For many years Australian foreign policy has been a pretty boring affair. Policy differences between Liberal and Labor governments have usually been in shades of grey. A bit more publicly supportive of latest US actions or just a little bit less? Slightly more committed to Australian military deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan or a little more cautious? A little more emphasis on multilateral institutions or a little less?
However, the recent appointment of a new minority Labor government has created some big question marks. Australia went to an election in August, soon after former prime minister Kevin Rudd was deposed by his own party. The result is a minority Labor government, led by Julia Gillard, which will rely on the support of the Greens party and some rural independents. This is the first minority government in 70 years for Australia and so there are few established rules to the game. The consequences—certainly in foreign policy terms—are largely unknown.
No doubt the Labor-led government will try to keep a steady course on foreign policy under Mr Rudd, who will now serve as foreign minister. Over the last 3 years, Mr Rudd, a former junior diplomat, has played a very hands-on role in Australian foreign policy. This has included Australia’s proposals for an Asia Pacific Community (rejected), Australia’s efforts to give the G20 a much more prominent role in international policy-making (successful), and Australia’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council (ongoing). Mr Rudd, who clearly enjoys the international stage, will no doubt seek to continue a ‘middle power activist’ approach.
However, the joker in the pack are the Greens. This is the first time the Greens have participated in government at federal level and it is not clear to what extent they will seek to influence traditional areas of foreign policy. Apart from a general liberal agenda (such as concerns about human rights), many of the Greens’ stated foreign policies are far outside the mainstream of Australian politics. For example, Green party policy officially calls for the revision or termination Australia’s alliance with the United States; the end of all uranium mining and exports, and banning nuclear-powered ships from Australian ports. However, none of these policies were election issues and one guesses that few Green voters would even have been aware of them.
It seems unlikely that the Labor government will adopt much of the Green agenda except at the margins. Australia may perhaps make more of a show over human rights (for instance, on Tibet) which might adversely affect Australia’s relationship with China, although Australia is too reliant on Chinese trade and investment to push that barrel too far. The Greens will try to pressure the government to reduce or end its commitment in Afghanistan although Australia’s commitment will gradually wind down anyway alongside a reduced US commitment. The Greens are also likely to try to put the brakes on defence spending, which may delay the implementation of Australia’s ambitious (and largely unfunded) military expansion program outlined in the 2009 White Paper.
One area in which the Greens will almost certainly exert their influence is on nuclear issues. For the Greens, nuclear is a totemic issue: they are virulently opposed to both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy and regard existing international non-proliferation norms as virtually sacrosanct. It is very unlikely that a minority Labor government, just hanging on to power, would try to defy the Greens and overturn the longstanding prohibition on uranium exports to India and other states outside the NPT system.
In other respects Australian policy towards India is likely to remain unchanged. Australia will remain just as keen to develop a “strategic partnership” with India, building economic links and strengthening diplomatic and security co-operation in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Australia would also welcome more Indian investment, particularly in the resources sector where investment over the last decade or so has been dominated by China. More investment from India would be seen as helping to create greater balance in ownership of natural resources by Australia’s major future customers.
Australia will also hope for more co-operation with India within existing multilateral regional institutions and in the development of new regional economic, political and security arrangements. While neither Canberra nor New Delhi readily admit it, they are both geographical and cultural outsiders to East Asia, the current centre of gravity of the Asia Pacific region. There are continuing suspicions about Australia’s participation in East Asian institutions and China, in particular, remains leery of seeing India as part of East Asia. Uncertainties about the place of Australia and India in Japanese proposals on new regional institutions in early 2010 are a reminder that Australia and India could do with some mutual support in this regard.
However, the biggest long term issue for Australian foreign policy is China, and this is also one of the biggest areas of uncertainty in the Australia-India relationship. In comparison with Indian perceptions, Australia’s threat perceptions of China have generally been low and China’s economic rise has been seen in overwhelmingly positive terms. Over the last couple of decades Australia has benefited significantly from China’s economic opening, and Australia’s close economic links with China was a major factor in Australia largely avoiding the global financial crisis in 2008-2009. Nevertheless, over the last several years there has been greater awareness of the consequences of China’s military modernisation and the relative decline of the United States in Asia.
For the first time in 200 years, Australia is facing a world in which its main economic relationships diverge from its main strategic relationships, and Australia is still trying to understand what that means. Australia will not wish to join in any coalition to “contain” China. Far from it. However, it will seek to further develop economic, political and security relationships with key states such as Indonesia, Japan and India in order to expand its options over the coming decades.