UKRAINE FALLOUT-[Australia and the new world disorder]

Last Updated:2022-09-09

It’s hard to imagine how bizarre it would have seemed just one year ago for a new Australian prime minister to be making a speech in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, or visiting the nearby town of Bucha.

During the past forty years, a new Australian prime minister would have been expected to visit several major Asian capitals and Washing-ton, if not London, to open their account. Malcolm Fraser was the first to begin his term with visits to Tokyo and Beijing, before visiting Wash-ington and London. He was a leader of his time and understood how important Asia had become for Australia’s future.

While Albanese visited Tokyo for a multilateral meeting and Jakarta for a long- programmed ministerial meeting, the first discre-tionary bilateral visit of his term was Paris, followed by Ukraine. And that was after he was the first Australian leader to attend a NATO summit meeting. This underscores how much, and how suddenly, the world order has changed, including for Australia, with the return of war to the European continent.

Yet Russia’s invasion is both symptomatic of the changed order and a product of it. Russia did what it did because it could. Moreover, it has not flinched in the face of massive, coordinated Western sanctions. With the rise of China and authoritarian states being more assertive in the face of declining US influence, multipolarity has returned. And the war in Europe will leave China in a stronger position, even as it unifies the West. This is something Canberra has largely failed to recognise or, if it has, to respond to creatively.

China arrives

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has brought to a juddering halt the nar-rative that the last vestiges of the old rules- based order could still peacefully guide the relations between states, while underpinning eco-nomic integration between them.

The rules- based order has long been under challenge. Iron-ically, its greatest defender has often been its greatest threat. The United States has flouted the rules with impunity when its interests didn’t align. The illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq in 2003 was just one of many episodes. The message to authoritarian regimes is that there are different standards for different states, and ultimately might is right.

The Trump administration took this to a reckless level, most nota-bly with its attacks on the WTO. The effort to undermine the rules- based trading system by refusing to appoint new Appellate Body judges has continued under the Biden administration. The historical irony is that, of all the trade mechanisms laboriously negotiated during the seven years of the Uruguay Round of multilateral talks, none reflected US interests more than the WTO dispute settlement system. Designed and pushed by the United States, it introduced a form of black- letter law into the international trade system that had never been seen before. It was the chapeau of the rules- based order.

But it was not just America that weakened the order it had created and led. Long before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the world’s unipolar moment had ended. China’s rise meant that another great power could challenge US primacy, not directly through military engagement, but through its economic weight, technology and diplomacy.

From the early 2010s, during Obama’s second term, the US’s stance towards China changed from cooperation to competition. Obama announced the “Pivot to Asia”, but, beyond the rhetorical flourish, it lacked substance. Perhaps the first clear indicator of the US’s change of approach occurred in 2014 when it openly opposed China’s initiative to create the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and urged allies not to join.

The episode was the first time an Australian government had been confronted with an explicit choice between the United States and China, a choice which successive governments believed they would never be asked to make. Until then, Australia had supported China’s efforts to reform the Bretton Woods institutions of the IMF and World Bank, despite resistance from the US and the Europeans. These institutions were increasingly looking anachronistic. They were unable to take account adequately of how the balance of economic power had changed irrevocably with the rise of China, of East Asia and the emerging market economies. Australia had led the push for reform, as the former treasurer Peter Costello stated in 2007, because it believed in “the need to recognise the growing economic weight of . . . key countries in the Asian region”.

Initially, Australia, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, also wel-comed China’s initiative to create the AIIB. Australia had been the first developed country China consulted on membership. The two coun-tries were also well advanced in their negotiation of a bilateral FTA.

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew a line in the sand on China over the AIIB. Enormous pressure was applied to coun-tries such as Australia, Japan and Canada not to join. The Australian Cabinet was split. Six months later, the Abbott government reluctantly joined. By then, most European states had joined, diminishing Austra-lia’s potential influence as an early mover. It would be the last occasion on which Australia supported a Chinese- led economic or diplomatic initiative.

Within China, the US’s opposition to the AIIB reinforced the con-viction that the United States would always oppose China’s sharing in global leadership. In a rare act of contrition, the US’s principal, or at least self- proclaimed, architect of the “Pivot”, Kurt Campbell, now President Biden’s Indo- Pacific affairs coordinator, conceded in his 2016 memoir that Washington’s position on the AIIB had been a mistake.

