Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:30 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:30 | SYDNEY

Multilateralism fading in our Asia debate

12 April 2012 10:58

Brendan Taylor is Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

A key premise underpinning the 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper is that 'regional and multilateral cooperation is likely to be increasingly relevant in helping to navigate the strategic and political opportunities and challenges of the Asian century.' Yet a look over Australia's most prominent foreign policy debate suggests otherwise.

Much ink has already been spilled in the unusually sharp and public debate over how Australia should respond to the rise of China. But notable by its absence has been mention of the role that multilateralism might play. A strong case can be made that this glaring omission reflects a sharp decline in Australian confidence regarding the capacity of Asian multilateralism to deliver meaningful outcomes when it matters most.

At the centre of Australia's China debate, Hugh White makes the point that multilateral institutions don't create order, they merely reflect it. According to White, avoiding war in the Asian Century will be done by formal multilateral structures, but a more informal 'Concert of Asia' involving the US, China, Japan and India, and modeled on the European experience of the 19th century.

Ross Babbage overlooks multilateralism altogether, arguing instead that Australia should throw all of its eggs into the US alliance basket and leverage that relationship to build up the military capabilities required to 'rip an arm off' China in the case of conflict. Alan Dupont points to the importance of diplomacy in responding to China's rise, but focuses squarely on how Australia can deepen its bilateral cooperation with like-minded countries such as Japan, South Korea and India. Multilateralism, once again, doesn't rate a mention.

The outlier in Australia's China debate is Scott Dewar, previously an advisor to Prime Minister Rudd and now a senior diplomat in Honolulu, who argues that Canberra needs to invest in regional organisations and use the East Asia Summit to develop a new 'Regional Strategic Code' for how member states manage disputes and more generally relate to one another.

That Dewar is a lone voice in Australia's China debate marks a sharp break with the past.

During the mid-1990s, for instance, Foreign Minister Gareth Evans emphasised repeatedly the importance of engaging rising China via APEC so as to head off the 'Orwellian spectre' of a world divided into hostile trade blocs. When Canberra gained admission into the East Asia Summit during the mid-2000s, there was widespread Australian acknowledgment that this was largely attributable to Tokyo's Machiavellian maneuvering to dilute Beijing's influence in that new grouping. More recently, Rudd – a self-described 'brutal realist' on China – reportedly saw his controversial Asia Pacific community proposal as a mechanism to prevent Beijing from pursuing a 'Chinese Monroe Doctrine' in Asia.

The contrasting lack of attention to Asian multilateralism in the major foreign policy debate occurring in Australia at present is initially puzzling. For small and middle powers, such as Australia, multilateralism is often regarded as a 'great equalizer' in international politics. Multilateral fora provide a setting where the weak have the chance to put forward their views and to seek support for these from the strong.

In practice, Australia also has a strong tradition of entrepreneurship in Asian multilateralism. The Hawke Government proposed APEC in 1989, and Hawke's successor Paul Keating the APEC Leaders' meetings. Canberra's diplomatic efforts were central to the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994. And then, of course, there was the ill-fated Rudd initiative of mid-2008.

One could argue that Australians are now merely exercising caution following the caustic response that Rudd's proposal met in many Asian capitals. Yet the silent treatment that multilateralism has received in Australia's China debate suggests something much deeper than a simple case of 'once bitten, twice shy.'

Indeed, Australian foreign policy commentators and practitioners alike are becoming more openly critical of Asian multilateralism. In his award-winning 2011 book 'There goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia', Michael Wesley epitomizes this view when writing that 'the problem is that formal institutions are no longer effective for dealing with the rapidly evolving regional situation.'

In a January 2012 speech to the Asia Society in New York – a mere month before resigning as Foreign Minister – Rudd observed that 'none of us are naïve about the capacity of nascent institutions to deal with strategic distrust built up over the decades.' Prime Minister Julia Gillard's recent quip to President Obama that he should bring his iPad to the November 2011 East Asia Summit and 'make sure it's charged' was also read by some commentators as a reference by Gillard to the tedious nature of such gatherings.

Bilateralism and multilateralism are by no means mutually exclusive modes of cooperation. Yet it is interesting to note that Australian foreign policy of late is leaning much more heavily towards the former. The US-Australia alliance continues to deepen, as evidenced by the recent deployment of US Marines to Darwin and speculation that the US might operate long-range surveillance drones out of the strategically important Cocos Islands. In recent years, Canberra has also forged new bilateral security agreements with Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and India.

Australian frustration with Asian multilateralism has actually been brewing for some time. Like many of their American counterparts, Australian commentators and practitioners have long had a tendency to assess the effectiveness of multilateral institutions in terms of their capacity to deliver concrete outcomes. This contrasts with the dominant Southeast Asian view that multilateral engagement is a process through which trust and confidence are built over time.

Yet, somewhat ironically, at a time when American enthusiasm for Asian multilateralism appears to be rising, the lack of attention to multilateral mechanisms in Australia's China debate suggests Canberra's patience with Asian incrementalism may well have expired.

Photo by Flickr user midorisyu.