australia's foreign policy priorities

CEDA Bulletin (Committee for Economic Development of Australia), July 2000


Australia's diplomatic success in the first years of the new century will be determined by its response to a range of domestic and regional issues, the most important of which are:

(a) New rules of engagement with the East Asian region. The Howard Government has distanced itself from what it regards as the supine posture of its predecessor, and has clearly stated its rejection of 'special relationships' and an 'over-accommodation with Asia' in the past, but it is struggling to coherently articulate the type of regional engagement it is seeking. Distinctions between 'practical' and 'emotional and cultural' regionalism (Alexander Downer) are unhelpful, not the least because they exaggerate the importance of culture in international relations. Canberra should not underestimate the heterogeneous nature of 'Asia' and that cultural and historical differences between Australia and the region can be celebrated rather than disguised - cultural convergence is unnecessary.

When artificially contrived by political elites, there is considerable popular resistence to promoting Australia's regional identity. The Howard Government needs to work harder at explaining Australia's regional complementarities and give support to democracy and the expansion of procedural freedoms throughout East Asia.

In the recent past, Asia has too often been seen as an exclusive club which Australia must join, or risk isolation (eg ASEAN-Europe summit (ASEM), the ASEAN + 3 group). While political elites have been keen to meet the conditions of entry (a sublimation of liberal democratic values, assumptions of regional homogeneity, less fulsome support for universal values), the public has not. This is largely because of an assumption that the onus is on Australia alone to change its ways if it is to find a sense of belonging in the region. The idea of Asia as a club which Australia must join is being abandoned by the Howard Government, though it is fiercely resisted by many professional Asianists. This should help to normalise Australia's bilateral relations with Indonesia and Malaysia.

(b) The effects of globalisation - or more accurately the intensification of capitalism - has already been costly in Australia's region (eg the Asian economic crisis). People everywhere are anxious about the loss of sovereign economic power and the concomitant 'democratic deficit'. However, globalisation will bind Australia's economic fortunes to the region, regardless of cultural, social and political differences between Australia and Asia. Foreign investment and export markets in South East Asia remain vital to Australia's future prosperity. Canberra has made an important financial contribution to the region's economic recovery (through the IMF) and can do more to share its economic good fortune with its northern neighbours by extending lines of credit to, and encouraging prudential financial management in Indonesia, PNG, East Timor and Thailand.

(c) The fragmentation of states is the flip-side of globalisation. The recent experiences of Germany, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yemen demonstrate that territorial and political boundaries are not immutable, particularly when national values are artificially contrived. This is because the construction of nations and political communities frequently have uneven levels of support from nominal members of the same nation-state.

The fragmentation of states in East Asia, particularly PNG, Indonesia and China will pose major challenges for Australian foreign policy. Canberra's diplomacy will be tested by secessionist claims in Aceh, Kalimantan, West Papua and elsewhere, just as it has been in Bougainville and East Timor. Some of these separatist movements are politcal reactions against being governed in common with others. However, ethnic, regional and religious divisions, which were not reflected in original state structures, and sub-national economic development in specially designated zones, have become centrifugal forces, intensifying national fragility in many cases.

It makes little sense for Australia to respond to the redrawing of political maps by mistakenly equating stability in states such as Indonesia with preserving a status quo that has now passed. There is no reason to expect human loyalties to remain confined forever within the limits of a nation-state that was, in some cases, violently imposed upon them. However, any forthcoming support for separatists will make relations with the metropolitan centres very difficult for Canberra.

(d) Australia can defend both liberal (democracy, secularism) and universal (human rights) values in the region by explaining the significant social benefits which they confer. This should be done without lecturing or hectoring from the high moral ground - Australia is yet to find a balanced position between arrogance and deference on this issue. Appeasement versus estrangement is also a false choice. Democratic transitions in the region deserve and require tangible encouragement and support if they are to become embedded. This will also help to isolate the declining number of states in the region (Burma, Vietnam, China, Malaysia) which do not appear to be on a democratic trajectory.

(e) Australia needs to open up its foreign policy making process to higher levels of popular participation and transparency so that public confidence is restored. The gap between elite and popular perceptions of Australian diplomacy (eg 1995 Australia-Indonesia security agreement, diplomacy with Suharto) needs to be closed. Human rights should contextualise foreign policy, and not simply be an agenda item in summit meetings.

Australia should also build its diplomatic relationships on shared values and institutions, as much as on personalities and heads of government. Too many bilateral relationships are only seen through the prism of transitory leaders and their impressionistic speeches. In the long term, leaders' summits are much less important than helping to build institutions which embed liberal-democratic values.

(f) Australia must recognise that the great engines of change in the global economy - in industries such as biotechnology, computers and IT, telecommunications and pharmaceutics - are currently located in North America and Europe, not East Asia. Notwithstanding the ongoing importance of export markets and investment sources in the region, the technological revolutions of the so called 'new economy' may challenge the elite consensus that Australia's economic future lies in Asia.

Given that rural exports today are no more important to Australia than manufacturing exports - and that the country's entire agricultural output accounts for less than 20% of GDP, Australia needs to rethink the priority its trade policy still gives to free trade in agriculture in regional (APEC) and global (WTO) forums. Australia's 'rocks and crops' mentality is becoming an anachronistic trade profile. Canberra should be giving as much, if not more attention to breaking down barriers to service (finance, education, communications) and manufacturing exports.