Whether China’s behaviour towards other states would have been different had the US embraced its initiatives – especially the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – more constructively is of course moot. China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the South China Sea predates the elevation of Xi Jinping and his adoption of more authoritarian policies, suggesting China would have flexed its new- found weight in the world regardless of provocations from the US.

As Hugh White argued in his 2012 book, The China Choice, Amer-ica would have to choose how to respond to China’s rise and to the inevitable challenge to its status as the dominant power in a unipo-lar order. He foresaw that the US- led order did not have long to last. It could try to resist and contain China’s rise – a course that he thought would be futile – or find a way to share regional hegemony with China.

As is usual for dominant powers throughout history, the US chose to resist, with seriously adverse implications for Australia’s relations with China. Australia did not just follow the US into this policy dead- end, but became a leading champion of it. Gratuitously offending China became a badge of honour in Australian policy circles and among Coa-lition MPs. It became, as in the Cold War, a test of loyalty. No other country behaved this way or made their relationship with China the barometer of their patriotism.

As Xi set aside the decades- old guidance from Deng Xiaoping – “hide one’s strength, bide one’s time” – in favour of a more assertive, muscular foreign policy, his signature initiative, the BRI, became the organising principle for China’s dealing with states. The US rejected this and Australia followed suit. Security circles in both Washington and Canberra continue to see the BRI as an attempt to impose a China- centric order on the world that had to be resisted. The multipolar order was rapidly taking shape.

Dual orders emerge

In the five years leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US increasingly contested China’s rise through restrictions and scrutiny of their actions across the spectrum of trade, investment, technology transfer, infrastructure (does anyone remember the Blue Dot initia-tive?), cyber, outer space and, of course, military. China, for its part, also challenged America.

Before the COVID -19 pandemic, which, to the shock of many Western politicians, revealed the depth of industrial linkages in global supply chains, the Trump administration was advocating “decoupling”. This reached a crescendo when the extent of the West’s dependency on China for surgical masks and other equipment suddenly became appar-ent. Domestic concerns were turning politicians against globalisation. This was no less true in Australia under the Morrison government than in Trump’s America, despite the fact that Australia had been a major beneficiary, and hence champion, of globalisation.

China’s position on decoupling was: “bring it on”. Xi Jinping ’s policy of “dual circulation” was adopted formally in May 2020 but had been under discussion for some time. Effectively it restated the pri-macy of self- reliance and import substitution. Decoupling would also reduce China’s dependence on the West and exposure to moralising on human rights. A key element in the US’s position was technological and scientific competition, and accordingly China began massively expand-ing its investment in knowledge- based industries.

Decoupling fed into Xi’s hardening anti- Western narrative. This moved beyond the familiar “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign occupiers and presented a US- led grand strategy to keep China down, deny proper recognition of its achievements over the past thirty years, and deny the party- state a place as a legitimate leader of world affairs. China was to be second to America, if not subservient. The anti- Western narrative was heightened following COVID and has become a defining aspect of Xi’s rule.

The overconfidence and hubris of China’s leaders during this time found expression in “wolf warrior” diplomacy, where Chinese diplomats, led by their minister, Wang Yi, seemed to go out of their way to offend and belittle foreign officials or media who dared to crit-icise China. Wolf warrior diplomacy may be attributed as much to the pervasive influence of social media in China as to deliberate policy choices, especially as the official media has become more tightly controlled. Xi’s anti- Western narrative, however, has created a con-ducive context for aggressive diplomacy, and rampant nationalism on the internet. Both were allowed to run without check and fed off each other.

During 2022, wolf warrior diplomacy has been replaced by more acceptable diplomatic language and behaviour, though considerable damage to China’s foreign relations has been done, especially among Western governments and public opinion. The Lowy Institute’s 2022 poll found that public trust in Australia towards China has fallen to 12 per cent, from 52 per cent in 2018. No matter what China does, it is likely to take a generation for these attitudes to shift, if they can be shifted at all.

