For anyone who has been following Malcolm Turnbull’s progress as prime minister, his much-anticipated speech to the Lowy Institute contained few real surprises, other that the fact that it was inevitably preceded by an acknowledgement of events in Belgium.
On the contrary, in many ways it was business as usual, replete with the now mandatory calls for agility, innovation and the like. If there was one slight surprise, it was just how much attention was devoted to unambiguously domestic issues.
One of the big ideas about foreign policy under the Turnbull government is consequently the idea that all policies will be driven primarily by a desire to grasp the opportunities offered by a process of economic development in the Indo-Pacific that is “just getting started”.
In this context, one of the justifications for Australia’s significantly expanded defence spending is that it will amount to a de-facto industry policy that drives innovation and helps to diversify the domestic economy.
While there may be something to be said for this approach, it is striking, nevertheless, that Turnbull feels the need to justify security policy in domestic terms. All politics is, indeed, local.
Turnbull’s hosts at the Lowy Institute would no doubt have been delighted by all the references to the “Indo-Pacific” in his speech as they have been at the forefront of promoting this way of describing the region. It has rather displaced the formerly fashionable “Asia-Pacific” as the preferred descriptor of Australia’s geographic location.
It’s an interesting illustration of what a well-funded think-tank can achieve in shaping the national policy debate.
The Indo-Pacific idea has the advantage of highlighting the growing importance of India and Indonesia, both of which were singled out for praise. Turnbull rightly made the point that Indonesia and Australia are no longer quite so different in the wake of our giant neighbor’s successful democratic transition.
Whether Australia’s domestic capitalist class has the wit to belatedly recognises this, too, is another question that was unsurprisingly left unaddressed.
India is the other great regional hope, and Turnbull praised its “political miracle”, too. Not only is India seen as the next major driver of Australia’s own economic development, but it has major strategic significance.
Although there were a number of references to the recent defence white paper, India’s potential importance as a security partner was not spelled out. It might have been awkward to do so given that India, like Japan, is seen as a key strategic relationship in responding to the rise of China and its destabilising impact on the region.
China was mentioned. It could hardly be otherwise given its importance to the region and its own “counter-productive” recent policies. To Turnbull’s credit he spelled out Australia’s priorities in the South China Sea fairly clearly. The rule of law, respect for international norms, and a general commitment to institutionalised problem-solving are the predictable order of the day.
While such sentiments and goals may be unobjectionable – even desirable – they might look rather more persuasive if the principal architect of the prevailing international order, the US, subscribed to them as well. Until the US also agrees to be bound by potentially key important agreements like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it’s not clear why China should either.
The US received the standard plaudits about the importance of the alliance and the “vital” nature of its continued strategic presence in the region.
What was perhaps most interesting in this context was the reference to an “emerging multipolarity” in the region. Turnbull may well be right about this, but it’s rather at odds with the recent white paper’s claims about America’s continuing centrality and importance in the region.
If the region is changing in the way that Turnbull seemed to be suggesting then Australian policymakers need to think carefully about what this new world order might actually look like. Turnbull was right to argue that we should not:
… view our strategic circumstances solely through the prism of counter-terrorism.
We also need to think what the implications of failing to see the bigger and more immediate regional picture might be.
It is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot be entirely confident about what either China or the US is likely to do in the near or long term. Even if Donald Trump does not become America’s next commander-in-chief, middle powers like Australia need to develop independent policy perspectives that reflect our unique circumstances and capabilities.
Regional institutions could and should play a bigger role in such circumstances. Apart from another ritual acknowledgement of ASEAN’s potential importance, any reference to the region’s institutional architecture – which Australia has played a surprisingly prominent role in trying to create – was notable by its absence.
This really is an area where Australia might continue play the sort of role to which our policymakers have often aspired, but which they have never quite managed to pull off. Whether Turnbull will have any more success than some of his predecessors remains to be seen. Actually putting it on the agenda in a serious way has to be the first step though.