Government and governance, International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World, Australia

24 November 2017

In this special Policy Forum Rapid Round-up, experts share their key takeaways from Australia’s new foreign policy White Paper. 

The Australian government has just released its first foreign policy White Paper since 2003. Much has changed in the last 14 years for Australian foreign affairs, from the growing power of China, global economic uncertainty, technological upheaval, and the election of Donald Trump. So what did the 2017 White Paper get right, where did it miss the mark, and what was neglected altogether? We asked the experts.


“While the Foreign policy White Paper makes a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of Australia’s international development assistance to our international engagement and influence, sovereignty and borders get a much stronger look-in than people and individuals.

“The paper speaks to many of the major challenges facing Australia over the next decade – such as disease pandemics, climate change and increasing displacement of people by humanitarian crises. However, these challenges will not be stopped by robust militaries or stronger borders. It is for this reason we need to widen our concept of security to include the security of individuals within states and the extent to which they live free from fear and violence.

“Equally critical is the role of women in conflict prevention and peacebuilding, but despite a strong focus on gender equality across our international development program, the White Paper fails to affirm Australia’s commitment to the women, peace and security agenda.

“The paper acknowledges that through our international development program Australia has a global role in responding to humanitarian crises, building peace, tackling climate change, and creating a world free from extreme poverty. However, this recognition of how our aid program contributes to delivering the overall goals of our global engagement needs to come with a revitalisation of resources for its implementation.

“The Australian Government needs to rebuild the funding for Australia’s aid program to bring it in line with our global commitments and commensurate with our status as a wealthy nation. We won’t be able to meet the priorities outlined in the paper if we don’t lift our aid budget from its current, historically low level.

“Good to see demographics being mentioned in the White Paper in several places. Rapid population ageing in North East Asia will have a significant influence on how their economies and societies evolve over coming decades. It is imperative to not only be aware of these demographic shifts, however, but also how they vary across countries. China, for example, is ‘getting old before rich’, where Japan is ‘getting old after rich’. This is important to the interaction of population ageing with the economy.

“The White Paper noted the significance to Australia and the region of the rise of China. However, it paid little more than lip service to Africa, whose collective economic emergence over coming decades may also have vast global ramifications.

“The accompanying engagement notes (PDF p19) were in this direction, especially one quote: “Our emphasis of the past 75 years of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific needs now to be matched with policy and strategic equivalence for the Indian Ocean region.” That links not only to the fact that this region is now home to some rapidly growing economies, but also youthful populations, which could interact to shape a powerful emerging middle class to Australia’s west. IORA, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, was noted only in the context of ties with India and maritime security. IORA may in future white papers attract more attention in the economic sphere also.

“At the University level, it was good to see the importance of the Education sector to Australia’s exports noted. Also reassuring to see the New Colombo Plan (NCP) given prominence, though related challenges were not discussed. For example, some emerging NCP study programs are scheduled as a short-summer intensive, and this can interrupt internship schedules that are also important to students’ future prospects.

“I hope that employers, universities and NCP administrators might collaborate to ensure that students participating in NCP activities are also able to undertake summer internships, upon their return from overseas study. This type of combination of workplace and international training will make for formidable graduates not only at the point of graduation but also over the entire career span when liaison with peers and customers in the region will be second nature for NCP alumni thanks to university-years interactions and the related network.

“The white paper’s heavy use of the entity ‘IndoPacific’ seems to position Australia as a sort of ‘middle kingdom’ between two important oceans, but itself risks exclusivity. The implicit categorisation of East Asian countries under the Pacific umbrella diminishes the heterogeneity recognition that is more explicitly captured in the less-encompassing Asia Pacific entity.”

The starvation of diplomacy

“A serious inadequacy of the White Paper appears to be the continuing imbalance between Australian diplomacy and defence. A major inadequacy in the paper is its high level of generality and lack of facts, concrete information and analysis. It reads more like propaganda than informed planning.