Possibly the biggest negative impact has been in Europe. Previ-ously, most European states endeavoured to maintain positive relations with China while avoiding being drawn into the developing China–US rivalry. That has now changed. The European Union and most member states warn of the dangers of becoming too close to China and of the threat China poses to open democratic societies. In 2020 the Euro-pean Union, for the first time, classified China as a risk to European values and liberal political systems. In June 2022 at the Madrid NATO summit, China was mentioned for the first time in NATO’s revised security assessment. It was described as a “systemic competitor” that challenged NATO’s “interests, security and values”.

The re- evaluation of Western relationships with China has coincided with the passing of the Trump administration. The Biden administration has sought to restore relations across both the Atlan-tic and the Pacific, which were badly damaged under Trump, including with NATO, and has bolstered ties with India, Japan, South Korea and Australia. The administration has also sought to alter regional partner-ships, such as the Quad, and has supported the ill- conceived AUKUS security arrangement. The latter is a curious anachronistic grouping of three Anglophone countries. It is unclear what the UK, now searching for relevance post- Brexit, can bring to East Asian security.

For domestic political reasons, US trade arrangements continue to be a lacuna in all this active diplomacy. The Biden administration has continued Trump’s policy of not joining the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP-11), and undermining the WTO’s effectiveness. Meanwhile, China has worked with regional countries to strengthen trade arrangements, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and has applied to join TPP-11, something which Australia is resisting, no doubt at the behest of the US.

Arch realist international theorist John Mearsheimer believes mil-itary conflict between the US and China is the most likely outcome from the massive and rapid power shift that has occurred from the US to China. He does, however, concede that war is not inevitable and that a degree of equilibrium in a multipolar world could be based on what he terms “bounded” orders. A bounded order consists of shared values, norms, institutions, trade and investment flows that lead to countries coalescing around a dominant central power. One of these is the US and, of course, the other is China. In a world of “bounded” orders, the leading powers are sometimes in competition with each other and at other times cooperate.

Since the mid- 2000s, China has been fashioning an order that reflects its weight in the world. It is not seeking to replace existing institutions it views as serving its own interests, or where prospects exist for them to be shaped to its advantage. China actively participates in UN bodies and is the biggest contributor to UN peacekeeping. It continues to seek a bigger role in the IMF and World Bank, supports the G20, is active within the WTO, APEC and RCEP, and wishes to accede to TPP- 11.

At the same time, it has demonstrated considerable institutional entrepreneurship in building and strengthening relations that place it at the centre of networks of countries, giving shape and substance to its leadership of its bounded order. Examples of this activity include the Shanghai Cooperation Organ-isation, the BRICS grouping (with Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa), which concluded a summit in July, the New Development Bank (previously the BRICS bank), and the Eastern European 17+1 (although this is coming under strain over Lithuania’s stance on Taiwan and unhappiness in some countries over China’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). Less for-mally, China has convened regular summits of African states and in Latin America under the auspice of the China- CELAC Forum.

Following Xi Jinping’s speech in Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2013, the BRI has developed as the main organising principle of China’s bounded order, which was initially a means to ease China’s vulnerability on the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea by opening alternativetransport routes for energy and some raw materials. The BRI’s activ-ities extend well beyond its original design, and beyond even its main activities involving trade, investment and financing, to include rule making and developing standards – particularly important in telecom-munications, where China is the main supplier across all of Eurasia and much of the developing world.

Xi banks on Putin

In the bounded world order that had emerged, the biggest question was how and where did Russia fit. China is now the dominant power in Central Asia and has been extending this influence across Eurasia. Rus-sia’s brief but effective military intervention in the threatened uprising against the Kazakhstani government in January 2020 shocked Beijing. It showed that Russia was still prepared to intervene in Eurasia, as it had in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, regardless of China’s con-cerns and its principle of non- interference.

Following the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, it seemed that Eurasia would, over time, be dominated by China. Once again, China moved quickly to put itself at the centre of a group of states – Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey – that intended to oversee Afghan security and manage risks of Islamic fundamentalism spread-ing across Central Asia from Taliban- controlled Afghanistan.

The China–Russia joint statement in February 2022, just twenty days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, had the flavour of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 – a concert of convenience between two powers that understood that conflict between them would be inevitable. In the West, the Xi–Putin statement has been widely mis-interpreted. The surprise and dismay with which their statement has been met overlooks the fact that China and Russia, like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, are strategic competitors. Putin was most likely looking to ensure that China would somehow be made complicit to his criminality in Ukraine.

