By Geoff Raby
Published on 24 August 2020 on Australian Financial Review
The opposition has failed to ask what the government has received in return for its lavish support for Trump's regional strategies.
It is understandable for the opposition to seek to make itself a small target this far out from an election. It is even more understandable that it would want to avoid being wedged by the government over national security, especially as it consistently rates below the Coalition in voters’ perceptions of competence on national security.
But voters do want to know where the opposition stands on key issues beyond bland shibboleths of greater multilateralism, closer regional cooperation, and foreign policy independence, without ever saying what exactly they mean.
When it was announced last month that the Foreign and Defence Ministers were travelling to Washington at a time when Australia was locked down, the Opposition Leader rushed to endorse the visit so there could be no suggestion that he did not support this extravagant show of fidelity for the Alliance.
Instead, the virus emergency could have been used to question the government on why their physical attendance was so important: what would be the agenda and what position would Australia be taking in these discussions on matters such as freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, the US troop presence in Darwin, intermediate ballistic missiles and proposals for arms control, and whether Australia would associate itself with the top US officials calling explicitly for the containment of China?
In short, what price would we be asking in return for giving the White House so much face before the election?
One announcement from the recent AUSMIN talks was that Australia and the US had agreed on a ‘‘secret’’ 10-point military cooperation arrangement. In 1995, when Paul Keating entered into a ‘‘secret’’ treaty with Indonesia's president Suharto, the Coalition opened a sustained attack on ‘‘secret covenants, derived secretly’’, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 attack on disastrous pre-war secret diplomacy. Are we to assume that in government, Labor would be in favour of ‘‘secret’’ treaties?
In the event, the trip to Washington may have been worth the airfare if our ministers did make it clear to our ally that Australia would pursue an independent foreign policy. Strangely, the opposition has not sought an explanation from the government on what this means in practice – apart from apparently not participating in FONOPs – which the ADF has long refused to support in any case.
Labor seems to have drunk the government’s Kool-Aid on the Indo-Pacific idea.
Does Australia’s newly minted independent foreign policy mean we no longer see China as a strategic competitor or that we will not join the US in policies to contain China?
Where does that leave our enthusiasm for the Quad or our eagerness to participate in the Indian-led Malabar naval exercises, thereby militarising the Quad? All of which, according to US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, are intended to not only contain China but also to push it back. Surely, this is something an opposition would want to know.
AUSMIN was preceded by a joint US, Australia and Japan sail-through in the South China Sea – not a FONOP. The opposition has not wanted to know why Australia contributed five ships, a significant proportion of the country's fleet, while Japan contributed just one vessel out of a considerably bigger fleet. It appears Labor also agrees that Australia should make a proportionately greater contribution to regional peace and security than Japan.
The opposition seems to have drunk the government’s Kool-Aid on the Indo-Pacific idea, effectively the Trump foreign policy doctrine to replace Obama’s pivot. It is, of course, an attempt to enlist India in helping to balance China on our behalf. It is a concept rather than a reality. India has no security engagement in East Asia and relatively little trade or investment interest there.
Nevertheless, if the Indo-Pacific region matters to Australian security, or rather, Canberra believes India can be manoeuvred into balancing China on our behalf, wouldn’t the opposition expect the Prime Minister to send one of Australia’s most experienced diplomats to represent the country as its High Commissioner?
After all, India’s foreign policy calculus is much more complicated and dangerous than Australia’s, with nuclear-armed antagonists such as Pakistan and China on its borders. Whatever Barry O’Farrell’s undoubted achievements might have been as NSW Premier, he is unlikely to carry much weight in Delhi’s foreign and strategic policy salons. Apparently, Labor, too, doesn’t think it matters much as to who is sent to these highly sensitive posts and if in government, it can be expected to do the same.
Labor also seems to have bought the government’s assertion that Australia will not trade away its values for the sale of another tonne of barley or kilo of beef. It has not sought to find out from the government which values are under threat, and why.
Nor does it point out that fundamental to national security is economic security; and although we don’t like it much, the reality is we get that security from our trade with China.
In the process of aligning Australia ever more closely with the US’ increasingly bellicose stance towards China, the government has set out to de-legitimise business interests in the relationship. Presumably, the opposition agrees.
Foreign policy was once an important point of differentiation between Labor and the Coalition, helping to establish its fitness for government. Labor once had the courage to have a voice and a vision that energised voters around a view of the world, which differed from the government of the day and with which many Australians could identify. Such Australians today feel disenfranchised by the Opposition.