“There are, however, bits of information. In relation to diplomacy, we learn that the Government has opened or plans to open 12 new posts including in China, Indonesia, Columbia and Morocco. This is welcome but is unlikely to have addressed the severe underfunding of Australian diplomacy which has been repeatedly identified for the last decade.

“At the same time, the goal of 2 per cent of national income for defence is repeated, as usual without any rigorous rationale being stated for this arbitrary figure. The increase in military spending that this will require by 2020-21 is more than the total which is allocated at present to DFAT. Is this really the most cost-effective means of strengthening Australia’s security?

“Consistently with this starvation of diplomacy, the section on the United Nations is about half a page in length and is nothing more than supportive generalisations. Peacekeeping is mentioned once but the fact that Australia has only 31 defence personnel and no police serving in peacekeeping missions is not. Nor is the fact that Australia is now 84th in the list of troop and police contributing countries. How ironic for the country which was widely praised for having led the Security Council to adopt its first resolution on police peacekeepers in 2014.”

“The Foreign Policy White Paper: Opportunity, Strength and Security devotes a chapter to how Australia will address non-traditional security challenges such as terrorism, cyber and border security. While there is little new in the content, the White Paper brings together for the first time key security and migration policy statements that have been driving a range of initiatives, and elevates them to endorsed national priorities directing how all elements of the nation engage internationally.

“This is notable as it is the first clear and comprehensive strategic policy guidance on Australia’s approach to national security. And it provides a glimpse of what we might expect from the national security approach under the new Home Affairs portfolio.

“At a practical level, the White Paper provides useful guidance to Commonwealth, state, and territory government agencies and to business, and important messaging to Australia’s international partners.

“After a decade and a half of countering terrorism in Afghanistan and more recently the Middle East, the White Paper clearly established our region as the priority area for Australia’s counter-terrorism focus. Australia’s assistance to the Philippines to recapture Marawi and ongoing counter-terrorism engagement with Indonesia and other ASEAN partners now emerge as part of a conscious and broader plan for the long term.

“Australia will continue to play an active role in countering terrorism globally, with the Middle East and Africa affirmed as areas of ongoing interest, but the White Paper usefully frames this as part of a strategically-consistent continuum of local, regional and global action. This is a welcome development in a security environment that bears little regard for institutional divisions between foreign and domestic, government and business, and even the concept of the nation-state.

“Border security and countering organised crime are presented in similar fashion, noting the critical role of regional and global cooperation, with multilateral institutions brought to the fore as enablers to address these and other issues of international concern.

“It was expected and necessary that the new Foreign Policy White Paper would outline Australia’s approach to countering terrorism and other non-traditional threats. But the document goes beyond expectations to articulate values that provide the foundation for Australia’s national interest and use these as the basis for articulating a comprehensive approach to dealing with these challenges at home as well as abroad.”

Positives, but aid and development still siloed

“The Foreign Policy White Paper provided the opportunity for the government to finally articulate a vision for an integrated foreign policy inclusive of aid and development, which was the rationale cited for the abrupt abolition of independent aid agency AusAID in 2013. But very little in the White Paper has justified the integration of the aid program into DFAT — it continues to situate foreign aid and development as ancillary to wider foreign policy objectives, rather than a crucial component.

“The aid and development community was consulted through the White Paper process, and there are several sections touching on aid and development issues. But much of this was articulated when Foreign Minister Julie Bishop laid out her ‘new aid paradigm’ in 2014. There’s no problem with consistency in aid policy, but this seems a missed opportunity for vision and future planning.

“One very welcome announcement was the increase in Australia’s humanitarian funding to $500 million, and the reiteration of a focus on gender equality (“Australia’s foreign policy pursues the empowerment of women as a top priority”). My colleague Stephen Howes highlights some other pros and cons, particularly the very positive inclusion of Pacific labour mobility.

“Yet aid and development is clearly still seen as an add-on. For example, in the section on “People, Cities and Migration” there is not a single mention of the Sustainable Development Goals, which touch on nearly all the issues raised in the section (Goal 11 in particular). Conversely, the gender section mentioned above only lists development programs, with nothing from other areas of foreign policy (like trade or security policy) also sorely in need of equality initiatives. There are many other examples throughout the document of these missed opportunities to really integrate aid and development approaches with other foreign policy concerns. So it seems these silos are still very much silos.”

