In Australia’s third century after European settlement, we must rethink our responses to a new world

Australia’s traditional reliance on multilateralism and alliances won’t be enough to negotiate the geopolitical rivalries of the Asian century. EPA/Barbara Walton

Few Australians pay much attention to our foreign policy. This is probably because it seems so uneventful compared to the sturm and drang of domestic politics. But if things go bad beyond our shorelines and we get our responses to these events wrong, it will have much more profound effects than our failures to get tax policy right, or productivity up, or same-sex marriage legislated.

We stand at one of those junctures in our history where relations beyond our shores could sour rapidly and where we could get our response very wrong because we relied on established, comfortable measures rather than what the times required. It’s at thresholds like this that it pays to take a long-run perspective on Australia’s relations with the rest of the world.

Two centuries of making the right calls

In the first century after European settlement, Australia’s safety and success depended on power machinations within Europe. Australia, the Pacific and most of Asia were part of European empires, their fates closely tied to those of their colonial masters.

When the power balance in Europe came under threat from the rising power and ambitions of Germany and Russia at the end of the 19th century, it had major effects on Australia.

After Federation, Australia responded to European rivalries and Britain’s relative decline by building up its navy. AAP/Dean Lewins

Alarmed both at Germany’s annexation of the northern part of the island of New Guinea and at Britain’s lack of concern about it, the colony of Queensland unilaterally annexed the southern part. The growing rivalries in Europe and Britain’s relative decline were also major factors in the move towards federation among the Australian colonies, and in the building of a Commonwealth navy after federation.

One hundred years ago, the European-centred order tore itself apart on the battlefields of the first world war. That ushered in a very different 100 years for Australia.

Our second century began with the slow collapse of imperialism and the global economic system. That created an uncertain and unstable power vacuum between beleaguered European powers and the world’s largest economy, the US, which had an aversion to involving itself in world affairs. The result was an even more brutal war and the rapid independence of all of the colonised societies.

Once again, Australians responded vigorously and cleverly. It was an active supporter of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund as new architectures that could bring together and regulate this new, diverse and divided world. And Australia was a major architect in drawing the US into a series of alliances in Asia, which would underpin security and stability and prevent the world’s largest economy withdrawing into splendid isolation again.

What is different about the third century?

Our challenge as we contemplate our third century is that there has been no dramatic war or collapse to alert us that things are changing. But there is no question that a new era has dawned. As I argue in my new book, Restless Continent: Wealth, Rivalry and Asia’s New Geopolitics, the changes occurring in Asia affect the world we live in not in matters of degree but of kind. Quite simply, we have entered a new world.

For close to half a century, Asian economies have been growing at the fastest rates humanity has witnessed. Given that two of these nations are individually more populous than any continent other than Asia itself, that should give us advance notice of the shift occurring in the global economy.

A world economy that has for two centuries been driven by the dynamics of Europe and America will move to the production and consumption patterns of an Asia that still has decades of expansion and development to go.

As wealth leads, so rivalries follow. History reveals a curious power paradox: the more powerful a country becomes, the more vulnerable it feels. Prosperity has not brought contentment to Asia, but rather nagging doubts and jealousies.

Confrontations in the South China Sea are about sorting out Asia’s new pecking order. EPA/Vietnam Coast Guard

On the one hand there’s a suspicion that the wealthy countries in Europe and North America will do all they can through the institutions they have designed to perpetuate their privileged position and consumption habits, while restricting those of developing countries.

On the other there’s the rediscovery of pre-colonial rivalries for privilege and pre-eminence in the hierarchy of Asian power. Don’t believe for a minute the East China Sea or South China Sea standoffs are about hydrocarbons or fisheries. They’re really about dominance and subordination in Asia’s new pecking order.

The combination of economic interdependence and deepening rivalries will drive dynamics in Asia and increasingly the rest of the world. It means that Asian powers are starting to re-order their relationships close to home, whether through Jakarta’s plans to become a “new maritime axis”, Beijing’s blueprint for a “new maritime silk road” or New Delhi’s dreams of making the Indian Ocean India’s Ocean.

We can’t rely on our old foreign policy formula

This is a world in which the twin verities of Australia’s foreign policy – multilateralism and alliances – will have less and less purchase. Both will still matter, but multilateral institutions no longer can play their key integrating and co-ordinating role on big global challenges, while alliances no longer have the power dominance to ensure stability. The challenge for Australia is to get our response to this new world right.

At the moment, the signs are not encouraging. We’re debating the effect of the China Free Trade Agreement on the issue of foreign labour provisions; we should be debating what this and myriad other bilateral trade agreements and exclusive pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) mean for power, stability and order in our region.

We’re debating the job prospects of defence purchases from Japan, rather than whether such bilateral defence partnerships counteract or deepen the rivalries besetting Asia.

We need to reframe the national discussion about how Australia responds to a rapidly changing world. It is my hope that Restless Continent, in framing the main drivers in the shifting Asian and therefore global orders, will contribute to reframing this discussion.

Michael Wesley’s new book, Restless Continent: Power, Rivalry and Asia’s New Geopolitics, is published by Black Inc.

The headline on this article has been amended after publication to make clear that “Australia’s third century” refers to the time since European settlement, as is made clear in the article.