It is also unlikely that Putin confided in Xi on his plans to invade. Their joint statement fits neatly with Xi’s anti- Western narrative, which has become much sharper in the run-up to this year’s crucial 20th Party Congress. The new close relationship with Russia, and the superficial personal rapport between its leaders, would have been seen as a big plus for Xi domestically.

The eye- catching headline statement that China–Russia friend-ship knew “no limits” was presented in China as a great diplomatic achievement for Xi. It meant the existential threat that Russia has always posed to China had been postponed to the indefinite future, allowing China more time to consolidate and extend its dominance over Central Asia and ultimately its power over Russia.

That was until 24 February. The invasion was a disaster for Xi. China was forced to choose between its newly minted special relationship with Russia and the cornerstone of its foreign policy, non- interference.To complicate matters further, China also had a rare security pact with Ukraine and a special relationship with Kyiv, with substantial commer-cial underpinnings. Xi’s failure to condemn the invasion unequivocally also brought China into direct conflict with a more united and pur-poseful West.

Xi’s flirtation with Putin, and their shared anti- Western stance, meant that China missed an historic opportunity to reset relations with the West post- Trump and post the first wave of COVID. Although Xi’s stance appealed to populist sentiment in China, many in China’s political elite would have seen this as a major miscalculation. At the National People’s Congress, in 2018, when Xi removed fixed terms for presidents, elites felt that he caused China to lose face internationally. China no longer had an agreed institutional mechanism for transfer-ring power and was effectively a personal dictatorship. It was seen as a backward step in China’s development. Similarly, by not criticising Russia’s invasion, Xi aligned China with a renegade state. The elites in Beijing view China as being better than that. Xi again made the coun-try lose face.

Xi’s tacit support of Putin brings to the fore deep tension in Chi-na’s domestic politics. While the anti- Western narrative plays out well for emphasising China’s material success, independence and – most importantly – the respect it has earnt, when it comes to the advanced countries of the world, China also wants to be seen as first among equals.

The rest respond

Xi, like Putin, would have been alarmed at the solidarity, sense of pur-pose and determination the West found following the invasion. Putin’s calculation included a divided and weak response from the West. Euro-pean states had long accommodated his malicious behaviour, from poisoning adversaries on foreign soil, to Russia’s aggression in Geor-gia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine. US leadership internationally was in tatters following the Trump years, and the country was divided. Flee-ing from Afghanistan would also have encouraged Putin to believe that the US was exhausted, as the Soviet Union itself had been when it left Afghanistan. As Putin was amassing troops on the Ukraine border, the West was acrimoniously at odds over the Afghanistan debacle.

The speed, coordination and forcefulness of the West’s response would have dismayed Xi. It has been argued that the West could have done more and sooner, short of direct conflict. Even so, the energy and financial sanctions demonstrated that the West was prepared to bear substantial costs to harm the aggressor in defence of basic interna-tional norms.

For China’s leadership this is especially alarming as it is much more deeply integrated in the international economic system than Russia, from trade and investment flows, holding of foreign government bonds, integration of global supply chains, to elite family fortunes stashed overseas, families resident in the West, reliance on Western education and research, and much more. Unlike Russia, China also faces a signifi-cant strategic vulnerability. Among other things, it is the world’s biggest importer of crude oil, liquefied natural gas ( LNG) and iron ore. Most of this is shipped via the Strait of Malacca – one of the world’s most vul-nerable transport choke points – and the South China Sea. A concerted effort by the West to block these transport routes would, in a heartbeat, deny China access to the raw materials and energy it needs and bring its economy to its knees.

So, China’s failure to condemn the invasion of Ukraine, and the West’s preparedness to act collectively, presents China with massive risks and dangers. Already the US has begun to identify and punish Chi-nese firms that are found to be contributing, albeit indirectly, to Russia’s war effort. At its Madrid summit – where NATO classified China as a stra-tegic challenge to its security and values – it was careful to distinguish China from Russia by not naming it as an adversary. However, NATO now believes it has entered an era of competition with China over nuclear arms build- up, and China’s bullying of its neighbours, including Taiwan.

