‘Power and Ideas in Australian Foreign Policy’



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‘Power and Ideas in Australian Foreign Policy’



Wayne McLean, University of Tasmania
Paper presented at the Australian Political Studies Association Conference, Hobart, 24-26 September, 2012; Panel 2

DRAFT – Please do not quote or cite without permission.

Contact: w_mclean@utas.edu.au – www.waynemclean.com
Why do ‘soft’ threats such as asylum-seeking and whaling appear to dominate the domestic content of foreign policy discourse in Australia, rather than potentially higher order security threats such as China and Indonesia? In this paper I argue that these soft threats are prioritized by political elites as part of a strategy that enables Australia to pursue a rational foreign policy in the national interest, without undue interference from domestic audiences. To make this case, I develop a neoclassical realist framework as a way to understand this process within the Australian setting. Using this framework I identify three strategies that have emerged to deal with this dilemma since the end of the Cold War. The first is the inflation of issues such as whaling and illegal migration. This strategy gives domestic audiences a connection to foreign policy debates without intruding into higher order strategic concerns. The second is deflection, where issues important to national security concerns are treated with bipartisanship and effectively downplayed in internal debates. The final strategy is dilution, where vexing ideas elevated by domestic political actors are subsumed and diluted by established actors closer to the centre of power. Taken together, these mitigate potentially problematic domestic policy contests by pulling some norm entrepreneurs towards the centre of debates, and marginalizing others, depending on the issue involved.

Australia’s Security Environment


Australia faces many external pressures given its position in a geostrategically important region. The rise of China is a dominant theme in current international affairs scholarship and Australia straddles a difficult chasm between its growing economic links to China and its security relationship with the US. But a number of supplementary issues complicate Australia’s security picture. Here, one can consider Indonesia, with whom Australia has stable diplomatic relations, but where potentially problematic Indonesian domestic forces are injected into debates. For instance, a Lowy Institute study by Fergus Hanson found that a third of Indonesians believe Australia ‘poses a threat to the security of Indonesia’ and that 12% were in favour of encouraging ‘militant groups to attack Australia’.1

Likewise, in Papua New Guinea (PNG), relations have been strained by the Michael Somare and Julian Moti affairs, while PNG itself faces stability issues as a result of controversies such as the Sanderline Affair and the 2011 constitutional crisis. This is juxtaposed against a relatively strong economy with consistent growth at 8% and predictions of 15-20% with the fruition of the PNG Liquid Natural Gas project.2 East Timor also presents challenges after angering Australian elites by purchasing boats from China to be manned by Chinese sailors.3 After Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão proclaimed the ‘Timorese must unite to stop Australia stealing their wealth as it did in 1989’ East Timor has engaged with China in regard to access to its oil and gas reserves, in an effort to diversify the dependent relationship fostered by the contentious Timor Gap treaty.4 All three neighbours are susceptible to instability and their threat perceptions of Australia can be amplified by loosely managed ideas penetrating their domestic debates.

While Australia’s three closest neighbours are relatively weak, the regional powers also present concerns, with the Indian relationship particularly troublesome. India made little more than a tepid response to Kevin Rudd’s suggestion of a trilateral security pact with the US and India.5 And while the uranium deal signed in 2011 helped to heal problems caused by hate crimes against Indian students in Melbourne (and subsequent Indian media coverage which resulted in a 46% drop in the number of Indian student visas issued in 2009)6, US-India relations have been deepening while Australia-India relations remain lukewarm at best. This is despite both Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith undertaking ‘goodwill’ visits to shore up the relationship in an attempt to overcome what Rory Medcalf claims is a perception of Australia as an ‘afterthought in Asia’.7

Australia-Chinese relations are for the most part stable, but certain troubling issues make appearances. Of note was the Stern Hu affair, which some viewed as a rebuke to the Foreign Investment Review Board’s (FIRB) rejection of the Chinalco-Rio Tinto deal and the bullish 2009 Defence White Paper.8 Similarly, Chinese officials expressed concern over the deployment of a permanent US marine presence in the Northern territory, with the state news outlet The People’s Daily warning that ‘if Australia uses its military bases to help the US harm Chinese interests, then Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire’.9



Outside of posturing and perceptions, and within military spending and GDP, Australia is in relative decline in the region. For example, while Australia’s military budget has tripled since 1995, the Chinese budget has increased tenfold. Australian military spending grew from USD$13.1bn in 1989 to USD$22.9bn in 2009, but China’s expanded from USD$16.6 in 1989 to USD$116bn in 2009.10 Furthermore, despite Australia’s excellent economic outlook (it has outperformed all OECD countries in the aftermath of the global financial crisis), Australia’s total relative GDP stayed steady at around 8% of that of China, Japan, India and Indonesia combined. In comparison, while Indonesia’s economy has been temporarily halted by the GFC, it has averaged 5.8% growth over the past decade,11 while India and China have grown at an average rate of 8.2% and 11.4% respectively compared to Australia’s 3.2% over the same period.12 Figures A and B demonstrate Australia’s relative position in relation to Australia’s key strategic competitors across military spending and total GDP in USD.



