Australia’s foreign policy footprint

Punching above its weight, or not making the most of opportunities? What really is Australia’s place in the region?

Charlie Shandil

Government and governance, International relations | Australia

19 November 2015

Greater investment in relationship building with Australia’s neighbours could help the country drive its agenda in the Asian century, writes Charlie Shandil.

Australia, as the central western power in the Indo-Pacific, and with historical ties to Westminster and a close friendship with Washington, should have forced foreign policy to the forefront of its political agenda a long time ago. With the recently concluded trade agreements with China, Japan, Korea and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Australia is best positioned to drive its agenda into the Asian Century. Australia should harness the options that globalisation has provided us, better understand our strategic global position, and enforce both soft and hard diplomacy as required.

And yet, we don’t. In an address to the National Press Club of Australia, Dr Michael Fullilove, arguably one of Australia’s greatest foreign policy thinkers, explained why:

“One of the most pernicious clichés in my field is the claim that “Australia punches above its weight.” It’s meant to be a compliment, but it’s inaccurate and demeaning… We don’t punch above our weight; we punch at our weight. Sometimes, I’m afraid, we punch below our weight.”

Globalisation is the key to the door of endless opportunity. The only way Australia can channel the opportunities of globalisation is by having a better, bigger and stronger diplomatic presence all over the world. Instead, as Fullilove explained in his 2015 Boyer Lecture:

“Australia’s diplomatic network is the smallest in the G20, sharing last place with Saudi Arabia …our network of 110 missions still looks stunted compared with the OECD average of 131 missions and the G20 average of 189 missions. We have fewer posts than Portugal or Belgium, for example, even though these countries are half our size and enjoy more predictable geopolitical circumstances. Even Greece – which is tiny and broke – has a larger network than we do.”

Some may argue that when it comes to our offshore footprint, it’s not size that matters, but how we use it. However, there are flaws in this argument. Australia’s role within the Asian Century is crucial to its foreign policy, and has the potential to place the country as one of the leaders in the region. There is no mistaking that the two most significant players into the future will be China and India.

Since its economic reforms in 1978, China is the fastest-growing economy in the world, the largest exporter and second largest importer, has the largest purchasing power parity (PPP) and second largest economy by nominal GDP, and is the world’s most populous country with approximately 1.4 billion people. Further, China is a recognised nuclear weapons state, and has the world’s second-largest defence budget holding the world’s largest standing army.

Similarly, since its market-based economic reforms in 1991, India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with the third largest PPP and seventh largest nominal GDP, is the second most populous nation in the world with 1.2 billion people, and is the largest democracy. It is also a nuclear weapons state, has the third largest standing army in the world, and is ranked ninth in military expenditure.

With such potential for Australia in trade, strategic alliance and diplomacy, and positioned at our doorstep, it is surprising that its diplomatic engagement with these two power nations is so scarce. Looking only at a physical presence – which says a lot for a nation’s alliance with the host country – in China, Australia has one Embassy (Beijing) and four Consulate-Generals (Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Shanghai), while in India Australia has one High Commission (New Delhi) and two Consulate-Generals (Chennai and Mumbai).

Australia’s offshore footprint appears stunted compared to our counterparts in the UK who boast six missions in China and seven in India, and the US with seven missions in China and five in India. Another important difference is that Australia’s regional position is more aligned with China and India than the UK or US’s alignment with these nations.

Having a diplomatic footprint is an expensive endeavour, and some argue that Australia should ‘look after its own backyard first’. However, in 2015-16 the total expenditure for the Australian Government is estimated to be $434.5 billion, $1.6 billion of which will be appropriated to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). That is 0.37 per cent. To put matters further into perspective, of its $1.6 billion allocation, DFAT will use $98.3 million to open five new posts in Doha, Makassar, Ulaanbaatar, Phuket and Buka, and also rebuild the Washington embassy. Therefore, it costs the Australian Government only 0.023 per cent of its annual budget to open five new embassies.

Irrespective of the budget however, the issue is not about diverting funding away from Australia’s ‘backyard’, but rather placing a greater emphasis on foreign policy and Australia’s position on the global stage. Australia is not the lapdog of the US or the poorer cousin of the UK; it has its own place and the potential of great power in the region. As the centre of power continues to shift from the west to the east, Australia is best positioned regionally to play a significant role in shaping how the future looks.

During the Hawke/Keating governments, Australia demonstrated how it can shape the global environment. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, in a recent interview, said one of the most significant policy achievements of his time was evolving the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) from a ministerial forum, to a much more powerful leader’s forum bringing China, Japan, Indonesia and the USA to the same table.

Australia again has an opportunity to shape the region. While continuing to engage in pan-global forums, it is now time to focus specifically on shaping the country’s relationship with the peaceful countries of Southeast Asia. However, the only way to harness this opportunity is through Australia’s offshore footprint; it will play a key role in relationship building, determining what regional policies should look like, and driving Australia’s participation in the region.

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