Russia in the White Paper

“For Russians, Australia is perceived as a Western democratic country which has taken a pragmatic turn to the East. The new White Paper shows the Indo-Pacific priority for Australia’s policy. Russia’s foreign policy concept highlights it has the same aspirations.

“However, the same approaches do not mean the same strategy. The image of Russia in the White Paper is largely negative, with the country presented as aggressive and volatile and refusing to act in ways consistent with international law. Russia’s actions in the eastern Ukraine have put the country in the same paragraph in the White Paper as North Korea and its nuclear crisis and Syria’s chemical weapons, and the White Paper also says that Australia “remains particularly concerned” by the downing of flight MH17 in 2014. This tragedy, until justice is served, might be an insurmountable obstacle for Australia and Russia to develop reliable cooperation.

“Another concern for Australia is Russian cyber threats, with the White Paper mentioning Russian cyber actors’ unacceptable interference in democratic processes during the 2016 US presidential election.

“The White Paper shows that Russia has plenty of work to do to restore its image. If it doesn’t, the negative perceptions will impact upon maintaining mutually beneficial partnerships. Even in those fields of non-harmful but prosperous scientific cooperation where Australia and Russia might have found common ground, Russia is not officially considered as a partner. Scientific cooperation regarding security in space and the outer space exploration, climate change and Antarctica should have been officially recognised opportunities for normalization of the relationship between the two countries.

“In this case, the potential of soft power and people-to-people interactions to maintain viable contacts seem hopeful and more realistic. Diplomatic corps, as well as non-state actors in Australia and Russia, should seek out opportunities to build relationships between the two countries. There is immense potential in cultural, science, and sports diplomacy for strengthening bilateral ties in the times of the multi-polar world.”

“The Foreign Policy White Paper aims to ‘chart a clear course for Australia at a time of rapid change.’ Unfortunately, it is ambivalence, rather than clarity, that defines its message on China, Australia’s largest trading partner.

“On the one hand, it states that Australia ‘is committed to strong and constructive ties with China.’ But at the same time, Canberra is deeply wary of China’s impact on the so-called rules-based order. Malcolm Turnbull claims that this order has served Australia and other countries (including China) well. If this is true (and I believe it is), then unless one assumes that China doesn’t know where its interests lie, an assumption which is both condescending and incredible, China must have been a keen rule-taker, if not a model follower, within this order. Certainly, Beijing does not always follow the rules (no country does), but it is a flawed logic to suggest that China at once benefits from and undermines the same rules-based order.

“Similarly, it is trite but simplistic to suggest that ‘China is challenging America’s position.’ Anyone familiar with US foreign policy in the past two decades would know that America’s position has been largely undermined by, among other things, terrorism and its ill-advised response to it. With Australia’s enthusiastic support, America’s War in Iraq did little to strengthen the rules-based order.

“China’s rise clearly presents challenges as well as opportunities. But the White Paper largely misreads the nature of its challenges. Its understandable concern about China notwithstanding, its prescribed policy response is deeply problematic and, if implemented, is likely to be counterproductive.”

“The security and stability of the Pacific Islands region is an enduring national interest of Australia and has been so since before Federation. Australian policy towards the region, therefore, is characterised by continuity and enjoys mostly bipartisan support.

“The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper once again commits Australia to close cooperation and ongoing development assistance to the Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste, while recognising key shifts in the region.

“The first is ‘increasing competition for influence and economic opportunities and influence in Papua New Guinea, other Pacific countries and Timor-Leste’, an oblique reference to the rise of China, whose soft loans have the potential to create unmanageable debts for Island countries such as Tonga.

“The second is climate change and the rising sea levels that threaten ‘low-lying atoll states’, with the promise that Australia, which a few years ago stopped its contribution to the Green Climate Fund, will assist Island countries to access that Fund and Australian aid as well in order to build resilience.

