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Whole-of-nation effort needed to chart a course in changing Asia


Feb. 12, 2020

They recognise the inevitability of a more competitive US-China relationship but do not want that competition to become dangerously destabilising.
Like Australia, they want the region to remain open economically and integrated through free trade agreements that support World Trade Organisation disciplines.
Australian diplomacy has a strong track record in Asia but is undervalued when it comes to doling out money in Canberra.
Asian nations will continue determinedly to juggle their relationships with Washington and Beijing, doing their best to avoid making difficult choices.
China is too big, too close and far too important to the rest of Asia – and to Australia, for that matter – for other partners to simply substitute for it. That won’t happen.
But a more contested and competitive Indo-Pacific does mean many Asian nations are interested in doing what they can to diversify and balance their relationships.
They want options – more than one partner they can turn to – whether for foreign investment or trade or security cooperation or development assistance.
This dynamic is helping drive the remarkable recent trajectory of Australia’s relationship with Vietnam.
It is evident in the way Australia now features in Indonesia’s strategic outlook.
It helps explain India’s growing comfort with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which brings Australia, Japan, India and the US together, despite previous ambivalence, and maturing India-Australia defence ties.
Opportunities abound
Our already deep relationship with Japan has been given renewed impetus.
There is opportunity elsewhere. Even tiny Laos, with the weight of China on its geographically narrow shoulders, would like more attention from Australia.
This is a moment to seize – to build ever stronger direct and independent connections to Asia and to support the resilience and sovereignty of close partners feeling the pressures of a contested world.
How are we doing?
Building on the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper , the government is investing in our major bilateral relationships, especially India, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and the Republic of Korea.
Witness the Prime Minister’s visit to Vietnam last year with its ambitious list of initiatives and Morrison’s intuitive call for a “region of sovereign interdependent states, resistant to coercion but open to engagement on the basis of shared interests”. Expect more of the same when the Prime Minister’s visit to India is rescheduled.
Regional programs support resilience in areas such as infrastructure and cyber and maritime security. New trade deals have been negotiated. Regional architecture, particularly the East Asia Summit, remains a priority.
Gaps to fill
There is energy and commitment here but also some gaps worthy of attention.
More ministers from more portfolios need to visit Asian capitals – there is simply no substitute for turning up. Foreign Minister Payne works tirelessly but can’t be everywhere at once.
The recently announced review of Australia’s aid program is an opportunity to reboot and stabilise Australia’s aid to Southeast Asia, which has suffered repeated cuts and changes in programming in recent years.
But other countries use aid to southeast Asia to build influence and encourage political and business elites to lean towards them. In short, aid is a tool of statecraft. This is the hard reality of the current contest for power, influence and economic advantage in the region.
Australia, too, must compete with all the policy tools at its disposal. In much of the Mekong region, for example, our bilateral and regional aid looks significantly underdone for the current era of geopolitical contestation. Supporting regional resilience does not come cost-free.
And despite its growth record, millions of people in southeast Asia still live in extreme poverty.
A stronger on-the-ground commercial presence would help build Australia’s 'weight' in Asia.
Australian diplomacy has a strong track record in Asia but is undervalued when it comes to doling out money in Canberra.
Yet diplomacy will always be the first and principal Australian response to a rapidly changing region.
Diplomacy coordinates across government. It is the tool by which we can maximise our interests in this period of opportunity, translating the needs of regional partners into practical collaboration that binds us closer.
Investing in diplomacy is not just about the right level of base funding. It also means getting serious about prioritisation.
No expansion without a bigger budget
The time has come to halt any further expansion of our global diplomatic network without a major new injection of budgetary resources.
New overseas missions in recent years have plugged some big gaps in Asia and the South Pacific. This was important to do, but any further expansion without new funding risks coming at the cost of “thinning out” existing posts in Asia at a time when we need them to be as match fit as possible.
Finally, a stronger on-the-ground commercial presence would help build Australia’s “weight” in Asia.
Free trade agreements will only ever be a partial remedy. But deeper liberalisation of the services sectors in Asia – in finance, health and education, for example – and further work to tackle non-tariff barriers will over time open more opportunities for Australia to build its commercial presence.
Getting Australian company boards to visit the region more regularly, as some of Australia’s senior diplomats in Asia have been doing, and cultivating more business leaders with deep Asia experience could also help our companies feel more confident about navigating the risks of doing business in Asia while taking advantage of the growing opportunities in our neighbourhood.
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