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In trying to understand what kind of neighbour Australia wants to be in the Asia-Pacific, a regional roundup is as good as any.
Speaking at the Australian National University’s annual Australia 360 event last Tuesday, a panel of academics broke down Australia’s key regional relationships, starting in Southeast Asia.
“Australia needs to care about Southeast Asia not only for the transactional,” said Dr Mathew Davies, head of the Department of International Relations.
“Not only for its commitments and role in regional order but because it asks us to reimagine what it means to be a state in this geographic region.”
Focusing on the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ahead of a special summit to be held in Australia next year, Dr Davies said the regional organisation found itself in a bind.
“It’s promised its citizens and subjects that ASEAN is now going to be people-centric, it’s going to be socially responsible – yet there remains a significant gap in delivery,” he said.
In Northeast Asia, the stakes of Australian diplomacy are substantially higher.
Dr Amy King from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre said, to date, sanctions against North Korea hadn’t had much effect at all.
“I think this is a wicked problem that really confounds policy makers,” Dr King said.
Australia needed to put itself in the mind of the players involved, even to the extent of considering North Korea’s security concerns, and reconsider the impact of military exercises.
Regarding China, Dr King said even in the last three months, Australia’s rhetoric was marked by negativity.
“Australia’s really gone cold on this issue,” she said.
China’s increasing regional importance demanded a refresh in Australian considerations of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the relationship more generally, Dr King argued.
Mr James Batley, from the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program, said with no coups, natural disasters or diplomatic fiascos recently, the South Pacific looked stable.
Significant events included the addition of new member states into the Pacific Islands Forum, the end of the Solomon Islands RAMSI operations in June and the July re-election of Peter O’Neill in Papua New Guinea.
With economic growth remaining subpar right across the Pacific, Mr Batley said, “there are clearly some serious issues emerging in the region.”
Yet, Mr Batley was buoyed by increasing Australian government interest and visitation in the Pacific.
Professor Rory Medcalf, director of the National Security College, said sustained border tensions between India and China was the biggest story in South Asia in recent times.
“We’re beginning to see new uncertainties enter South Asia,” he said.
In lieu of any strategic or diplomatic conflicts, Australia and India’s relationship was also entering a new phase, Professor Medcalf said.
With so many countries trying to engage with India, “we’re struggling to find a really sustained positive agenda,” he said.
Australia’s relationship with the USA needs to be deeper, wider and avoid being personalised said the head of the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy, Professor Geoffrey Wiseman.
“I think what we’re seeing on the diplomatic side is the Trump administration moving in the direction of a military-centric foreign policy,” he said.
According to the professor, diplomacy in general, and the US State Department in particular, were being sidelined.
“The Trump presidency will be characterised by a highly personalised, unpredictable and, dare I say, less great future over the next three and a half years,” he said.
By Pat Griffiths