Beijing will also be paying close attention to what all this means for any military strike it might launch against Taiwan. An attempted takeover of the island has always been a hypothetical option for Bei-jing, especially as it explicitly acknowledges that it is prepared to use force. But the probability of China exercising a military option must be regarded as very low. The prospect of success is remote, the question of how to pacify an island of 24 million angry people unresolved, and the threat of effective international retaliation real.

While the war in Ukraine is ongoing and its resolution unknown, Russia’s efforts to occupy and subdue a contingent independent territory highlight the extreme difficulty of the task. The likelihood of victory would be much lower in China’s case with a sea of some 160 kilometres separating it from its target.

While Putin’s threat of first strike use of nuclear weapons may be seen in Beijing as having been successful in staving off direct interven-tion by NATO, China is much too exposed to Western trade blockades and other sanctions to resort to the military option. Put simply, the costs to China are far too high and the war in Ukraine has shown that such actions can stiffen the West’s resolve. Yet, while the lessons for Beijing from Russia’s troubled invasion of Ukraine make military options for taking Taiwan much less likely, the weakening overall of Russia through overreach and sanctions strengthens China’s position across Eurasia.

Australia calls in the cavalry

Australia attended the Madrid NATO summit along with other guests from the Asia- Pacific, including Japan, South Korea and New Zea-land. The Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said that growing ties between Russia and China posed a “threat to all demo-cratic nations” and drew a parallel between Russia’s purported desire to re- establish its empire and China’s efforts to win friends and gain influence in the Indo- Pacific. China and Russia were explicitly linked as threats that need to be resisted.

With closer apparent relations between Russia and China, a school of thought – which has found support in the White House – has emerged that there is a single theatre of strategic competition: liberal democra-cies versus autocracies. It is easy to see the appeal of this formulation, in its simplicity. But viewing the world order as a struggle between might and right, without acknowledging the nuances and subtleties between different countries, runs the risk of increasing the chances of conflict.

It has taken the invasion of Ukraine for policymakers and com-mentators to take seriously the extent to which the world order has changed. Forty UN members either voted against or abstained on the resolution of 2 March condemning Russia’s invasion. Among those that abstained were India and China. Democracies such as Brazil, Argen-tina, Mexico and, in Australia’s region, Indonesia and most of ASEAN failed to join the US in condemning the invasion.

Since 2017, if not earlier, Australia has ever more closely aligned itself with the United States in the US’s struggle with China to retain global dominance. Canberra previously sought to fudge the shift from cooperation with China to competition because of China’s enormous economic importance, but its strategic policy has become clear and specific. For this, Australia has been rewarded by the US through deeper interoperability between the armed forces, intelligence sharing and most recently the promise of nuclear- powered submarines under the AUKUS arrangement.

In Opposition, Labor supported the government in this shift to competition with China, even if it did so more out of opportunistic political motives than conviction. While acknowledging that Australia and China have substantive differences, Labor seemed to think that the collapse in the relationship was largely about language and tone. It has taken this stance into government. The prime minister’s comments at the Madrid NATO summit suggest he now understands that the issues that so deeply divide Australia and China are indeed about substance. Consequently, he may even have hardened the government’s position on China.

Senior policy advisers to the government persist with applying the balm that China has changed, not Australia, and that until China becomes more like us, the current state of the relationship is preferable. In short, no government in Canberra, at least for the foreseeable future, has the domestic space in which it can make tangible steps towards an improved relationship with Beijing. Without Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Canberra and Beijing may have been able to find some greater accommodation of each other’s positions. China had an opportunity to reset relations with the West, especially Australia, had it condemned the invasion. It chose not to do so. The shape of the new bounded world order is rapidly becoming manifest.

A new world order

A NATO second theatre in Asia, let alone a Biden single global theatre of contest between democracy and autocracy, is a reckless ambition. It would obliterate the UN’s founding principle of collective security. It would reinstate conflict between blocs of security arrangements, and encourage states targeted by such blocs to seek similar arrangements. It would make the world a much more dangerous place.

