The indications are that Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop will pursue a pragmatic foreign policy at times sharpened with pointed statements setting out national interest objectives. This carries some risk because every high -profile effort to define Australia's position potentially puts us at odds with competing powers in Asia. The challenge for the government is to be clear about its big picture aspirations.
Bishop's Washington speech points to the difficulties Australia faces in setting out its interests in a region that is becoming more competitive. She says that China's constructive involvement in the region is essential for peace and security, but repeats her criticism of Beijing's unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea.
On Japan - "Australia's best friend in Asia," according to Abbott – Bishop criticises Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine as "bringing to the fore unresolved tensions".
Bishop subtly rebukes the US over its management of the Edward Snowden intelligence leaks. Noting President Barack Obama's review of signals intelligence, she points to the "well-established oversight regime in Australia" and reminds the Obama administration that "we must be prepared to make the public case" for intelligence collection.
Welcome to the complexities of Australia's region, where close friends can make tactical blunders and important economic partners threaten the underlying order of security.
Closer to home, the government's approach to Indonesia over boats and on the Snowden leaks has also been driven by a mix of pragmatism and principle. Tony Abbott's refusal to apologise over reported intelligence gathering was criticised by some, but reflected a truthful appreciation of how governments with the capacities to do so will gather intelligence. On the other hand, the government's quick apology over a navy incursion into Indonesian waters showed a pragmatic appreciation that it was best to own up to the error and move on.
The big challenge for the government is how to navigate a course through an increasingly complicated strategic outlook. Three important policy steps must be taken. First, the
government needs to recognise that our region, broadly defined, is becoming less stable, more competitive and the level of risk is rising.
This is in complete contrast to the strategic assessment of Julia Gillard's January 2013 National Security Strategy which identified a "relatively benign global landscape". The passage of twelve months and more overt tensions in north Asia show how fast the strategic landscape is changing.
The second policy step, already well under way, is for the government to distance itself from the unrealistic focus of the Asian Century White Paper. That document narrowed the focus of our foreign policy interests too much. Australia cannot pursue a meaningful foreign policy only by stressing ties with China, Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia, as critically important as they are. Instead we need to diversify our ties and our economic interests to a much greater extent and to accept that we have a stake in the performance of the US and Europe as well as emerging markets in Africa and Latin America.
Third, to give coherence to a broader, more diversified foreign policy, the government should develop a new Foreign Policy White Paper setting out a practical strategy to promote our interests globally. Such an approach helps to structure the reactive business of diplomacy and forces governments to think their way through the agenda they want to promote. In the absence of their preferred strategy, the government's foreign policy efforts will be judged through the lens of the Asian Century White Paper. It's time to change the lens.
Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. This article was originally published on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's website 29 January.