Fig A. Relative Military Spending of Australia’s key strategic competitors ($USD)13



Fig B. GDP (current $USD of Key Strategic competitors)14

While this pessimistic outlook might infer a set of hostile and fearful ideas emerging as the domestic population responds to these pressures, especially in regards to Indonesia and China, the evidence does not suggest this. In general, Australian citizens do not exhibit fear about issues directly related to the prospects for conflict in the region. Indeed, 90% of respondents said they feel ‘safe’ from global events in a 2009 Lowy Institute poll conducted to reveal a cross-section of views across the Australian population.15

This perception of safety amongst the Australian populace is combined with a preference for focusing on threats that are far and distant. Most notably, the perceived threat from asylum-seekers is a continuing theme at the domestic level, with 76% of respondents in the same Lowy report stating they were concerned about asylum-seekers entering Australia via boat.16 Similarly, Media Monitors analytic services ranked asylum-seekers, along with climate change and Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan as the most mentioned foreign policy issues of 2009.17 At the same time only 40% of people polled viewed China as a threat despite 90% perceiving China as the leading power in the region.18 These numbers have little correlation with the position of asylum-seekers in the hierarchy of threats. Here, only 2,726 people arrived by boats in 2009 (up from 161 in 2008)19 compared to 53,900 overstaying their visas.20 Australian immigration numbers are on the whole comparable to other Western countries. For instance, in 2008, the UK inflow of asylum-seekers was 31,315, while France took in 35,404 people.21 Those numbers only account for a small percentage of the total of 203,874 migrants on permanent visas that entered Australia in 2008.22

Similarly, a niche concern such as anti-whaling activism is indicative of soft issues with heightened foreign policy implications for the domestic audience. For example, one of Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s first major ‘victories’ as newly appointed foreign minister was his engagement with South Korea, where he questioned Seoul’s ability to be a ‘global green superpower’ if its planned scientific whaling program had been pursued.23 Correspondingly, Japanese whaling has been a consistently elevated domestic theme to the extent that the Australian government has failed to formally criticise hostile Sea Shepherd actions such as ramming boats, preferring loosely worded condemnations like that of Julia Gillard who stated that they should ‘conduct themselves appropriately so everybody is kept safe’.24 The debate was prominent enough for newly appointed Environment Minister Peter Garret to initially lobby the Cabinet to use Australia’s naval capability to pressure Japan to stop whaling activities, although this was later downgraded to a customs ship. 25 We might assume that this was the result of the Australian government realising that whaling does not trump the economic relationship with Australia’s second biggest trading partner, and key strategic ally in North-East Asia, and that while domestically useful, it was not something to be projected into foreign policy outputs.

The picture emerging, then, is that ‘soft’ or distant threats are being elevated in the domestic discourse. Here, Geoffrey Garrett has commented that ‘foreign policy has played virtually no role in Australia’s race to the [2010] polls on 21 August beyond the domestic hot button issues of asylum-seekers and immigration’.26 Within the international relations community, constructivist assessments tend to assign these issues to history and culture. Anthony Burke, who has equated Australia’s security stance with a cultural history of fear, typifies this approach. He locates the source of ‘fear’ in a racial tendency in the Australian psyche, acting as a motivating factor behind Australia’s perceived xenophobia and desire to homogenise.27

But if xenophobia is a driving force behind Australia’s security agenda, why is this being constructed around asylum-seekers from distant countries such as Afghanistan or Sri Lanka rather than more immediate strategic threats such as China or Indonesia? Why is there an absence of anti-Chinese sentiment given they now constitute Australia’s largest non-European ethnic group and account for the majority of immigrants, both legal and illegal? In a similar manner, Richard Devetak and Jacqui True almost entirely attribute Australia’s recent behaviour in international affairs to reactionary ideational factors, claiming that Australia pursues a path of ‘gay abandon’ in foreign policy. This includes self-defeating aspects such as stricter immigration controls based on ‘different governmental worldviews and conceptions of state identity’.28 This approach suggests that elites ability to create foreign policy is driven first and foremost by the domestic audience and that foreign policy outputs are simply expressions of these ideas. But as shown so far, an unmanaged populist foreign policy has real potential to alter the balance of threat from other states. Moreover, there is little evidence that domestic foreign policy outputs have acted contrary to our national security goals when looking at the broader foreign policy trajectory over the past twenty years.



Older theoretical approaches have problems dealing with these conundrums too. Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism has little scope for dealing with the role of perception both inside and outside of the state, given its fetishization of the levels of analysis problem.29 Stephen Walt’s balance of threat explains the dangers of what might happen if Australia’s domestic ideas are misperceived by other states as offensive intentions.30 This could result in states in the region balancing against Australia, but at the same time this does not attempt to locate the source of those intentions. Robert Jervis’ ideas on spiral theory also stress that states build images of other states, leading to misperception and an overestimation of the hostility of states towards one another, but also fails to identify the genesis of the threats.31 This is in direct contrast to constructivist scholarship that tends to insist on a ‘bottom-up’ model (with the exception of Wendtian structurationism). Most often such studies link these to history and culture instead of exploring whether international level processes contribute to the emergence of these ideas. In order to explore these contradictions in the Australian case this is critical, because as this first section has shown, Australia’s foreign policy issues that are of importance to the domestic audience are often in stark contrast to the realities of the material environment.


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