“The third is the proven value of labour mobility, where the government can rightly point to a considerable opening of access to our labour market on the part of Pacific Islanders and Timorese under the new Pacific Labour Scheme.

“And the fourth is the recognition that Australian can help in novel ways, such as testing pharmaceuticals for Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu in Australia.”

The Philippines in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper

“In the past decade Australia has grown closer to the Philippines, with a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement and an Australia-Philippines Comprehensive Partnership. Most recently two RAAF Orion aircraft provided surveillance assistance to the Philippine Armed Forces during the five-month takeover of Marawi City by violent extremists linked to Islamic State – leading IS in turn to label Australia the United States’ “guard dog” in their propaganda video about the Marawi clash.

“Thus, the 2017 White Paper discusses the challenges of countering terrorism and takes note of the subnational conflict in the southern Philippines that provides recruiting opportunities for extremists. Australia’s engagement both in development activities and in support of the peace process in Mindanao provide a platform to assist the Philippine government to implement previous peace agreements and so dry up the troubled water in which extremists fish.

“The White Paper reaffirms ‘that the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the Philippines South China Sea Arbitration is final and binding on both parties’ – despite China’s utter rejection of the ruling and the current Philippine administration’s disinterest in holding China to the ruling. This disinterest limits options for moderating Chinese activities in the SCS but the White Paper is correct to emphasise respect for international rules-based order.

“Given the White Paper’s emphasis on Australia’s values as a foundation for foreign policy, there are limits to how close the bilateral relation can be, since any talk of human rights is an anathema to the current Philippine administration. Skilful diplomacy will be necessary to advance shared bilateral interests in “Opportunity, Security, Strength” while avoiding the appearance of endorsing Philippine acts and rhetoric that offend liberal democratic values.”

“The foreign policy White Paper says all the right things. But the value of the paper will be determined by whether they’re put into action.

“Australia’s future prosperity depends on a prosperous and secure region, its citizens remaining safe, secure and free, emphatically rejecting protectionism, growing international opportunities for its businesses and an international system governed by rules.

“While the Export Council of Australia (ECA), like many, would prefer international trade to be opened by comprehensive, global agreements, we agree with the government’s assessment that these are unlikely and the next best option is plurilateral, regional and bilateral free trade agreements.

“Just sitting around in the World Trade Organization waiting for the world to magically liberalise trade is not an option. Like it or not, it’s a race to open up international markets. If Australia were to sit on the sidelines, we’d lose out. A regional free trade zone is a very worthy aspiration.

“In the foreign policy White Paper the government commits to many of the policy settings the ECA has called for in the past. These include: rejecting protectionism; developing a cohesive national brand that positions Australia as an ideal place to visit, invest in and buy from; and facilitating people-to-people connections, including through education, Aid for trade, the New Colombo Plan and better leveraging Australia’s alumni and expat network.

“While these are very worthy commitments, the next step will be to define how the commitments will be implemented. To truly deliver anything, the White Paper must be backed up with time, effort and money. And to truly make an impact, these commitments must be delivered in partnership with business.”

“While the foreign policy White Paper focuses more broadly on the Indo-Pacific, Indonesia came off rather awkwardly. On the one hand, the country’s inclusion–alongside Japan, India, and South Korea–as among Australia’s “Indo-Pacific partners” is a noteworthy step. This might represent Australia’s recognition of Indonesia’s potential as a regional power at a time of strategic flux in the age of Trump.

“But on the other hand, it is not clear how such “elevation” might work. For one thing, the specific goals of the Indo-Pacific partnership are undefined. Is it designed to “shape China”, as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said? If so, to what extent has Jakarta signed off on a platform that might put it on a collision course with Beijing?

“For another, the section on Indonesia does not offer a new way forward to leverage the bilateral relationship into a broader strategic partnership with region-wide effects. The focus on deepening bilateral ties and the reiteration of the Lombok Treaty and the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) suggest that sectoral agreements, rather than an overarching Strategic Partnership document, govern the relations.

