The state of Australia: our international standing

Australia under the Abbott government has so far been treated to a succession of foreign policy gaffes, including with Indonesia. EPA/Adi Weda

In the lead-up to the budget, the story of crisis has been hammered home, but there’s more to a country than its structural deficit. So how is Australia doing overall? In this special series, ten writers take a broader look at the State of Australia; our health, wealth, education, culture, environment, well-being and international standing.


The conduct of Australia’s foreign policy under the Rudd and Gillard governments was anything but inspiring. Under Tony Abbott, we have so far been treated to a succession of gaffes bordering on farce.

How we’re doing now

Since its election victory last September, the Abbott government has managed to arouse the ire of three important neighbours (Indonesia, China and East Timor) through words and gestures that are at best ill-informed and at worst foolishly provocative.

Under Operation Sovereign Borders, refugee boats are being pushed back into Indonesian waters against Indonesia’s express wishes and Australian vessels have more than once breached Indonesia’s maritime boundary. We place great store on our sovereignty, but seem strangely unable to consider the sovereignty of our neighbours.

The spying saga regarding Australian interception of the personal phone calls of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, including Abbott’s ill-judged response, has added fuel to the fire. By the end of 2013 the bilateral relationship was in a state of serious disrepair, where it continues to languish.

The relationship with China is more complex and the potential ramifications of misjudgement even more serious. Though China is now by far Australia’s most important trade partner, Australia has chosen to upgrade its relations with Taiwan and has sided openly and somewhat stridently with the United States and Japan in condemning China for declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone in the disputed region of the East China Sea.

To add insult to injury, Abbott described Japan as an “ally” (which is not technically accurate) and our “best friend in Asia”. This comes at a time when Japan has one of the most nationalist governments of its post-war history, committed to expanding the country’s military arsenal and revisiting its peace constitution. The Chinese response was predictably fierce and immediate.

In the case of East Timor, attorney-general George Brandis last December approved an ASIO raid on the office of lawyer Bernard Collaery, who is acting for East Timor in its spying case against Australia. East Timor, one of the world’s poorest countries, is attempting to have what it considers an unequal oil and gas treaty it signed with Australia quashed in The Hague.

Much can be added to this sorry list of mis-steps. Unseemly pressure has been brought to bear on Papua New Guinea and Nauru to help the government deliver on its election promise to “stop the boats”. Discussions are underway to have asylum seekers redirected to Cambodia, another poor country with a deplorable human rights record.

The budget deficit has also been used to justify cutting back the projected growth of Australian overseas aid by as much as A$4.5 billion over the next four years. Yet defence spending is planned to rise to $50 billion over the next ten years, nearly double the current defence budget.

At the UN General Assembly, Australia abstained on two key resolutions calling on Israel to cease its settlement activities, widely regarded as illegal, and to “comply scrupulously” with the 1949 Geneva Convention. The resolutions were carried by an overwhelming majority of UN members, including most allies of the United States.

Australian interest in international climate change and nuclear disarmament negotiations has also visibly diminished.

Australia’s relationship with China is complex and the potential ramifications of misjudgement are extremely serious. EPA/Ed Jones

How we got here

Striking though it is, this catalogue of policy failures does not signify a marked break with the Labor years. Neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard was able to set Australia’s China policy on a sound footing. The simplistic idea that Australia could rely on China for its prosperity and the United States for its security was never seriously questioned – nor was Australia’s costly and unproductive military commitment in Afghanistan.

Rudd’s poorly articulated proposal for the creation of an Asia-Pacific community soon fizzled in the absence of prior consultation with Asian neighbours.

Gillard oversaw the production of the Australia in the Asian Century white paper, but its sanitised contents, with their fixation on trade and investment opportunities, were strangely silent on the geopolitical and security implications of Asia’s rise and on the cultural gap still separating Australia from its Asian neighbours.

Labor’s steady abandonment of anything resembling a humane asylum seeker policy meant acceptance of a Pacific solution, leading first to the abortive approaches to East Timor and Malaysia, and then to the re-opening of the Manus Island detention centre. And, it was Labor governments that authorised the spying operations aimed at the highest levels of the Indonesian and East Timor governments.

A Labor government did secure a seat on the UN Security Council, but it seemed averse to or incapable of crafting a coherent set of initiatives. Rudd set up a commission for the elimination of nuclear weapons, but its key recommendations were left to gather dust.

How is such lack of drive and imagination to be explained? Why is it that both major parties find it so difficult to rethink Australia’s place in the world? No doubt several factors are at work.

The movers and shakers of the two major political parties and the political class at large remain profoundly insular in their thinking and parochial in their politics. They do not grasp the far-reaching regional and global changes already underway and their dramatic impact on economy, environment, culture and governance everywhere, not least in Australia.

The reality, however, is that many of the principles and premises that have guided Australia’s external relations since 1945 have lost whatever relevance they may once have had.

We are seeing an unprecedented shift in economic power and political influence away from the west and towards the east. European empires have dissolved and America’s ascendancy is slowly but surely coming to an end. The old reliance on great and powerful friends – first Britain, then the United States – has reached its use-by date.

In the coming years, China, India, South Korea, Indonesia, but also Russia, Brazil and others will play increasingly important roles not just in trade and investment, but in shaping security, political and environmental agendas.

Labor did secure a seat on the UN Security Council but seemed averse to or incapable of crafting a coherent set of foreign policy initiatives. EPA/Andrew Gombert

The next ten years

The critical decisions Australia has to make do not involve choosing between the United States and China, nor between China and Japan. While maintaining strong and co-operative relations with all three, it has to develop its own independent diplomacy and put an end to its subservience to US diplomatic priorities and the US military and intelligence establishments.

Australia needs to work closely with middle and small powers to develop mechanisms that can help defuse maritime disputes, especially in the East and South China Seas.

A serious policy of engagement with Asia entails, of course, more than military security and economy. The environment, human rights, poverty reduction and transnational crime require urgent attention. Where states violate the rights of their own people – whether in China, North Korea or Burma – Australia must be prepared to speak strongly on behalf of the vulnerable.

A proper regional approach could provide a solution to the asylum-seeker question. AAP/Eoin Blackwell

Similarly, Australia has to distance itself from surveillance activities, including those of the United States, for they erode the democratic fabric of society. Such pressure, however, is more likely to be effective if it is carefully applied in concert with others and if it engages not just government, but business and civil society.

A similar approach could facilitate a region-wide, long-term solution to the processing and resettlement of asylum seekers.

Such a multifaceted agenda must necessarily take advantage of the opportunities for multilateral solutions and be sensitive to the diverse mindsets, interests, cultures and languages of our Asian partners.

To this end, after years of neglect, it is time to revamp the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, endow it with much greater resources and skills and an enhanced capacity to support initiatives and projects in conflict prevention, mediation, peacebuilding and importantly regional and global disarmament.

In all of this, the federal government has an important initiating and co-ordinating role. But its efforts and resources must be carefully pooled with those of state and local governments, and with the energies and expertise of business, professional and community organisations.

Effective processes of consultation at all levels and a renewed national educational strategy will be critical to positioning Australia as a thriving, confident, internationally minded country equal to the challenges of the coming decades.


Further reading: The State of Australia series

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