The Cable

Australia Calls All Hands On Deck to Reset Foreign Policy

Yet another longtime U.S. ally struggles to find its place in a suddenly changing world.


Next month, 113 senior Australian diplomats — ambassadors, high commissioners, and consuls-general — will be headed back down under.

They’ve been summoned by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to reshape the government’s foreign policy. The diplomats will meet with Bishop, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, and a member of the opposition Labor party to pull together a foreign policy white paper for later this year, the first such document since 2003.

But the present paper can’t just be a cut-and-paste job from the last one. It comes at a tumultuous time in the Asia-Pacific region, with the new Trump administration rattling allies, including Canberra, even as China doubles down on its aggressive rhetoric. Australia, since the Second World War a close ally of the United States, got off to a rocky start with the new administration after the first phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull went unexpectedly badly over a deal to resettle refugees in Australia to the United States.

Australia is not the first longtime U.S. ally to shift foreign policy for or because of the Trump administration. Traditional partners in Europe and Asia have come to similar realizations. They just haven’t called back more than 100 top foreign-policy hands (yet) to try to gin up a solution.

Concern over U.S. commitment to allies is just one headache for Australia. China’s increasingly unforgiving stance toward islets and atolls it claims in the South China Sea — defying last year’s ruling by an international tribunal — has ratcheted up the chance of actual conflict in a vital waterway. Japan, alarmed by a revamped Chinese military, is upping defense spending and taking steps to shed some of its pacifist shackles. The Philippines, which had not long ago pleaded for closer defense ties with Washington, is now under President Rodrigo Duterte dissing D.C. and courting Beijing.

Much of the new landscape has been visibly taking shape over the last decade or more (except for the sudden U.S. hostility to the international order it helped create.) Australia’s increasing economic dependence on China, and a much bigger regional role for Beijing, have bedeviled Australian policymakers torn between their main trade partner and their security guarantee.

The new white paper, argues Hugh White, should try to find a quixotic happy middle ground: He recommends reserving a bigger place for China (and Japan) in Asia, while keeping the United States as involved as it can be without angering Beijing. At the same time, he wants a foreign policy that can protect the interests of middle powers like Canberra — all while upholding the rule of law that has made the last half century of peace and prosperity possible.

If that sounds like a tall order, it is. And that’s probably why Bishop needs all the help she can get.

Photo credit: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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