The decline in Australian diplomatic skills

May 4, 2022
Flags of many countries amongst wooden blocks, China at the forefront
Australia’s diplomatic presence in Asia today, like Australia’s foreign affairs department, is fading. Image: iStock

The Solomon Islands fiasco confirms what some of us have long known – the gradual decline in the quality of Australian foreign policy.

The Bougainville copper mine and subsequent conflicts gave Australia a commercial and political interest in the islands going back to the sixties
An experienced and ranking diplomatic presence having good relations with the Solomons’ leadership could have foreseen and helped head off any move towards China – assuming such a move would have been harmful to Australian interests.

But Canberra in its fascination with pie-in-the-sky submarine deals seems to have ignored the Solomons and the other Pacific islands.

If China is supposed to be some kind of threat, then to meet that threat a proper diplomatic presence in the Solomons and other island territories would have been far cheaper, much more effective and certainly much more immediate than a few ANKUS subs promised ten or twenty years away .

Postwar Australia used to have an effective Asian diplomacy; wartime realities had made Canberra very aware of Asia. For good or bad, it pestered the US into creating ANZUS.

It created the Colombo plan to bring promising young Asian bureaucrats to Australia for training; the goodwill from that plan still lingers.

Our man in Jakarta – Tom Critchley – gained us a generation of Indonesian goodwill for his diplomatic efforts, including getting Canberra to agree to Indonesia’s sovereignty over West New Guinea. Our man in Tokyo – John Menadue – worked hard to get bureaucrats in both Tokyo and Canberra to establish the Australia -Japan Foundation and the Working Holiday scheme that has allowed generations of young Australians and Japanese to know each other.

Australia’s diplomatic presence in Asia today, like Australia’s foreign affairs department, is fading. The spies and the soldiers now dominate. Bungled spy operations did enormous damage to relations with Indonesia and to a Timor-leste already ravaged partly as a result of Canberra’s Communism-in-Asia hysteria.

Policy to China has been an even greater disaster. The goodwill created in the Whitlam years and carried through to the early 2000’s has been replaced by a snarling antagonism.

It is easy to blame the spies and soldiers in cahoots with Washington. But there should at least have been some carryover from the past. There has been no Critchley to stand up and stop the rot. Foreign Affairs seems to have become an appendage of an intelligence network devoted to ferreting out alleged Chinese spies and agents of influence.

China is going to be around for a long time. There is no hint of a longterm strategy.

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