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Election 2013 Essays: Australia and the world

No matter who wins the federal election on Saturday, they will need to look beyond just the challenges at home in their term in office. AAP/Auspic

Election 2013 Essays: As the federal election campaign draws to a close, The Conversation asked eminent thinkers to reflect on the state of the nation and the challenges Australia - and whichever party wins government - faces in the future. Today, Mark Beeson writes that although this election decides the Australian government, managing our relationships with the rest of the world will be a key priority.

All politics is local. To judge from the current election debate in Australia, this old adage - popularised by former US Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O'Neill - remains as true ever. Even those issues that have an unambiguous international component, such as asylum seeker policy, are discussed primarily in terms of their impact within Australia.

The fact that the governments of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia find themselves being reluctantly drawn into Australia’s frequently brutal domestic political scene ought to be a source of bipartisan concern. It largely isn’t, because internal affairs continue to trump the foreign variety.

There’s something rather odd about this. Even the most disinterested voter must have noticed that the world out there is important in ways that go beyond providing exotic holiday destinations. For starters, we’re still at war. True, Afghanistan’s a long way away, and if it wasn’t for the occasional Afghan asylum seeker the non-enthusiast might be forgiven for forgetting about it all together. But Australians are still fighting and dying there. It would be interesting to hear from our prospective leaders quite why that is, and what they intend to say to the parents of the last Australian to be killed there before we beat our inevitable retreat.

Australians have a long history of fighting in other people’s wars. One of our foundational nation-building moments is remembering the pointless slaughter of thousands of young men at Gallipoli in a conflict that served no purpose for its principal protagonists, let alone Australians. Putting people in harm’s way is perhaps the most serious responsibility of government and yet it continues with almost no debate. Strategic hardheads will no doubt tell us the issues are too complex and specialist for the general public. Perhaps so. But how would we know given the almost complete absence of serious debate?

Part of the problem is a remarkable uniformity of opinion among policymakers. The only question about the alliance with the US, for example, is which side of politics can be the most obliging and supportive. The decision to establish a permanent American troop presence in Darwin was taken with almost no public discussion and enjoys bipartisan support. The Obama administration’s so-called “pivot” toward east Asia marks a very significant recalibration of American strategic priorities that could have major ramifications for the region generally and Australia in particular. Yet it remains unmentioned, much less debated.

The pivot is a somewhat belated response to China’s rapid economic and strategic re-emergence at the centre of east Asian affairs. From an American perspective, China represents the most substantive challenge to its position since it emerged as the dominant force in international politics in the aftermath of the World War Two. Australia has a potentially very different view, but we would never know it.

The unquestioned conventional wisdom in Australia is that America’s strategic dominance has been an unambiguously good thing. East Asia has been stable in way it might not have been if left to its own devices. And yet it is also worth remembering that maintaining this stability involved fighting major wars in Korea and Vietnam - in both of which Australia contributed significant amounts of blood and treasure.

Plainly, Australian foreign policy now is a good deal less black and white than it was during the Cold War. The great challenge now is what to do about China. The good news for Australian policymakers is that China, despite the label, is no longer a communist country. On the contrary, it’s one of the most successful capitalist countries in the world, even if they organise it rather differently than we do. Chinese demand for “Australian” resources has, as we all know, made a few people in this country very rich. It’s not China’s fault if we haven’t made the most of all this externally-generated good fortune.

The bad news is that all this wealth and power may not be bringing the best out of China. Over the last couple of years China’s leaders have adopted an increasingly assertive attitude to unresolved territorial claims throughout the region. It is not just Australian policymakers who have been unsettled by this turn of events. From Japan to the Philippines, anxiety levels are rising as the region discovers that China’s rapid development contains threats as well as opportunities.

Although the great hope is that China has too big a stake in the increasingly integrated regional and global economy to do anything foolish, the possibility of accident or miscalculation cannot be discounted. Ominously, it is not just China and the US that are engaged in a major strategic rivalry. Even more importantly, Japan and China are moving to defend what they see as their vital national interests. In the event of accident or misadventure the US might feel compelled to go to the aid of Japan, which has long since based its entire foreign policy on the expectation that America will guarantee its security.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott says he will prioritise Australia’s relationship with Indonesia if he wins government. EPA/Adi Weda

While conflict remains a remote possibility at this stage, it is worth asking what Australia would do in such circumstances. We would probably do what we have always done since we assumed that the US would guarantee our security, too. We would fight alongside our American allies.

Now, however, the justification for immediately joining any conflict America found itself in looks less compelling. Not only is China our principal trade partner, but Australia’s armed forces could make absolutely no difference to the outcome of any superpower confrontation. Unless, of course, it was to tell both sides in bracingly Antipodean fashion to “pull their heads in”.

To do that, however, might require an independence of mind and strategic posture that is unlikely to emerge from this election campaign. Such intellectual timidity and rigidity begs the question of what Australia will do with its expensively acquired seat on the UN Security Council.

A very safe bet would be that Australia will never voice an opinion, much less vote against, any position the US - or even Israel, for that matter - adopts. There may be compelling reasons for not taking a more independent attitude that is potentially more in synch with other non-aligned middle powers in the region. But if there are, let’s hear them.

It is not anti-American to suggest that Australia may have interests and perspectives that are not identical with those of the US. It could hardly be otherwise – they are a great power, we are a middling one at best. The US necessarily sees the world in a different way than we do. Our primary goal ought to be encouraging China to address critical issues of common concern such as climate change, which unambiguously do threaten our long-term security. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost in getting involved in what looks to the Chinese like a new form of containment.

Such ideas are unlikely to be taken seriously by the main parties in this election race, however. Australian prime ministers generally wait till they’ve left office to develop foreign policy ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom. Former prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser now advocate much more unorthodox positions now than they ever did in office.

But surely it’s not beyond the leaders of both parties to display a bit of imagination and creative thinking about foreign policy while they’re actually in a position to do something about it? Having a debate on the subject might be a good place to start.

This is the first article in our Election 2013 Essays series. Stay tuned for the other instalments in the lead-up to Saturday’s election.

Part two: The state of Australian democracy

Part three: It’s the economy, stupid

Part four: What is government for?

Part five: The philosophy of voting

Part six: Australia for the long term

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