Shangri-La Dialogue: Australia failed to play full role in vital maritime debate
Canberra has missed an important chance to sell our defence white paper and shape the region's most important discussion, writes Rory Medcalf.
A contest far more consequential than the Australian election took the stage in Singapore at the weekend, and Australia missed a chance to influence it.
Many national defence ministers spoke out at the leading regional security forum, the Shangri-La Dialogue. They advocated a rules-based order in Asia, in the face of the worsening tensions in the South China Sea and the impending decision by an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague on maritime differences between China and the Philippines.
It was quite the roll-call. The US, Japan, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, France, Britain and Canada: all broadly in step in arguing for the interests of smaller powers to be respected, in messages clearly aimed at China.
This was an embodiment of the "principled security network" that US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter called for in his keynote speech – a network China can choose to join or reject.
Unfortunately, Defence Minister Marise Payne was not there – the first time in the summit's 15-year history that an Australian minister has not used this platform.
To be fair, the tightly fought election campaign was plainly the reason. Friends in fellow democracies presumably understood. Moreover, Australia was well represented in the summit's bilateral meetings by the Chief of Defence Force as well as top foreign affairs and intelligence officials.
Even so, these are not normal times in regional security and Australia's voice matters.
Trump's erratic shadow
Australia has an important story to tell about its new defence white paper – which, ironically, underscores the need for much better defence-related diplomacy. And there are real expectations for Australia to show solidarity with regional partners and support for shared principles such as freedom of navigation and overflight.
After all, anxieties among our many fellow powers in the middle are not just about Chinese military modernisation, assertiveness and unilateralism.
They are also about American reliability in the erratic shadow of Donald Trump, with his daft and dangerous message about allies such as Japan and South Korea fending for themselves, if need be by breaking treaties and making their own nuclear weapons.
Defence Secretary Carter was determined to pre-empt such uncertainty with well-pitched remarks about the enduring US commitment to Asia and encouragement of the web of ties allies and partners are building among themselves.
Australia drew special mention, not least for creative diplomacy in forging closer links with Japan, India, Singapore and others. He didn't say it, but these middle power coalitions are the seeds of a hedge against the bad possibilities of Chinese efforts to dominate a region in which America's credibility faces doubt.
Notably, in Australia's absence, it was these and other powers that stepped up to confirm the view that our shared Indo-Pacific region is unashamedly multipolar in character, and not a lake for some imagined "G2" of China and the US.
Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar picked up the Australian-championed concept of the Indo-Pacific – the fact that the two oceans are now one strategic system, with China now active in the Indian Ocean. He emphasised India was "acting East" and looking to deepen partnership with the US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam.
Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani stressed his country's reliance on a rules-based order and like-minded partnerships. He emphasised Australia, without a hint of the deep disappointment in Tokyo over the recent decision against buying Japanese submarines. This reminds us of how shared Australian and Japanese security interests have become.
More surprising still was the presence and the points made by powers geographically distant from Asia.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who affirmed that France now saw Asia as the Indo-Pacific, was forthright in support of freedom of navigation. He said that the French Navy would continue to be present in regional waters, and called for greater co-ordination of EU navy activities in Asian waters.
He also declared an ambition to make the Australia-France relationship a true strategic partnership, with submarine-building just one convergent interest.
And even while Britain and Canada speak of a "golden age" of economic relations with Beijing, their ministers underscored the need to balance this with directness and independence in favour of a rules-based system.
But all ears were on the US and Chinese speeches, especially once Carter openly warned China its militarised island-building in the South China Sea could become a "Great Wall of self-isolation".
The metaphor hit a nerve. The next day, Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo insisted that China was not isolated in regional diplomacy. Yet there was plenty of evidence to the contrary in the barrage of questions from many other nationalities in the room.
Admiral Sun's tone was strident – perhaps because his speech was broadcast live for audiences at home. But elsewhere there were reminders that Beijing's policies are not set in stone: one Chinese general told a side-meeting that internal debate was "ongoing" about what China's notorious "9-dash line" claim around the South China Sea actually means.
Whether the future of those waters is about conflict, coercion or conciliation, it will affect the world profoundly. There is every reason for every country to seize every opportunity to shape it.
Professor Rory Medcalf is head of the National Security College at the Australian National University and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute. This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review and is reproduced here with permission.