Australia’s foreign and security policy is now based on the untested assumption that China is an existential threat. Europe does not see China in the same way. The NATO secretary general made that abun-dantly clear in his statement at Madrid, as did the prime ministers of Belgium and the Netherlands. Australia seems to have leapt to the con-clusion that Russia and China are one and the same and pose the same threats. Europe has not. It will not allow Asia to become a second NATO theatre.

It is wishful thinking by Australian politicians to believe that the US still has the political will to lead the West in a second theatre in Asia. As America has sought to push back against China, it has itself become domestically more divided. This is likely to become more pronounced during the midterm elections, which could see Democrats in a minority in the House, and Washington even more gridlocked. The next US pres-idential election is full of great uncertainties. In these circumstances, it is strategic folly to have so comprehensively glued Australia to the hip of the US in its confrontation with China.

It is also fanciful to assume that the old order can be restored. The most desirable order would be one based on rules that reflect the values of liberal democracies. But that era, to the extent it ever really existed, has long passed.

The international system has not yet, however, returned to the state of anarchy to which it has always had a tendency. Until the invasion of Ukraine, US military pre- eminence was believed to under-pin the stability of the international system. This is no longer the case. The rise of China, while it has upended the old order, also brings a new form of order and stability. Its markets and investment flows support economic growth in much of the developing world. It builds infrastruc-ture, with little hard evidence of a nefarious debt- diplomacy agenda, despite the claims of critics. It has put in place multilateral arrange-ments which seem to work well enough and attract support. Whether we like it or not, and usually we don’t, it offers developing countries an alternative paradigm to that of the US- dominated West. China’s bounded order is now well estab-lished and includes nearly all of Australia’s regional neighbours as well as much of the Pacific. Unless there is a catastrophe in China, which would add to instability in the region and might also threaten Australia’s security, China and its order are not going away.

If Russia is defeated and humiliated in Ukraine, China will be the unchallenged power across Eurasia. If Russia prevails, China and Russia will draw closer for a time to challenge the international liberal order. In any event, China’s global influence will only be strengthened. In the long term, China’s and Russia’s interests are likely to collide as they compete for Central Asia to ensure their own security. Australia inevitably faces a vastly and permanently altered security landscape.It is one which is so unfamiliar that Australian policymakers are still struggling to recognise it.

Australia has had the luxury of the global dominant power sharing our values, if not always our interests, and we have felt secure in the belief that we have great and powerful friends to stand by us. Of course, that was not the case when put to the test in 1942, when Britain aban-doned Australia, understandably enough, to defend its own interests. Today, it would be dangerous folly to assume that America will always be there for us, or that the US will have either the will or the capacity to prevail in any conflict against China.

In the new order, Australia must make its peace with China. Of course, this has to be on terms that do not compromise Australia’s interests. Australia needs then to decide if its foreign and security pol-icies will continue to be based on siding with the US in its rivalry with China, or whether it will recognise the reality of Chinese power and influence in the region and seek ways to work with China to promote stability and peace. Australia has foreign policy options other than the US–China binary. It is time for these to be explored.

Australia in the past has demonstrated considerable skill and flair in working with regional neighbours and beyond to build coalitions to advance its interests. It created the Cairns Group, which changed agri-cultural trade rules globally; it formed APEC; it initiated the Canberra Commission on nuclear disarmament; it led, with Indonesia, the res-olution of the Cambodian conflict; it had the courage to stand against unreasonable US demands for IMF conditionality on Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis; for a time it led a group of developing and emerging economies to reform the IMF to reflect the growth of East Asia; it established, with Indonesia, the regional forum on people smuggling, and much more.

Australia should be working with ASEAN neighbours on develop-ing security mechanisms aimed at increasing habits of consultation and building trust in the region, not, as we do now, seeking to stoke tensions. With its neighbours, Australia should be promoting nuclear weapons controls and disarmament in Asia. It should be active, through coalitions, in reminding China that bad behaviour will carry costs. On a more constructive note, Australia as the region’s biggest energy exporter and China as the world’s biggest energy importer should be able to put together a plan to advance regional energy security and sustainability.

The challenge for Australian foreign and security policy is to deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. This will require a return not only to a central role for an elevated diplomatic effort, but investment in the skills that underpin that, including language, history and cultural studies. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that in international affairs there is no sensible centre, just interests and power, egos and ambition.

The future agenda for Australia is big and urgent. •