In 2017, Australia released its Foreign Policy White Paper, which offers a comprehensive framework to uphold Australia’s security and prosperity. It reiterates the country’s commitment to continue engaging its partners and as such, is hinged on an outward-looking perspective and a preference for a rules-based region. This overarching thrust is concretized in five objectives: to promote an open, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific, to create business opportunities and stand against protectionism, to ensure the safety of Australians, to promote and protect international rules, and to step up support for the Pacific countries.

Experts are quick to identify the implications of the White Paper on bilateral and regional relations. A task like this usually calls for a temporal scope that begins with the now and towards the future, and whose spatial horizon is centered on Australia and outwards. I will upend this logic. Instead of looking forward, I will look back in order to uncover what needed to be in place for Australia to construct such a vision of the present and, consequently, of the future. Similarly, instead of looking outwards, I will highlight how Australia’s view of the region is in itself a reflection of its own understanding of its place in international relations. Temporally and spatially, therefore, the White Paper embodies certain presuppositions that needed to exist and to be present in order for Australia’s comprehensive framework to make sense and ultimately, to guide the country’s actions. So in view of this, I argue that the implications of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper can only be determined if we are able to tease out the foundations on which it stands. In this regard, I offer three underlying conditions that form the backdrop of the White Paper and that color Australia’s onward and outward path.

First, Australia’s White Paper is premised on the continuing presence of a neoliberal order, which is known widely as giving preference to markets over government, incentives, and private entrepreneurship. Of course, if the science is separated from the ideology, there is nothing wrong with market efficiency, the invisible hand, and comparative advantage, but neoliberalism’s unwavering faith in the logic of competition and the tandem developments of financialization and globalization produced a host of negative trends, including growing economic insecurity and inequality, the loss of political values, and the resurgence of nationalist and populist backlash. Indeed, the White Paper acknowledges, albeit implicitly, that many of the problems that pervade everyday life these days – from the financial crisis of 2008, the increasing reliance on offshore wealth, the collapse of public health and education and the attendant rise of child poverty, the destruction of ecosystems, even the epidemic of loneliness – all have in common the major role played by neoliberalism. Two of Australia’s objectives in the White Paper are clearly dependent on the continuing functioning of the neoliberal order. The creation of opportunities for smoother and easier business transactions can indeed lessen the chances of protectionist policies, but neither can neoliberal policies nor a unilateral decision to keep markets open guarantee the effective and long-lasting elimination of barriers to trade. If that were so, then the United States’ abandonment of the TPP and later its proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports would have been an unthinkable response to, say, Canada’s dairy tariffs. Neither would trade wars be more than mere figments of our imaginations. In fact, one can even make the argument that it is precisely because of our – and not just Australia’s – undying confidence in deregulation, liberalization, and privatization that has led to divisions, stalemates, and positions that are best captured by photographers of the latest G7 summit: with Merkel and the rest of the “crew” standing over a seemingly obstinate Trump.

The achievement of another objective in the White Paper likewise remains conditional on the continuing operation of the neoliberal order. Stepping up support for the small island nations in the Pacific is altruistic, to say the least. Australia, after all, is in a position to extend help. It is also practical to do so because the more stable they are, the more secure Australia is. No matter the motive, however, the notion of help or aid is fraught with power relations that are formed in and institutionalized by the neoliberal order. To explain this point, let me go back to neoliberalism’s defining characteristic: competition. In this worldview, people are seen as rational consumers who exercise their democratic choices not necessarily by voting, but by going shopping. The market, where people can engage in buying and selling, rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. Inequality, therefore, is inherent and is a function of the system. Not only is it institutionalized, but it is also the alter ego of competition. Hence, while boosting support to the Pacific countries and to Timor-Leste is humanitarian, and by no means am I saying that we should stop extending a helping hand altogether, it is important to note the nuances of our actions and the ingrained power relations that we may unknowingly be perpetuating. If anything, we should be asking what we are doing to close the inequality gap.

Apart from a continuing reliance on a neoliberal framework, the second foundation on which the White Paper stands is the existence of a rules-based international order. The belief in the deterrent effect of a rules-based international order stems largely from the neoliberal idea of reducing the domain of the state. Transposing this logic to the international level of analysis, we come to the conclusion that since there is no overarching authority above states, then faith must be placed on a series of regularized interactions that can regulate behavior. Two of the White Paper’s objectives – ensuring the safety of Australians and promoting and protecting international rules that support stability and prosperity – are contingent on the existence of a rules-based international order. Again, I am not saying here that we should all go rogue and do away with rules. What I am saying is that we should interrogate what we mean by a rules-based international order. Whose rules matter? Who rules over these rules? Who is the keeper of these rules?

The third foundation on which the White Paper is hinged on is its objective of promoting an open, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. Incidentally, the term Indo-Pacific these days is understood as part of the newly improved US strategy involving the Quad, a loose security dialogue between and amongst the United States, Australia, Japan, and India. Hence, Australia’s promotion of the Indo-Pacific is aligned with or subsumed under the aegis of the United States’ Asia strategy. This is not an Australian strategy, therefore. It is an American strategy that Australia is riding with and as such, logic dictates that the success of the US’ Asia strategy also spells the success of Australia’s promotion of an open, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. To add to this complexity, the White Paper is explicit in arguing that the stability in the Indo-Pacific depends as much on US-China relations. There is truth to this, that is undeniable, but it does make for a rather disempowering strategy because it relies heavily on variables that Australia has no control over.

In sum, the comprehensive framework set out in the 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper is contingent on the continuing functioning of three things: (1) a neoliberal system that props up (2) a rules-based international order and with the (3) United States at the center. Australia’s optimism is warranted, given that these are the constant variables for the past couple of decades. At the same time, however, this same optimism is suspect because the conservatism that is deep-rooted in the 2017 White Paper hopes that things will not change despite evidence to the contrary. This pro-status quo strategy will make it challenging for Australia to deal with countries that have expressed an unwillingness to subscribe to a US-led neoliberal and rules-based international order. Likewise, it will be tough to convince regional groupings of Australia’s role, given that Australia remains unclear about its own role in these arrangements. This calls for something major. The solutions that we have depended on and that have worked in the past no longer serve their purpose today, so we need not a reboot of the system, but an upgrade. An introspective examination of Australia’s identities, interests, and roles can play a critical role in improving relations with others and with the rest of the world.

Dr. Charmaine G. Misalucha is currently an Assistant Professor in the International Studies Department of De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines. Her areas of specialization are US-Southeast Asia relations, ASEAN, and regionalism. She was a Visiting Research Fellow under a Japan Foundation grant in the Osaka School of International Public Policy at Osaka University in Japan, as well as a recipient of the inaugural US-ASEAN Fulbright Program. She did her fellowship in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC. She received her PhD from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She is also a research fellow at Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation Inc. 

*Originally presented during the Second Philippine-Australia Dialogue: Security Dimensions of Comprehensive Partnership held on June 25-26, 2018 at Astoria Plaza, Pasig City.