What would Owen Harries do?

Tom Switzer

02 July 2020 | Financial Review

Australia is a typical middle power that benefits from the status quo in the region. We want to keep enjoying the best of both worlds: unconstrained trade with China under the US security umbrella.

Anything that disturbs that regional equilibrium is self-evidently not in our national interest. This has been the Canberra policy consensus for generations.

However, as the Prime Minister observed on Wednesday, we confront a “new and less benign strategic era”, one that is “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly”.

As a result, Australia needs to “sharpen our focus on our region and enhance our capability”. Hence the new Force Structure Plan strategic policy that puts regional adversaries on notice that we will respond with force if needed.

Australian strategic planners are looking at the elephant in the room. As China converts its economic might into military might, Beijing will seek a strategic sphere of influence on which its future prosperity and security depends.

Nothing odd about that: all great powers play hard ball to protect their vital interests in their near abroad. This is tragic, but it is the way the world works, and always has.

Nor it is surprising that the US, as the global hegemon, will go to great lengths to stop China from dominating east Asia. It is now widely believed that Washington – whoever wins November’s presidential election – will form a coalition of states (from India to Indonesia, and Vietnam to Japan) to contain or, as former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Peter Varghese suggests, “engage and constrain” China.

Viewed through the Harries prism, Australia will need to be more agile, flexible and nuanced in our strategic thinking.

So, what should Australia do?

Owen Harries – the Welsh-born Australian academic, senior Fraser government adviser and diplomat, Washington-based National Interest editor — was a smart, sound and exceptionally honest foreign policy thinker who, alas, will no longer be around to prick our intellectual balloons. He died last week at age 90.

According to Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Harries was “one of the architects of Australia’s modern foreign policy” who “left an indelible mark on Australia’s place in the world”. As a close friend and student of Harries for the past 25 years, let me suggest how his world view could help navigate the novel foreign policy terrain.

First, as Harries highlighted in his 2003 ABC Boyer lectures, focus on the region. After all, Australia is a large continent to defend. It exists in a region characterised by increasing volatility and rising uncertainty. As by far the most powerful state in the south-west Pacific, we assume responsibility for stability in some of the smaller nations of the region.

To meet these commitments, and focus on any regional threats to our north, Australia will rightly spend 2 per cent of our GDP on defence. We have an army of only 30,000. In these circumstances, it makes no sense to engage in the kind of serious military campaigns beyond our region as we did in the disastrous Iraq mission in 2003. As Harries often warned: “Punching above one’s weight may be a sense of pride, but it is also hazardous and a form of activity best avoided.”

Second, China is, today, a country pumped up on nationalism, busily asserting itself around the region. Its leader Xi Jinping is increasingly autocratic. There is very little that any outside actor can do to influence internal changes.

So the more that Australia presses for access, the more anxious it shows itself to be for influence, the more Canberra will be seen as desperate. Again, as Harries warned, a relationship in which all the courting and concessions are made by one party is not healthy or sensible. So far, both sides of Australian politics recognise this new reality.

Third, proceed cautiously with respect to the US. One of the serious effects of the Wilsonian misadventures in the Middle East is that they have shown the limitations of America’s vast military. Instead of committing a large presence to three main theatres — Asia, Europe and the Persian Gulf — Washington should reorder strategic priorities in favour of our region where a rising power genuinely threatens the peace and order.

At the same time, the US is experiencing a crisis of confidence and is utterly divided. There is more wrong with America than Donald Trump, Harries recognised, and it is evident, that the toxic polarisation around the country is the norm. If the US can’t bounce back from its traumas, the perception of weakness will grow with potentially troubling consequences for Australia.

All this means that, viewed through the Harries prism, Australia will need to be more agile, flexible and nuanced in our strategic thinking. Australia is a considerable presence in the south-east Asian context, in which China and the US have a deep interest, and we should exploit balance-of-power politics to our advantage.

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