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Australia 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper

By Ariane Combal-Weiss

8 December 2017


A new foreign policy white paper, published on 23 November 2017, highlights Australia’s growing security dilemma of having to navigate a course between an unpredictable US and a more assertive China. In his introduction to the white paper, Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull, called on Australia to be “sovereign not reliant” and “take responsibility for [its] own security and prosperity while recognising [it is] stronger when sharing the burden of collective leadership with trusted partners and friends”.


The white paper focuses on power shifts in the Indo-Pacific region, constraints on global growth, technological change, migrating flows, terrorism and climate change as the main challenges for Canberra. It points to the US retreat from the regional security and trade architecture and China’s rise as the main grounds for concerns. In response, it aims to deliver on three fronts, “opportunity, security and strength”.


The paper expresses concern with the decline of American leadership in the region, which is deemed as vital to its core interests and regional stability. It calls for a sustained US commitment in the Indo-Pacific region.


On China, the paper calls for upgrading the bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership while noting that Beijing’s growing assertiveness is challenging Australian interests both at home and in the region.[1] China’s activities in the South China Sea[2] are condemned and the binding nature of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling restated. The paper also implicitly hints at China’s interference in Australian academic and political activities.


Caught between the US and China, Australia must ensure that economic tensions between them do not undermine the global trading system. It suggests a hedging strategy based on increased engagement with other regional stakeholders to balance against China and to find alternative to its ties with the US. Under a network-centric approach to regional security, Australia should forge stronger partnerships with Indonesia, South Korea, Japan and India to promote a free and democratic Indo-Pacific region.


Some Australian analysts consider this option as not consistent and substantive enough to replace the US alliance system.[3] Experts also diverge on the extent to which the Australian government has assessed the whole multifaceted implications that the shifting security environment could have on Australian interests.[4] Professor Hugh White (ANU) argues that the re-establishment of the US engagement in the Indo-Pacific is wishful thinking. He calls on Australian government to find concrete and realist solutions to cope with American retreat and rising Chinese influence. Another criticism to the paper focuses on the lack of support to the UN system. While FM Bishop seems to be strongly advocating the rules-based international order, it devotes very little to the benefits Australia can draw from its strategic engagement in the UN.[5]


The white paper has been widely dissected in Beijing and Washington. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang criticised Australia for its “irresponsible remarks” about China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, while describing Sino-Australian ties as “constructive” and “strong”.[6] The response from the Chinese Defence Ministry was even sharper, as its spokesperson Wu Qian categorized the white paper comments on the South China Sea issue as “carping” and urged Australia to stop interfering in this dispute, as it only complicates its resolution. The Party-sponsored tabloid Global Times spoke of “wariness toward China” and the “little” gratitude Canberra shows towards Beijing. Yet, following the launch of the White Paper, some Chinese officials, including the Chinese Ambassador to Canberra Cheng Jingye gave a positive appraisal of the bilateral relationship.


In Washington, there was little public comment. The US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Matthews simply reaffirmed US readiness to work with Australia to uphold order in the Indo-Pacific, building on shared liberal and democratic values.[7]


And where does the EU stand? The white paper views the EU as a strong and reliable like-minded partner for Australia’s promotion of a rules-based international order. Canberra should increase cooperation with the EU on four main transnational challenges, i.e. terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), sustainable development and human rights. While the Indo-Pacific region rightly prevails in Australia’s foreign policy priorities, the EU and Australia still have several avenues of cooperation to build on. The upcoming negotiations on a new political and economic partnership, including an FTA, should be a boost to a stronger EU-Australia partnership.

[1] “Navigating the decade ahead will be hard because, as China’s power grows, our region is changing in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history.” In: Australian Government, 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper – Opportunity, Security, Strength, 23/11/2017.

[2] “Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities. Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes.” In: Australian Government, 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper – Opportunity, Security, Strength, 23/11/2017.

[3] Michael Clarke and Matthew Sussex, “Australia must get used to a new order with China as a major player”, South China Morning Post, 01/12/2017. URL:

[4] Tony Walker, “Australia's foreign policy white paper shows there's a change underway in global power”, Business Insider, 25/11/2017. URL:

[5] Sally Weston, “Foreign Policy White Paper: the UN on the periphery”, The Interpreter, 28/11/2017. URL:

[6] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang's Regular Press Conference on November 23, 2017. URL:

[7] John Kehoe, “Trump administration backs Australia white paper”, Financial Review, 27/11/2017. URL: