The Turnbull government is warning that China’s increasing belligerence over territorial disputes and potential clash over democratic values calls for stronger efforts to maintain American presence in Asia and to bolster ties with neighbouring democracies as a check against Beijing’s rise.
Without US political, economic and security engagement in the region, power would shift too rapidly to Beijing to Australia’s detriment, the government’s Foreign Policy White Paper says as it strikes a hawkish tone about Beijing’s behaviour.
The white paper, to be released on Thursday by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, redefines Australia’s most important strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific region and expands it from south-east and north-east Asia to include India and the Indian Ocean.
It says the economic growth that has come with globalisation has changed power balances, with China now challenging the US as the dominant power, a status it has enjoyed since the end of World War II.
The white paper recognises the economic benefits from China’s rise but cautions it will seek to use its newfound regional influence to suit its own interests.
It describes territorial disputes in the South China Sea as a “major fault line” in the region.
“Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities,” the white paper says.
“Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes.
“Elsewhere in the region, Australia is concerned about the potential for the use of force or coercion in the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait.”
Plea to ‘enhance stability’
Acknowledging China’s capacity to take on responsibility for regional global security was growing, the white paper urges China to “exercise its power in a way that enhances stability, reinforces international law and respects the interests of smaller countries”.
The white paper emphasises a need for Canberra to strengthen relations with China because of its “capacity to influence virtually all of Australia’s international interests”, although notes this will be rocky.
Ms Bishop told The Australian Financial Review that it was essential Australia had a positive agenda with China.
“We need to be clear about our differences and manage them carefully and do what we can to encourage China to use its growing influence to act in ways that help stabilise the region,” she said.
“The rules-based order is the foundation on which all of our objectives can be met. We urge China to defend and strengthen the rules-based order which supported its rise and will undoubtedly allow other developing countries to rise.”
But to act as a counterweight to China, the white paper makes clear the US needs to stay engaged in Asia for both the region’s sake and its own, saying it “continues to be essential to the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific”.
Describing the ANZUS treaty as the core of Australia’s strategic and defence planning, the white paper will seek to broaden and the deepen the alliance, including the possibility of allowing the US to base more of its military assets in Australia in addition to the Marine deployment in Darwin.
The white paper warns that trouble could flare between the US and China over trade but the central goal must be to strike a regional free trade agreement that includes both countries to ease economic tensions.
“It’s clearly ambitious but one that we believe can be achieved,” Ms Bishop said of a trade deal.
Ms Bishop said Australia needed to forcefully make the case to the US officials to remain engaged amid growing isolationist sentiment in the US.
“At a time of change and growing risk, we are emphasising our continuing support for US global and regional leadership,” Ms Bishop said.
“Our long-term interests demand this. The global order will continue to flow from power and US hard power will remain an essential underpinning of the rules-based order.”
As a further bulwark, the white paper calls for Australia to improve ties with Japan, India, Indonesia and South Korea as major fellow democracies.
“We want to work with like-minded democracies to shape China,” Ms Bishop said.
Most immediate threat
The white paper identifies North Korea’s missile program as the most immediate regional threat, with the potential for severe economic and humanitarian repercussions. The white paper says the possible threat of Australia being struck by an intercontinental ballistic missile remained under “constant and careful review”.
The white paper more broadly counsels against the global move towards protectionism because of the potential to create strategic friction, damage economic growth and undermine trade and investment.
It also warns the post-war rules and institutions that maintain peace and security are under strain as some major powers ignore or undermine international law and it is becoming harder to take collective action.
The white paper is the first produced by an Australian government in 14 years time and prepared after a sustained period that has seen China’s economic rise contribute significantly to increasing global wealth, in particular helping fuel Australia’s most recent mining boom.
But at the same time, that financial clout has also seen China become more willing to assert territorial claims, particular in the South China and East China seas including a significant program to reclaim and militarise islands, and increasingly exert a more nationalistic fervour under President Xi Jinping.
The 2003 white paper under John Howard’s government was prepared in the context of the threat of global terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the fear Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and efforts to stop people smuggling on boats.
The former Labor government did not prepare a broader foreign policy white paper but released in 2012 its Australia in the Asian Century white paper. This document painted a rosier picture of the opportunities presented by Asia’s rising middle class, and believed wealth effect would override disagreements, such as tensions over maritime borders.
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