Evans' optimism against the odds

Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans says China's hegemonic tendencies must be kept in check - but its leadership role must be recognised. Photo: Supplied.

Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans says there is reason for optimism internationally despite the unstable climate. Evans spoke to Sam Sachdeva about Australia’s need to rebalance its foreign policy, the threat posed by rising Chinese influence, and where New Zealand's new government should focus its efforts on the world stage.

In the current geopolitical climate, it seems a stretch for a foreign policy expert to describe himself as an “Incorrigible Optimist”.

To his credit, Gareth Evans acknowledges the title of his new book is ripe for the picking.

“It does lend itself to parody when you say, ‘Always look on the bright side’.”

Yet despite the threat posed by Donald Trump, North Korea and other actors, the former Australian foreign minister argues there is reason to take a glass half full approach to international affairs.

“When you look at the whole sweep of human history, we are doing a hell of a lot better than we have in centuries or decades previously, and we should never lose that perspective whether you’re talking about poverty or conflict generally or human rights violations.”

“If you don’t believe it is possible to get a better world or a better country, you’re never going to push the envelope - you’ll just pull the covers over your head and hope all the ugliness goes away.”

With issues like Trump and North Korea, “however bleak and depressing and awful they may be”, Evans says there are ways forward that give cause for hope that catastrophe can be avoided.

In the case of Trump, he points to the pushback the US President has received from a number of American politicians.

“The US system, for all its usual frustrations with Congress versus President and so on, is actually making it very difficult for Trump to follow his worst instincts.

“It's also the case that there’s enough people around him with enough credibility and enough common sense to curb some of his crazier excesses.”

More generally, Evans argues optimism is the only way to make progress in politics.

“If you don’t believe it is possible to get a better world or a better country, you’re never going to push the envelope - you’ll just pull the covers over your head and hope all the ugliness goes away.”

‘More Asia, less US’

Evans, who served as Foreign Minister for eight years under the Hawke and Keating governments, has a simple foreign policy prescription for Australia: “More self-reliance. More Asia. Less United States.”

He says the US has “basically abdicated global and regional leadership”, with China rising quickly to fill the space left behind.

“It’s important that we adjust to the new reality and not rely as much as we have in the past on the US doing all the heavy lifting for us, we do have to build substantial new relationships in the region.”

That means forging stronger ties with countries like Indonesia and India, in part as “counterweights” to Chinese ambition, while also giving the country room to grow in recognition of its increasingly prominent role.

Evans says the US has misplayed its hand by insisting on its dominance on the world stage, instead of preparing for a world where it is comfortable with no longer being “the top dog”.

“If there’s anything that China is about these days, it’s about being recognised as a legitimate rule-maker and not just a rule-taker.”

However, that does not mean a complete embrace of China: instead, he says countries should allow it to move ahead with its legitimate aspirations, while holding it to account in areas of overreach, such as its installation building in the South China Sea.

Australia and other countries should conduct freedom of navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of the military installations as a demonstration that it must adhere to international rules, Evans says.

“China is so risk-averse in terms of not wanting remotely to do anything that could explode into overt warfare that you could expect cooler heads to prevail in such a situation.”

China’s instinct is to be “as hegemonic as it possibly can be”, Evans says, and it must be held in check.

"China being the authoritarian state it is, does like to keep tabs on its nationals in a way that is unknown for any other country in terms of its nationals abroad."

That sort of concern has fuelled a number of stories in Australian media about growing Chinese influence in the country.

Evans, the chancellor of Australian National University, has himself spoken about the need to protect international students from foreign espionage in the wake of articles about Chinese students protesting “offensive” course material.

He says the concerns on Australia are based on “an objective and rational foundation”, rather than any over-reliance on the US perspective of China’s rise.

“Obviously China being the authoritarian state it is, does like to keep tabs on its nationals in a way that is unknown for any other country in terms of its nationals abroad, and that does have a certain inhibiting impact on students capacity to fully enjoy a free and robust educational experience.

“They are looking over their shoulder more than we ought to be comfortable with.”

While the issue is not easy to deal with given the economic value of international education, Evans says Australia should “absolutely resist” any attempt to question university curricula or prevent certain topics for being taught.

However, he says it is possible to overstate broader concern, particularly when it comes to foreign investment into Australia.

“You don’t need to be a majority shareholder in order to mount cyber sabotage if that’s your inclination...it’s so important to develop a comfortable economic relationship which has huge two-way investment to it….

“We’re perfectly capable of dealing with the extremes of risky situations without being too spooked.”

Excitement over Ardern, questions over Peters

The rise of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Labour-led government has created a stir in some parts of the Australian media: right-wing paper The Australian headlined the news “The losers take power”, with a follow-up piece proclaiming Kiwis were now “led by a Commie”.

Evans dismisses that as “the Murdoch press up to its familiar lunatic overreaction tricks”.

He says the National government was highly respected in Australia, but the country is genuinely curious about the direction of the Labour-led coalition.

“Ardern is seen as exciting new face, and there’s a huge amount of interest in what she’s going to do.”

Where there is “a little bit of a question mark”, he says, is over New Zealand First and where it wants to take the Government’s foreign policy - although he is somewhat assured by Peters’ previous stint as Foreign Minister.

“That was a perfectly manageable sort of relationship and while on the face of it there is a bit of anti-international, anti-globalist sort of position, it seems highly unlikely to change New Zealand’s basic stance.”

After taking on the foreign affairs role, Peters said the New Zealand-Australia relationship needed “serious work” following a number of law changes across the ditch which have disadvantaged Kiwi expats, as well as the furore over Labour MP Chris Hipkins’ involvement in the Australian citizenship scandal.

Evans suggests it’s nothing personal when it comes to the tightening of citizenship rules and treatment of detainees.

“In terms of homeland security issues, New Zealanders should be assured we’re behaving just as badly to everyone else, not just singling you guys out.”

“You’ve got a long tradition of punching above your weight...don’t ever let that slip."

As for the citizenship furore, he sees more fault in the Australian government’s response, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop saying at the time she would find it difficult to work with an NZ Labour government.

“Julie Bishop did not cover herself in glory with a completely over the top response to the Barnaby Joyce issue, and the perfectly reasonable role that an NZ Labour MP played in that respect, I think there’s been quite a lot of embarrassment on this side of the Tasman...everybody just hopes we’ll quickly put that behind us.”

Evans is complimentary of New Zealand’s role on the world stage: he says we fit into what he calls “middle power diplomacy”, where a country manages to take a leadership role on the world stage despite lacking economic might or a large population.

He points to New Zealand’s leadership on nuclear weapons, as well as its involvement in peace processes like Bougainville, as signs of its influence.

“You did stuff there [Bougainville] that we couldn’t really do because we were too close to the action.”

Evans is reluctant to offer much advice to the new government, but does make one suggestion as it prepares to navigate the uncertain global climate.

“You’ve got a long tradition of punching above your weight, and you’ve had that role on the security council and elsewhere…

“Don’t ever let that slip, because it’s a tremendously important element in New Zealand’s identity, New Zealand’s credibility, and New Zealand’s capacity to contribute to a better world.”