Many of Asia’s giants are experiencing periods of relative political stability. The leadership of Xi Jinping has been confirmed in China. Narendra Modi was recently voted the best ever Prime Minister of India in the India Today Mood of the Nation (MOTN) poll. Shinzo Abe has since 2012 been Prime Minister of Japan, a democracy that once changed prime ministers with such frequency that University of Adelaide’s Professor Purnendra Jain called it a ‘karaoke democracy’ in which everyone got a turn. Australia, once recently a beacon of political stability, now rushes in the opposite direction.
Australia, like India, will hold elections in 2019. It is difficult to consider the potential of the Australia-India bilateral without consideration of those who will be influential in shaping it. This is not a simple matter, for Australia had but four prime ministers from 1972 to 2007 but changed leadership five times in the subsequent decade. Malcolm Turnbull has recently been replaced as prime minister by Scott Morrison. Both Turnbull and Morrison are members of the Liberal Party of Australia, the dominant member of a coalition with the National Party of Australia.
Australia will likely change government in early 2019, bringing the Australian Labour Party (ALP) to power. The ALP’s platform and policy positions suggest it will respect the basic traditional framework for Australian foreign policy: security through its alliance with the United States and prosperity through its trade and investment relationships in Asia. A change in government will not fundamentally change Australian foreign policy.
The staples of Australian foreign policy invariably receive bipartisan support. Political debate on key issues is cautious, reserved. Prior to the recent reshuffle, the protagonists were cut from a similar academic cloth. In an unlikely coincidence the current Minister for Foreign Affairs (Julie Bishop), the Head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Frances Adamson), and the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs (Penny Wong) were all educated at The University of Adelaide. Let us first consider the approach taken by the Turnbull Government’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop.
Bishop had an affinity for India. She supported the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between India, Australia, Japan and the United States, which reflected her grander narrative for the region to which she refers as the ‘Indo-Pacific.’ Bishop also presided over a difficult period in Australia-China relations. Her Government introduced National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018, aimed at China. Bishop did not visit China in the final two years as Foreign Minister, which once prompted a former Australian Ambassador to China to call for her resignation.
Marise Payne has now replaced Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister. It is too early to tell whether there will be substantive changes in the government’s foreign policy, although she grasped the opportunity to reset Australia’s relationship with China. There is also a more realistic approach to the Quad. At the recent Japan-Australia 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, Payne subtly downplayed its importance, stating that Australia works “…very closely with all members of the Quadrilateral group, as it were bi-laterally and consistently so.”
The reference to bilateral rather than multilateral relationships is a faint echo of India’s foreign policy traditions. It reflects, perhaps, a disquiet that India chose not to invite Australia to participate in Exercise Malabar. Although it appears both Australia and India will proceed cautiously, with some questions on both sides about mutual commitment to the Quad, other pressures and influences will likely to draw them together.
A change in government next May will bring subtle changes in approach - but these changes will not fundamentally impact the Australia-India relationship. Though not naïve to the realities of China’s growing influence, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Penny Wong, would likely take a more positive approach to the Australia-China relationship in office. She has described the Coalition Government’s belated support for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as “timorous and self-defeating”, and asserted that Australia needs to display “greater confidence in harnessing the opportunities of the Belt and Road Initiative.” Labour in government will likely look to improve the Australia-China bilateral relationship.
Though international relations is not a zero-sum game, it is important to consider whether a more positive disposition towards China would impact on other bilateral and multilateral relationships. When India excluded Australia from the Malabar naval exercise in which the other three Quad nations participated, it was widely believed the decision was made to avoid irritating China prior to a summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi. Like Australia, India wishes to balance its dealings with China.
This should not, however, be misunderstood as a lack of commitment to the Quad. Australia may be less in focus for India for obvious reasons and as evidenced by Exercise Malabar, but the Quad remains of strategic importance to the Modi government. India would recall in 2008, under the previous Labour Government, Australia declined to participate in the Quad. The attitude of any incoming Labour government vis-à-vis the Quad should not be taken for granted.
The young generation influencing the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi appears more included to strategic groupings than its predecessors, but some old hands see the Quad as inconsistent with the doctrine of strategic autonomy. Does Senator Wong wish such autonomy for Australia? In a speech made at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in May 2017, Wong quoted from the Bhagavad Gita:
“Better one’s own duty, though lacking recognition, than that of another, however well performed: By carrying out the actions determined by one’s own being, one is not compromised.”
In the same speech, Senator Wong asserted that “India is exactly the kind of confident partner that Australia values”. Does Australia have the national self-confidence to seek greater autonomy in its foreign policy, to carry out actions determined by one’s own being? Time will tell.
(The author is an Australian strategic expert and China specialist based in Adelaide. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)