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Reading foreign policy tea leaves

By Philip Coggan - posted Friday, 15 November 2013

Talking about the Abbott government's foreign policy turns out to be an exercise in reading tealeaves. A policy statement was released a few days prior to the September 2013 elections. It was (is) a curious document, with many signs of having been assembled hastily and without even much proof-reading. (Sentences which look like introductory statements come at the end of sections, for example).

One of the central planks is the identification of "the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean region" as Australia's neighbourhood. The US, Japan, Indonesia, China and India are listed as the five relationships that need "renewed focus." This is regular plain vanilla – The Asia-Pacific has been a focus of interest for Australia for decades, and can perhaps be dated back to Bill Hayden's Indian Ocean policy document of 1984. While there's nothing innovative here (apart from the somewhat clunky name), it does raise the question of just what will be done in terms of real diplomatic effort and policy.

The document gives little clue to the answer. It begins with five key points – another sign of haste, as the body of the policy has eight. The second of these is almost breathtakingly trivial: the establishment of a $100 million renovated Colombo Plan, part of which will fund Australian undergaduates students to study at universities in our region. This, it says, will "deepen our engagement with our neighbours." Really? More so than the several tens of thousands of Australian youngsters who already travel each year at their own expense to party at Kuta and on Khao San Road? More than overseas development aid, more than opening Australian markets to Filipino bananas, more than forming meaningful defense relationships with regional partners? I have nothing against the new Colombo Plan, but I can't see how it merits being the number two key point in Australia's foreign policy.


The next two points deal with overseas aid: it's to be frozen at current levels, adjusted for inflation, with a vague commitment to increases in some unspecified future. So key points three and four are to downgrade overseas aid.

Sure enough, one of the Abbott government's first actions was to fold AusAid into DFAT. This provoked an outcry, no doubt well merited – the provision of development aid requires serious professionalism. Yet in fairness it must be said that giving large amounts of aid to the Asia-Pacific is getting harder and harder to do in a meaningful way. The South Pacific island-States are already receiving as much as they can easily process, and in Asia the traditional recipients - Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, even Laos and Timor-Leste – are increasingly able (which is not to say always willing) to meet their own needs. The moment may well have come to look long and hard at aid and what it's capable of doing, but that doesn't appear to be what's happening – instead, the exercise appears to be driven by little more than prejudice, perhaps tinged by a little pandering to the lack of wide public support for aid.

The final point is an undertaking to "implement a review of diplomatic resources and consider options for putting in place a long-term policy to ensure Australia's global diplomatic network is consistent with our interests" - more diplomatic missions and more diplomats. There has also been talk of making more use of former Australian prime ministers – Hawke, Keating, even Kevin Rudd – in our diplomatic efforts. This can only be applauded.

The key problem with all this is that although the policy paper talks about "our interests", it never identifies them. It seems, indeed, that there's an assumption that those interests are exclusively to do with promoting Australian business. Julie Bishop made this explicit at her Lowy Institute debate with Senator Carr: "Foreign policy will be trade policy, and trade policy will be foreign policy."

The real world just isn't like that –China and India and the U.S. and Japan and Indonesia want more from us more our trade. China in particular wants to secure its strategic interests throughout the region, and has demonstrated a willingness to bully its way to success. Managing the rise of China (only one issue among many that the Abbott government will face) is going to require far more than "an unambiguous focus on promoting the interests of Australian businesses abroad."

The real weakness in the government's foreign policy is the total lack of strategic analysis and planning. "No description of Australia's place in the world, how the region is changing and how we should react," said Sam Roggeveen in the Lowy Interpreter. "No hint that the once-in-a-century shift of economic power to our region might have strategic implications for us and our major ally. It's a management document that focuses on the small stuff because it assumes the big picture is pretty much looking after itself."


In fact I believe the situation is not so dire – as I said, the Coalition's election foreign policy statement gives every sign of having been thrown together in haste. It would be more serious if Tony Abbott showed any interest in foreign policy – John Howard and Kevin Rudd, both insisted on micro-managing foreign policy without having the time to do it. Tony Abbott seems to have little interest in foreign policy beyond expressing automatic support for the United States. Julia Bishop, by contrast, has a real interest in her portfolio, she'll be able to rely on a large pool of very talented people, and the problems – embarrassments might be a better word – she and Tony Abbott have faced with Indonesia and PNG over the government's refugee policy are the learning experience any new administration faces in its first few weeks.

If all goes well and Abbott lets Bishop do her job without undue interference, Australia will come to have a sensible and comprehensive foreign policy over the next few years; if not, we can expect drift, confusion, and crisis after avoidable crisis.

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About the Author

Philip Coggan has been a diplomat and subsequently a journalist based in Southeast Asia. He has been a full-time writer since 2006 and is about to bring out his first novel, a comic crime-mystery set in Phnom Penh. He blogs at Philip Coggan's Blog.

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