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Australia's foreign policy clumsiness is losing us the Asia-Pacific

After balking at its first diplomatic test over revelations of spying on Indonesia last year, there was still a reasonable expectation that the new government would quickly find its foreign policy feet. Julie Bishop as foreign minister was intended to present a firm but friendly policy face to the world, while Tony Abbott got on with domestic policy.

It appears now, however, that it’s actually Abbott who enjoys the world stage, while Bishop seems constrained in her ability to act. In a deeply enmeshed world, this arrangement is manifesting as a poor feel for (or a lack of understanding of) the nuances of foreign policy.

Australia is now explicitly viewed as a problem by an increasingly nationalist Indonesia, eyed with suspicion by an assertive China and with anger or tepid acceptance by formerly close regional friends.

Comments by Indonesia’s two presidential candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, made ahead of this year's election, cast Australia as the problem in formerly close bilateral relations. Bishop’s failure to offer a quick apology over Australian spying on Indonesia was an "own goal". The apology eventually came, but it was too little and much too late.

This was exacerbated by Australia’s policy of unilaterally pushing asylum seekers back into Indonesia waters, transgressing Indonesian territorial sovereignty and, more recently, returning asylum seekers in Australian-supplied life boats. Bilateral cooperation put on ice last year will probably stay in the deep freeze until at least 2015.

Even further to the north, Australia’s downgrading of ties with long-standing friend, Thailand, was justified in response to the May military coup. But this led to an angry rebuke by junta leader, general Prayuth Chan-ocha, who will remain as Thailand's head of government for at least 18 months. Australia has, for the time-being, lost not just Indonesia but Thailand’s support in regional forums such as the strategic Asean regional forum, the east Asia summit and others.

More locally, Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea is under renewed pressure, following corruption investigator Sam Koin’s call for Australia to "take a greater interest" in allegations that embattled PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill. Last year O’Neill criticised then-opposition leader Tony Abbott’s "completely untrue" claims over Australian aid to PNG being linked to an asylum seeker processing agreement.

''We are not going to put up with this kind of nonsense,'' he said. ''We are helping resolving an Australian issue.

There is little doubt that PNG is riddled with problems. As PNG’s largest aid provider, Australia has a right to be concerned over good governance. But this interest is increasingly unwelcome.

Earlier this year, Australia moved to normalise relations with Fiji, following the 2006 coup. Unfortunately for us, Fiji has long since dumped Australia as its dominant regional partner. We've been replaced by China’s, which offers "soft power" diplomacy, in the form of loans and investment. Fiji also recently welcomed Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a sign of strengthening relations with Indonesia, as it increases its own influence as a growing regional power.

China is playing a similarly more influential role with Australia’s other Pacific neighbors. The status of the Pacific as Australia's backyard has long since dissipated – Australia’s aid program has been contorted to fit changing domestic politics, our economy can't match growing regional powers and our strategic orientation remains transfixed by the distant spectre of militant Islamism.

Australia’s largest trading partner, China, has tolerated Australia’s diplomatic clumsiness. After Abbott identified Japan as Australia’s "best friend", he responded to China's partially concealed irritation by assiduously courting the growing regional power during his recent Asian trip. These negotiations were, in turn, conducted while Abbott walks the tightrope of a US alliance competing with Chinese trade.

Globally, the Australian government’s enthusiasm for supporting a return to Iraq before the US has defined its own policy position, its questionable approach to climate change and now its failed attempt to overturn the Tasmanian forest world heritage listing, has left Australia further diplomatically isolated.

Foreign policy primarily reflects domestic political concerns and there is little doubt that the Australian government would like to see a seamless link between the two. How likely is that dream? While the government struggles under the critical appraisal of a disenchanted electorate, the international stage looks more like a minefield – in part of its own making – that it seems only marginally equipped to avoid.

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