“A Strategic Partnership–similar to what Indonesia has with US and China–might provide a long-term framework to leverage existing bilateral ties into a genuine Indo-Pacific partnership.”

“The foreign policy White Paper gives a huge run to the terminology of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as our primary international policy focus. The ANU National Security College’s Rory Medcalf pointed out four years ago in The American Interest that Australia was an early adopter: we were the first government to formally name the region ‘Indo-Pacific’ by employing the term in our 2013 defence White Paper.

“Rory did note, however, that US Vice President Biden, Secretary Clinton, and Assistant Secretary Campbell employed the term regularly when travelling, particularly to India, and that ‘Indo-Pacific’ had also been used by Prime Ministers Singh and Abe and a host of academics.

“President Trump in his recent Asian summit diplomacy used the term in preference to Asia-Pacific, but he got significant Chinese push back: the Chinese see ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a way of complicating China’s strategic domain, particularly by encouraging India to work more closely with Japan.

“Whether ‘Indo-Pacific’ is useful when discussing geopolitics can be debated, but it’s a very useful construct in the maritime context.

“And here I say ‘hats off’ to the foreign policy White Paper: there’s a serious recognition given to the importance of safeguarding maritime security and the oceans to advance our security, diplomatic and economic interests.

“This is evident in the discussion of key bilateral relations with India, Japan and Indonesia, but it’s also a very strong theme in the section on building a resilient Pacific (the islands get a place in the five objectives of fundamental importance to our security and prosperity), and the discussion of regional fisheries. Protecting the oceans gets special treatment in the chapter on global cooperation. It was useful to be reminded in a ‘box’ in the White Paper that we have sovereignty over 42 per cent of Antarctica, including sovereign rights over adjacent offshore areas.

“The White Paper usefully incorporates the view that the oceans around Australia are central to our future prosperity and security and that the seas are a bridge that links Australia with the world.”


“The ‘organising principle’ of the 2017 foreign policy White Paper is the importance of and commitment to a rules-based order. At the heart of that order lies the United Nations and “Australia is a principled and pragmatic member of the United Nations, contributing to its vital security, environmental and humanitarian endeavours” (p. 81).

“One of the most critical components of the UN-centred rules-based world order is the prohibition on the unilateral use of force to attack another country. Australia joined the US to do just that in Iraq in 2003. Most independent analysts hold it was an illegal war of aggression. Australia has never conducted a comprehensive inquiry into the politics of its war-making decision, is arguably still engaged in illegal combat operations in the Middle East and still preserves to the executive the anachronistic privilege of committing us to war without parliamentary debate and vote.

“The White Paper contains no hint of a fundamental re-think on why and how we would go to war in the future. On this vital issue the document is more of a whitewash than a White Paper, despite the acknowledged fact that, as power shifts away from the hitherto dominant West, strong rules that constrain the exercise of power contribute to global security and are becoming more important for Australia’s own national security (p. 82).

“Similarly on nuclear weapons, there are multiple references to North Korea’s challenge, a reaffirmation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a restatement of Australia’s reliance on US nuclear weapons for security – but no mention of the new UN ban treaty adopted by 122 countries.

“On 11 January 1962, in his “State of the Union” address, President John F. Kennedy described the bomb as having turned the world into a prison in which humanity awaits its execution. Nuclear risks have escalated dramatically and Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un – like Australia, opponents of the ban treaty – have increased the visibility of nuclear weapons and are normalising the possibility of use. The character and leadership flaws of these two ‘godfathers of the ban treaty’ have heightened global anxiety about nuclear peace being hostage to the quality of their decision-making.

“The ban treaty looks for security from, rather than in, nuclear weapons. Ignoring the new institutional reality of its existence is neither principled, pragmatic nor UN-friendly.”


