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Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull is using the G20, APEC and the East Asia Summit to find the building blocks of a new foreign and security policy for Australia, writes Rory Medcalf in the Australian Financial Review.

Kulhanek group photo

Image by Veni on Flickr

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's world tour was meant to be a bright season of summitry: a chance to bring Australia's voice to three grand councils of leaders, the G20, APEC and the East Asia Summit.

Instead, it looks like it has turned into a serial initiation into the world's woes – from carnage in Paris to chaos in Syria to the international tensions in the South China Sea – and Australia's limited capacity to do much about them. But there is a third and more constructive way to characterise the past week.

It has been a whirlwind of readiness: gathering the building blocks a Turnbull government will need for the cohesive, balanced, effective and principled set of foreign and security policies that suit Australia in an uncertain world.

In this era of unprecedented connectedness, Australia's interests will continue to grow faster than its ability to protect or advance them single-handedly.

No island is an island anymore. Australia's future rests on lifelines with the world – flows of people and wealth, information and energy. All this places a premium on partnerships.

Mr Turnbull's travels have been a chance to rapidly refresh most of the foreign relationships that really matter to us, including with Indonesia, the United States, China, Japan, India and Europe.

In each case, the Prime Minister has seized these opportunities to establish the leadership rapport he will need to craft initiatives and manage differences.

Thankfully he was able to reset relations with Indonesian President Widodo before the shadow of the Paris atrocities, allowing a new phase of Australia-Indonesia relations to begin in a framework much larger than counter-terrorism.

Wider vision of engagement

That essential security collaboration – now bound to grow – will be all the more effective for being part of a wider vision of engagement between two very different democracies.

The prime minister may have set foot on the world stage with an agenda to reposition Australia on the winning side of disruptive economic and technological change.

Commendably, he has not cast aside this narrative in the face of strategic shocks. Instead, he should continue to reconcile it with those security challenges, to reflect the fact that economic weight, innovation, societal cohesion and national resilience all go hand-in-hand with a country's ability to defend its interests and uphold its principles.

Certainly this was the flavour of his joint remarks with President Obama on Wednesday. Here the need to fight the appeal of radicalisation at home and safeguard national infrastructure against cyber security threats featured alongside more immediate concerns about the military campaign against Daesh (the Arabic acronym of IS) and the impetus for a political solution in Syria.

Perhaps one of the many insights the Prime Minister is likely to bring back from his voyage through the global crosswinds is the need for Australia to see, manage and communicate its security and foreign policy interests in an integrated way.

This sounds obvious, but it has been years since an Australian government has attempted to outline a holistic vision of how security and foreign policy fit with one another or indeed with the national interest.

The Gillard government's largely forgotten 2013 National Security Strategy may have pulled punches – it refused to say that our security environment was deteriorating. But at least it offered a framework for national priorities in a world where Australia cannot do everything.

Turnbull has inherited substantial work from his predecessor on defence and cyber security that could, without drastic reinvention, see light as important policy documents. Before long, however, his government would do well to embed those in a more comprehensive statement of strategy about securing Australia's place and interests in the world.

Immediate measure of vision

One immediate measure of vision will be how the Prime Minister approaches the final of the present series of leaders' meetings, the 18-nation East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur this weekend.

Critics of this forum, which marks its 10th birthday as an annual meeting in an increasingly contested Asia, fail to grasp that these are still early days in diplomat years. The very existence of the EAS – including Australia, India and the United States as well as definitively East Asian countries – allows an inclusive dialogue about the strategic future of a shared Indo-Pacific region.

This reflects the fact that China's interests and power are expanding in a principally maritime region too large for any one nation to dominate. The EAS incorporates China – as the region should – yet dilutes its influence. It is entirely the right forum to address, for instance, tensions in the South China Sea, the core Indo-Pacific and everybody's business.

Nothing is to stop a leader from using the summit for more than the usual set-piece exchanges, to drive a dynamic and open conversation – unmediated by officials – about strategic problems and ways forward.

The time is right for Australia to play a lead role in initiatives to strengthen this institution and give it some real capacity – not only to host security dialogue involving great powers, but also to hold them, however gracefully, to account.


This article was first published by the Australian Financial Review on 20 November 2015.

Updated:  14 December 2015/ Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/ Page Contact:  Web administrator, National Security College