Less than three years ago, Australians elected as their leader the wonkish, Mandarin-speaking former diplomat Kevin Rudd, who initially impressed (but subsequently disappointed) voters with his policies toward Asia and in particular China. And yet, in the prime-ministerial race between incumbent Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott, foreign policy issues were wiped off the agenda in favor of entirely domestic concerns such as returning the budget to surplus and the establishment of a publicly funded National Broadband Network. The closest things to foreign policy were a promise by both sides to crack down on asylum seekers and pledges to pursue a “sustainable” population program, implying a slowdown in immigration. What has changed?
To many Asians, the parochial nature of the election—the only one since the early 1970s that has not offered a credible foreign policy vision—signaled a retreat to a “fortress Australia” mentality that the country had apparently long abandoned. In truth, it’s more indicative of the leadership’s fear of making missteps amid the uncertainty over what the great shift of power from the Atlantic to the Pacific means for Australia. To be sure, there was a good tactical reason why this election was fought along parochial lines: the crucial marginal seats were generally situated in inland suburban and rural areas, where pocketbook issues matter most. But, above all, it was Rudd’s foreign policy failings and the subsequent impact on his domestic standing that convinced the current crop of leaders that foreign affairs were best left off campaign checklists.
Rudd raised expectations in both Canberra and Beijing that his knowledge of China would usher in a new era of Sino-Australian cooperation. His Asia-Pacific Community (APC) idea was also meant to entrench clever and innovative Australian middle-power activism in the region. But the price of courting China was a move further away from traditional allies like Japan—and for naught. Relations with China under Rudd’s watch actually reached their worst levels in a generation, following disagreement over issues such as the arrest of the Rio Tinto executive and Australian Stern Hu and an Australian defense white paper that named China as a potential security threat in the future. The APC was meanwhile overwhelmingly rebuffed by the region (and the U.S.) due to the plan’s misreading of Asia’s existing security dynamics, which rely on a combination of multilateral talk shops and the presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. At home, the PM’s reputation deservedly suffered.
Both Gillard and Abbott took careful note of Rudd’s blundering, and formed the view that a foreign policy manifesto would gain, at most, a few votes in the marginal seats—at the risk of losing many more votes if they got their respective manifestos wrong. In a country that remains deeply divided on almost every major foreign policy question, the chance of misreading the popular mood was high. China’s rise, for example, has led to a widening gulf between strategic thinkers (who have become increasingly suspicious of China’s intentions) and business elites (who view China as the savior of Australia’s commodities-dependent economy). This is causing periodic swings in popular opinion from pro-China to anti-China and back again depending on unfolding arguments and events. There are other deep rifts over Australia’s broader role in Asia, on action to tackle climate change and on responses to issues like Japanese whaling.
However, while candidates sidestepped foreign policy for the sake of a few marginal seats, Australians as a whole are more interested in the world than they are given credit for. Large numbers would like more say in foreign policy (two-thirds and growing, according to domestic surveys), and discussion about changes in the region, in particular the rise of China, is intense and widespread.
Much of Asia and the world continues to see an insouciant, insular nation, genially arrayed at beaches and in backyards, not caring a whit for the world beyond the barbecue. Australians, on the other hand, mostly regard their country as smart and constructive, punching above its weight in international affairs. At the same time, an increasing number are becoming uneasy over economic and political shifts in the region that are beyond their influence. The lack of debate between Australia’s prospective leaders over the significance of those shifts means that fears of irrelevance and exclusion look set to grow.