“Challenges, unsurprisingly, fill the 2017 foreign policy White Paper. Gone is the language of projecting a confident Australia. Many of the 2003 White Paper challenges remain (i.e. terrorism and globalisation), but added to them are a more insistent China, a resurgent Russia, and a distracted and increasingly isolationist America. In this context, the 2017 White Paper signals a foreign policy that is “more active and determined” in shaping the region in line with Australia’s interests.

“China’s rise against America’s primacy in Asia stands out. The White Paper links the US and China in one unprecedented section entitled “The United States and China.” Once presented as the “China choice,” the 2017 White Paper makes a pick – the Australian-American “…alliance is a choice we make about how best to pursue our security interests.” Interestingly, while the security alliance is a choice, trade with the Chinese economy is not.

“Guarding against foreign interference makes a new and ominous appearance. The White Paper flags clandestine or deceptive means employed to affect Australia’s interests. Clearly alluding to Russia’s interference in the US election, the White Paper declares Australia “…will ensure that national decision-making and institutions remain free from foreign interference.””

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4 Responses

  1. Melanie James says:

    Thanks for this but why four men’s and one woman’s insights? Were women academic and industry leaders not approached? Unavailable? Undervalued regarding their possible insights? In light of studies such as this one some transparency regarding why some people’s insights are included and others’ are not would be welcome and appropriate. I appreciate the above insights, all worth reading, but this process is indicative of how power is wielded in academia and industry leadership.

    This blog post, for example, positions the authors in reader’s and other decision-makers’ minds as those worthy of having their insights sought and published in a reputable forum. This inclusion is another ‘tick’ on the authors’ cvs and helps grow their reputations, thus increasing the chance they will be asked again for insights in the future. This process brings prestige to both them and their institutions. This further positions them positively for future career progression and profile building.

    So what may seem like a benign process of having 80 percent of the insights provided by male authors, it is in fact quite malignant for women, who as we know, are underrepresented in senior academic, political and business leadership roles.

  2. Melanie James says:

    Not enough coffee obviously when I was adding up this morning! It’s even worse – five men and one woman providing insights.

  3. Policy Forum team says:

    Hi Melanie
    Thanks for your comment. We take the issue of gender representation on Policy Forum seriously, and we agree publishers should seek gender balance.

    The gender imbalance in your comment no longer reflects the ratio of male and female contributors to our rolling coverage of the White Paper.
    If the issue of women’s representation in academia, policymaking and the media is something you wish to explore further, Policy Forum would always welcome an article contribution from you (or others) on this topic.

    Policy Forum team

    • Melanie James says:

      Thank you for your response to my concerns re gender balance and it’s great to see more balance emerging as the commentaries are added. Thank you also for welcoming an article contribution on the issue of women’s representation in academia, policymaking and the media. This, although an issue for me and all women academics, is not my specific area of expertise.

      However, I’m working with European science diplomacy expert Professor Luk van Langenhove ( on some research examining how science diplomacy is being positioned, especially from a strategic communication perspective, in both the consultation submissions to the white paper process and now the White Paper itself.

      It is notable that although identified as an area of strategic priority for DFAT there was only one mention of the term itself in the White Paper, and just three paragraphs (pp. 123-4) specifically on Science and Research. It is clear that references to actions (and rhetoric) related to scientific collaboration and implementation are scattered throughout other sections of the White Paper; such activities increasingly being identified as related to or comprising ‘science diplomacy’. What is unclear at present from the White Paper is whether development of a science diplomacy strategy will remain an identified priority for DFAT.

      I note in Dr Olga Krasnyak’s contribution above the concerns about Russia not being officially considered as a partner in scientific collaboration with Australia and the potential for science diplomacy, along with cultural and sports diplomacy “for strengthening bilateral ties in the times of the multi-polar world.”

      I would be most interested to see your rolling coverage include insights from Australia’s leading institutions in the science arena, especially the Australia Academy of Science. Its submission to the public consultation process had as the first of the seven recommendations made:

      “The Academy recommends that the Foreign Policy White Paper recognise the importance of the use of science as part of Australia’s diplomacy, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).”

      I feel quite confident that you no doubt have such contributions in the pipeline. Thanks.
      Melanie James

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