely to influence debate in the coming election campaign, albeit indirectly. So I doubt that the kind of lofty rhetoric Rudd used will be repeated by either side in the election. I think both will be much more cautious about what they say they can do and I think there’ll be a greater focus on domestic issues as a consequence.

This is a pity. Rudd was certainly right about the importance of Australia’s international context and our dependence on more powerful states like the US and China. There is a major debate to be had about what a country like Australia could or should do in foreign policy, but I suspect that it’s not going to happen at this election. Sadly, it may be some time before these kinds of issues get the kind of airing that they really deserve.

Mark Beeson is Winthrop Professor in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia and co-author of ‘Securing Southeast Asia: The Politics of Security Sector Reform.’