Australia diplomacy: how to lose friends and influence no one

Nov 26, 2021
Scott Morrison
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Australia’s diplomatic missteps and lack of independence in foreign affairs and defence have brought a damaging loss of international trust.

For more than two decades Australia has needlessly made enemies and carelessly lost friends. Now, the more bipartisan our foreign and defence policies become, the more this is happening.

In foreign affairs nothing is permanent. That’s why careful nations employ diplomats to cultivate their country’s friends and promote its interests. Since the late 1990s Australia has been recruiting fewer diplomats and using their skills less, and the result is a growing list of foreign relations disasters, particularly in our region.

Australia’s balloon-like enthusiasm for Asia, with the region’s promise to become the new centre of global economic gravity, was punctured by John Howard’s stated refusal to change our identity and values to oblige our neighbours. It took until 2012 for Labor under Julia Gillard to produce the Australia in the Asian Century white paper. Its call to all Australians, of all ages and backgrounds, to become Asia-literate soon deflated through lack of funds and commitment.

Even more devoted to Britain than Howard, Tony Abbott confirmed the scepticism of some of our Asian neighbours about Australia’s priorities. His unstatesmanlike shirtfronting of Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Brisbane scored Australia an own goal. That was over the MH17 disaster, for which Australia continues to blame Russia in the face of contested evidence. (New Zealand does not.) Abbott wanted Australia to join the invasion of Libya, and it was only Defence’s argument that they were over-extended in Afghanistan and Iraq that stopped him.

Australia was still claiming the credit for its “good global citizenship” when it won a seat first on the UN Security Council and then on the UN Human Rights Council. Our slogan for the UNSC campaign — which Abbott declared a waste of time — was “We do what we say”. But no sooner had Australia won the seat than Kevin Rudd began cutting back our foreign aid promises. Then Australia under Abbott, on its last day in the council, reversed its vote on the Palestinian issue for which Bob Carr as foreign minister had fought long and hard.

Julie Bishop, his successor as foreign minister, oversaw the re-integration of AUSAid into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to save money, the decline of funding and recruitment of diplomats and the resulting exodus from DFAT of able Australians who sought more promising careers elsewhere. Yet belatedly, as chancellor of ANU, she deplores the fact that our diplomatic weight fails to “reflect our status and our interests”. “Our word can’t be relied upon and can’t be trusted,” she now complains, and pleads for funding for DFAT and aid to be increased.

The most egregious recent example of Australia’s loss of international trust was at COP26, where we did not join the 190 adherents to the Glasgow Pact. Our delegation, once again claiming “we do what we say”, made no positive contribution and ended by endorsing the worst outcome: to “phase down” rather than “phase out” CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. This opens the way for more coal mines and more gas extraction, without even mentioning methane. Australia could not lift its aspirations even to 2030: re-election for the Coalition in 2022 was what drove our delegation.

Australia has not joined the 86 nations that have signed the Australian-initiated Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. (New Zealand has.) Australia is about to commit to another treaty allowing these weapons here. Australia opposes China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which rather than sending in troops is peacefully gaining adherents across Asia, central Europe and Africa. (New Zealand does not). Australia is reportedly unenthusiastic about China being admitted to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership to which Taiwan also aspires. If Australia is so lacking in an independent foreign policy, how can our diplomats advance our interests with any other country?

We now hear from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and its American influencers that we should go to war to defend democracy in Taiwan. So what about “we do what we say”? Australia and the United States since the 1970s have acknowledged that Taiwan is a province of China. Both countries under the ANZUS treaty are committed to refrain from the “threat or use of force”, which Australia has breached in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria and gained nothing. Defence Minister Peter Dutton thinks it “inconceivable” that we wouldn’t do it again in Taiwan.

Yet nothing about Taiwan’s current political arrangements or the ANZUS Treaty obliges us to go to war with China, as shadow foreign minister Penny Wong points out. “Amping up” war rather than diplomatically preserving strategic ambiguity courts another, worse disaster, she warns. Australia is in a “contest for influence”, she says, and what’s needed for that is revived diplomacy.

No sooner had Australia signed up for AUKUS, and committed to pay the US and UK whatever it costs, than we learned the US was taking advantage of China’s cuts to our mineral and energy exports by filling the gap with trade agreements for its own. If this had been discussed with Australia’s ambassadors in Washington or Beijing, they either said or did nothing. Australia has been treated by its great and powerful “friends” as a sucker for more than a century, but USUKA has never been a more appropriate acronym.

AUKUS was supposed to become a treaty in mid-2022. This would be after the election, and Parliament might have had time to ask if the basing of US aircraft carriers and nuclear bombers in Australia violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So on November 22 Dutton signed a “legally binding” treaty allowing access to Australia for the US nuclear technology required by AUKUS. Just like that. Australia claims to “do what we say”. Is there anything we won’t do?

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