As was widely anticipated, former foreign minister Bob Carr has resigned from the Senate, opening the way for the appointment of a new Labor Senator in New South Wales. In announcing his resignation, Carr described his period as foreign minister as being the learning equivalent of "a dozen PhDs" and an exercise in continuity.
In a year-and-a-half as foreign minister, Carr took a "steady as she goes" approach to running Australia’s foreign relations. He term was very much a matter of locking in policies that were already in play, rather than initiating any new direction in Australia’s international outlook.
Carr noted that his approach to China was consistent with pre-existing policy of stronger engagement in trade while treading carefully on more controversial diplomatic and strategic issues. In this, Australia under Carr took a very careful line on China’s claims in the South China Sea, that the territorial disputes should be settled through a multilateral discussion.
Such an approach was diplomatically inoffensive, but not one that China was ever likely to take much notice of.
Australia’s other main achievement under Carr was its securing of a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the bid for which had been put in place by Carr’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, when he was foreign minister. Again, this was consistent with his "continuity" approach.
Carr did claim, in announcing his resignation from the Senate, that he was pleased to have presided over "improved relations with the Arab world". While Australia has had slightly closer engagement with a number of Arab states, it is difficult to see any significant improvement in relations.
The so-called "Arab Spring" has led to more chaos than order and very little democracy. Australia’s role in any of that has been at the margins, primarily as an onlooker.
Carr’s main advantage as foreign minister was his erudite and somewhat urbane personal outlook. These well complemented his top Australian diplomatic role, helping to present a somewhat more sophisticated Australian face to the world than had previously been available, or deserved.
Had he more time, perhaps Carr would have been one of Australia’s better foreign ministers. But 18 months in office is too short a tenure other than to do exactly what he did, which was keep the seat warm and not make any mistakes.
Carr will now use his "dozen PhDs" of learning as a professorial fellow at the University of Sydney.
If Australian foreign policy has generally been marked by bipartisanship and, frankly, an element of disinterest by voters, the Lowy Institute debate between Foreign Minister Bob Carr and opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Julie Bishop last night (Monday 5 August) changed all that. There was a clear divide between the two that could, potentially, resonate with voters on September 7.
Bishop carved out a new Coalition policy position that foreign affairs would henceforth be about trying to secure Australia's economic interests. All else fell away by comparison. "Foreign policy will be trade policy," Bishop said, "and trade policy will be foreign policy."
The four-day visit to Australia by Burmese President Thein Sein, the first by a Burmese leader since the country descended into self-imposed isolation in 1974, marks the increasing international acceptability of the once outcast state. Thein Sein's arrival in Australia on Sunday reciprocates a visit by Foreign Minister Bob Carr to Myanmar (formerly Burma) last year.
Thein Sein's visit to Australia reflects the quickening pace of deepening relations between Australia and Myanmar and Australia's support for Myanmar's reform process, including increased aid to more than $100 million over the next three years. Thein Sein met with US President Barack Obama last November, marking the beginning of a rapid thaw in Myanmar's international relations and the ending of its international status as a pariah state.
Protesters in Australia have called on the Australian government to press the Burmese leader over continuing human rights concerns in Myanmar. These include continuing abuses by the military and police and two ethnic-based wars, in the northern Kachin State and Shan State. There has also been widespread international concern over attacks against ethnic Muslim Rohingyas in the western Rakhine State starting late last year, in which up to 2000 people are believed to have been killed and more than 80,000 displaced.
Thein Sein, a former general, was hand-picked for the presidency by hard-line predecessor General Than Shwe. Than Shwe is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including directing the violent crackdown against protesters, led by Buddhist monks, in 2007. It has become increasingly apparent Than Shwe handed power to Thein Sein to slowly transition the country towards a form of democracy. The exchange for this political transition was that senior military leaders would be protected from prosecution and the often substantial business interests of their families would remain unaffected.
Since assuming the leadership in 2011, Thein Sein has released political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and allowed the pro-democratic National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to compete in byelections, ahead of an open political competition in 2015.
The NLD recently held internal elections for candidates for the 2015 elections. Assuming the elections proceed without interference, it is widely expected the NLD will win a substantial majority. Thein Sein said last year he would be willing to hand over political power if the NLD achieved a parliamentary majority and Suu Kyi were elected president.
The Burmese leader's visit to Australia coincides with the launch of the Australia Myanmar Institute in Melbourne today. The AMI, a project between Deakin and Melbourne universities, is intended to develop a greater flow of information between Australia and Myanmar and to promote Myanmar's reform process.
Participants at the inaugural "Progress, Opportunities and Concerns in Myanmar's Transition" conference include two former Australian ambassadors to Myanmar, medical, legal and educational specialists, academics and businesses.