Is It Time Australia Pursued An ‘Independent’ Foreign Policy?

If Asia’s future is to be led by China, Australia may need to balance out its U.S.-centric foreign policy.

Is It Time Australia Pursued An ‘Independent’ Foreign Policy?
Credit: Photo credit: DFAT/Linda Roche

Australia faces a number of key challenges heading into the “Asian Century,” particularly regarding how it will balance its economic and security interests. Since Australia signed the ANZUS Treaty with the United States and New Zealand in 1951 during the Korean War, the country has continued to place a great degree of its protection under the American nuclear umbrella. As the significantly smaller ally, some experts say Australia’s foreign policy has long been subverted to the strategic objectives of its great and powerful friend, which has come at a cost.

Politicians, academics and former government officials attending the recent Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) conference in Melbourne, raised concerns that Australia’s lack of an independent foreign policy has undermined its own national interests. President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, Dr. Margaret Beavis, claimed that Australia has been dragged into wars as a result of this arrangement and that its close alliance with the United States puts it at risk of becoming embroiled in future conflicts. In addition to the loss of life, funding for Australia’s domestic policy issues has been overlooked at the expense of the vast expenditures spent on fighting in overseas wars, Beavis said, citing the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan as two recent examples. Recently, a similar chord was struck again when the Australian government announced the deployment of Australian troops in the Philippines to assist U.S. forces in combating Islamic State insurgents in Marawi. Many experts and critics argue the U.S.-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were largely, if not entirely, failures.

As China is Australia’s largest trading partner, it is needless to say that enhancing ties with the rising power will be crucial to the economic future of Australia. In spite of this, however, former academic and consultant at the UN Economic commission for Europe in Geneva, James O’Neil, at the IPAN Summit said Australia’s participation in joint naval exercises orchestrated by the U.S. in the hotly contested South China Sea continues to be an obstacle for improving its bilateral relationship with the Asian giant, China. O’Neil claimed that along with the increased American naval presence in the region as part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” (or rebalance) strategy, the U.S. is aiming to contain China’s regional power and influence, while attempting to safeguard its foothold in the Asia-Pacific. Addressing the conference, O’Neil said that China’s controversial militarization of the islands it occupies in the South China Sea are a defensive move against U.S. aggression, reflected in America’s maritime drills and the increased presence of its Navy in the region. Australia’s ongoing support for U.S.-led naval operations in the Asia-Pacific will prove to be a persistent thorn in its side, O’Neil argued, as the need for Australia to strengthen political and economic relations with China inevitably becomes more important to pursuing its national interests at present and in the future.

If Australia were to adopt a foreign policy that was independent from its conventional U.S.-centric approach, what might it look like? Would it improve the country’s ability to secure its self interests abroad and at home? Speaking at the conference, former Australian diplomat Dr. Alison Broinowski said Australia should accept the influence of the Asia-Pacific region and be relevant, useful and interesting to its neighbors. With strategic balance gradually shifting away from America, Broinowski argued Australia must further identify its own interests and look to advance them pragmatically to the world and in closer consultation with regional players. In the decades to come, Australia is likely to exist within a Chinese sphere of influence, Senior Research Associate professor Richard Tanter stated at the summit. Along with China, Tanter claims Indonesia is a vital strategic relationship for Australia for security, economic growth and regional prosperity, which he said demands clear domestic domestic policy that will foster deeper links at a social and political level.

As the balance of power between the U.S. and China shifts, Australia faces a number of uncertainties surrounding its ability to capitalize on the opportunities of the future while addressing the foreign policy issues of today. Australia’s leaders must ask themselves the question of whether an independent foreign policy is the most effective way of navigating the road ahead.

Anthony Dodd holds a degree in media and international relations from Flinders University. He is on Twitter @anthony_dodd1.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the ANZUS treaty was signed in 1953, it was signed in 1951.