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Australia Between "Good International Citizenship," A Challenging Indo-Pacific, And Declining US Leadership

06 Nov 2020
By Gabriele Abbondanza
40th Infantry Division commander and Australian CFLCC commander exchange gifts. Source: Army National Guard/Staff Sgt. Emily Suhr

Australia does not behave as a “good international citizen” anymore, but this is a strategic adaptation to a more demanding regional environment. With a challenging Indo-Pacific and declining US leadership, Canberra should engage strategically with long-overlooked states in the region.

The past century saw Canberra as an unwavering supporter of what Australian policymakers often refer to as the “rules-based order,” thanks to its strong middle power credentials. Well-earned since the early days of “Doc” Evatt at the United Nations (UN), the middle power notion values states’ multilateral behaviour, their respect of the international law, a congruous national identity, and significant but second-tier capabilities.

At the same time, Australia has been frequently depicted as a “good international citizen,” a term that is commonly employed to describe law-abiding and cooperative nations that filter national interest through globalist values and international norms. Fighting the Axis Powers, contributing to the post-war liberal order, playing a remarkable role with Canada in the establishment of the middle power notion at the UN, advancing UN goals and means as a whole, and participating in a number of UN-sanctioned peace support operations are just the main illustrations of Australia as both a middle power and a good international citizen.

As I have argued in  the Australian Journal of International Affairs, however, the 21st century has witnessed a progressive but steady shift in Australian foreign policy, one that was initiated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, spurred by the subsequent responses of the US, and then supported by the gradual prevalence of national security over traditional foreign policy goals, first promoted by former Prime Minister John Howard.

Furthermore, Australia has damaged its good international citizen credentials for a number of reasons: the hard-line policies against seaborne asylum seekers; the participation in missions that are not sanctioned by the UN; the transformation of its global multilateralism into a selective regionalism; the budget cuts to foreign aid; a controversial attitude towards climate change mitigation; and a preference for the US-led global order over a rules-based (UN) international society.

These considerations have led me to reassess deep-rooted assumptions on Australia’s global image and status, since its current posture is that of a “neutral international citizen” rather than a “good” one, which also provides room for discussion on its “quintessential” (that is, exemplary) middle power status. On the other hand, it should be stated at the outset that this is hardly due to a shift in the country’s value system, and ought to be interpreted instead as Australia’s way of adapting to an international order in flux, in which Canberra finds itself more vulnerable to rising – and disengaging – powers whose behaviour significantly alters both the regional and the global balance of power.

A more challenging Indo-Pacific

On the eve of the 21st century, China had a smaller economy than any G7 nation except Canada. Russia’s economy was twice as small as Australia’s, Indonesia’s was even smaller, and India had only recently surpassed Australia. Military expenditure also somewhat reflected these trends. But much has changed since then.

Today, China dwarfs all except the US in terms of both the size of its economy and its military budget. India could experience a similar rise, and Russia has partially recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Significantly, countries whose importance was previously discounted by Canberra are developing rapidly, and some of them hold much higher ambitions and potential than others. Indonesia stands above many, but Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and others are all experiencing a substantial economic growth, and, in time, they too will have a say in how the Indo-Pacific is shaped.

Moreover, Australia isn’t concerned just with its neighbours’ increased capabilities, it is also concerned with their objectives. While some states actively maintain the status quo – the US, Japan, and Australia above all – China, Russia, and North Korea are explicitly challenging it. In particular, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, contested activities in the South China Sea, and foreign aid and investment programs have the potential to alter trans-regional dynamics to an unprecedented level. On the other hand, influential actors such as India (despite its lukewarm commitment to the Quad), Indonesia, and many other states within ASEAN do not seek to be entrapped into a bipolar US-China competition, although they are prepared to enjoy the benefits of it in economic terms.

In short, it is true that in the 21st century Australia is not a “good international citizen” anymore, but this shift needs to be understood as a strategic adaptation to a regional environment that is significantly more challenging than before. To make things even more complicated, US global leadership is rapidly declining.

Declining US leadership

Borrowing from former Prime Minister Robert Menzies, “Australia has always needed great and powerful friends.” Since World War II, Canberra has traditionally looked northeast for its security, and, despite the risks of entrapment and abandonment, this choice has ensured the country’s security for over 70 years. This has led to an evident path dependency in Australian foreign and security policy, one that doesn’t pose any existential issue as long as the terms of engagement with Washington do not change.

However, this might not be the case anymore. The so-called Trump effect has been described as “Trump’s ‘transactional’ and often chaotic foreign policy-making style, plus his attacks on other U.S. allies, [which] have cast doubt on America’s willingness to continue underwriting the so-called ‘rules-based international order’.”

Indeed, a number of policies adopted by the current US president go against what Australian policymakers have repeatedly considered in the country’s national interest. Examples include withdrawal from both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement, the potential withdrawal from the World Trade Organization, the trade war with China, and the strained relations with long-standing allies, including those within NATO.

To be sure, Australia-US relations are still very solid: the two countries have improved their military interoperability and continue cooperating in the South China Sea. But the lack of clear US leadership inevitably leaves Australia with its old fear of abandonment at a time when the Indo-Pacific is more challenging than ever. The issue is felt by the public opinion too, as a 2019 poll by the Lowy Institute shows that 66 percent of Australians believe that “Donald Trump has weakened Australia’s alliance with the US.” A different US president might revert the bilateral relation to the previous climate of mutual trust and dependability, but since the results of 2020 US election are still unfolding, it is too early to engage in such considerations.

What next?

Today, the question that matters is: what next? It’s hard to make predictions in such volatile times, as regional and global issues have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while it is true that the Indo-Pacific has significantly contributed to the current turmoil in international relations, it is equally true that Australia has the chance to finally overcome its “liminality” and build strategic relations with some of the region’s rising powers (and future leaders) that have historically been overlooked by Canberra. In short, this new focus on South Asia would – at last – frame Australia’s region not only in economic terms, but in strategic ones too. To that end, the Quad goes in the right direction, although its internal cohesion is still too feeble to make it a dependable platform.

If Australia can prove that new and old friends are not mutually exclusive, and that “free and open” can include the majority of Indo-Pacific states in practice as well as in theory, then it might secure a prosperous and safe future once again.

Dr Gabriele Abbondanza is a Sessional Lecturer and Visiting Fellow at the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney. He specialises in Australian and Italian foreign and security policy, national power, and regional, middle, and great power theory.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.