Australia’s foreign policy directly affects our trade, security, peace, and international standing. So too does diplomacy. It should be the front line of advancing Australia’s national interest through persuasion and good relationships, especially in our Asia-Pacific region. 

As a strong, confident, self-reliant democracy, Australia has the capacity to play a prominent role in helping solve the big global issues of global poverty, climate change, conflict, and displacement of people.

However, underfunded diplomacy, ideological government policy, record low levels of foreign aid, reluctance to act on climate, increased and often misguided military spending (up 300% since 2000), and some inept diplomacy all threaten Australia’s interests and standing on the global stage, particularly in our relations with China – our biggest trading partner. 

Our plan

  • Follow the lead of the Biden administration in bringing diplomacy back to the centre of foreign policy
  • Reverse the cuts of the last decade to Australia’s investment in diplomacy and aid, lifting it from the current 1.3% to at least 4% of the Federal budget 
  • Bring foreign aid to 0.7% of gross national income by 2025, currently 0.21% and just 0.74% of the Federal budget
  • Assist, as a matter of urgency, the delivery of Covid vaccines to the world’s poorest countries and those in our region.
  • Implement a realistic pathway to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 – see our Decade of climate action platform
  • Refocus our military capability to one of defence rather than offence – see our Stronger Defence platform
  • Commit to never being drawn into wars that are not sanctioned by the UN General Assembly and the Australian Parliament
  • Work to reduce tensions between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China
  • Urge the US to remove the sanctions that are causing a humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and open safe channels for NGO aid funding 
  • Take a lead role in promoting nuclear disarmament 
  • Stop holding asylum seekers in immigration detention and end offshore processing of people seeking asylum 
  • Fast track the permanent visa process for Afghan evacuees and their families 

Our plan in detail

Although Australia has a relatively small population, it is a middle power in the Pacific with the capacity to support the democracy and development of our near neighbours, Pacific Island states, and populous countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines.  

We must also:

  • maintain a role in the Pacific Islands Forum, enhance economic cooperation in our region through PACER Plus (free Trade) and be willing to offer financing alternatives to those of China in the region
  • maintain strong ties with like-minded countries in the Asia-Pacific, particularly New Zealand, Japan and South Korea 
  • expand economic and political dialogue with India through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (India, Japan, Australia and the USA) 
  • maintain close dialogue with members of ASEAN 
  • support free trade through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership between Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam. 

Aust has 90 fewer diplomats posted overseas than it did in 1989 and one of the smallest diplomatic networks of all developed countries.

While the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has endured ongoing funding cuts in the last decade, spending on defence increased by 291%, ASIO by 528%, and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service by 578%.

At a time of closed borders, countless Australians stranded overseas, disrupted supply chains, thousands of evacuee arrivals from Afghanistan, and a dire need to assist developing countries, and indeed Australia, to access vaccines and PPE equipment, it is clear that capacity in foreign affairs and trade is grossly inadequate.

Australia’s aid program has a narrow geographic focus, a stagnant budget, a reliance on outsourced contract management, and, arguably, a focus on outputs rather than outcomes. The Lowy Institute

Properly targeted foreign aid can have profound effects and should be increased to improve the economic and social welfare of the poorest people in the world.  

The UK was able to achieve 0.7% of Gross National Income of foreign aid – the UN target by 2015 – despite severe budgetary problems of its own.  

This spending is in Australia’s direct national interest as it assists in:  

  • Reducing unsustainable refugee flows from failed states  
  • Discourages terrorist action against Australia and Australians  
  • Improves the standing of Australia in the world.  

According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development:

The Covid pandemic has reversed years of progress on poverty, hunger, gender equality, healthcare, and education. While the virus has impacted everyone, it is harming the world’s poorest and vulnerable the most. It has exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities and injustices.

Women and children have borne the brunt of the crisis. Many women face increased economic insecurity and have taken on additional care work due to the closure of schools and day-care centres. Lockdowns increased the risk of violence against women and girls. Disrupted healthcare and limited access to food and nutrition services may result in hundreds of thousands of deaths of children under five and tens of thousands of maternal deaths. 

Access to vaccines is very limited in developing countries, particularly in Africa where rates of people fully vaccinated are as low as zero and few are more than 20%. In PNG just 4% of the population was fully vaccinated in early 2022, Afghanistan 11.8%, Timor Leste 51%. Less than half of India’s population of 1.5 billion and Indonesia’s 292 million have been fully vaccinated.

It is essential that Australia is a positive force for climate action. Australia should heed the criticism by island states at the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) and take a lead in reducing emissions and in mitigating the effects of climate change in the Pacific. 

Australia should support global efforts to protect biodiversity and natural habitats (see our climate and environmental policies). 

The recent AUKUS (Australia, UK and USA) treaty and plan to develop a nuclear submarine capacity mean Australia will be ‘tied up’ with the USA and the UK for decades to come. AUKUS may not have been a good choice, and cancellation of the French contract was clumsy and dishonest, but, the fact is that Australia will continue to maintain close military and economic ties with these traditional allies. 

US engagement in the Asia Pacific will likely balance the rise of China and our political system and the future may depend on maintaining that balance. 

However, it is not in Australia’s interests for our military focus to be offensive, as AUKUS would imply. Our capability should be defensive for economic, strategic, and diplomatic reasons. Our alliances must be strong in the Asia Pacific region, our role supportive – an influence for peace, democracy, human rights, and fair trade.

Australia has a history of assistance in conflict resolution, eg. the Solomon Islands, Cambodia, and establishing order in Honiara. Our peacekeepers in Timor Leste were instrumental in its independence, a relationship since damaged by Australia’s role in acting against Timor’s rightful interest in offshore oil and gas resources.

Australia has the capacity to reduce tensions and to resolve conflict in our region but the recent unilateral announcement calling for an ‘investigation’ into China’s role in the Covid19 pandemic, was inept and largely fruitless.  Defence Minister Peter Dutton declared that ‘it would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action’ [over China’s intentions on Taiwan]. That provocation resulted, unsurprisingly, in a strong rebuke from China and public dismay at the prospect of being drawn into such a war.  

Australia’s diplomatic effort should focus on the Asia Pacific rather than conflicts beyond our region, other than for United Nations peace support operations, which Australia has strongly supported since 1947. 

The 2003-2009 US-led Iraq invasion was deemed illegal under international law, because it was neither motivated by a need for self-defence, nor sanctioned by a UN Security Council resolution according to the International Commission of Jurists.

Australia’s decision to join the war on Iraq was based on claims that it had weapons of mass destruction, contradicting the evidence from weapons inspectors that there were none. 

Following the 9/11 attack, Prime Minister Howard invoked the ANZUS treaty as the reason for entering the Afghan conflict with the US, together with NATO countries, stating that ‘Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty applies to the terrorist attacks on the United States.’ 

Article IV states that: ‘Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security. 

Our subsequent 20-year involvement, and 2021 withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan, should have cautioned us against over-reach, and attempting to project military force well outside our sphere of influence. 

Australia contributed the 2nd largest amount to the Afghan National Army Trust Fund of any nation during the conflict, amounting to USD 680 million, only to see the Afghan army collapse within weeks of US withdrawal and the Taliban retake control. In addition to Australian servicemen and women whose lives were lost and ruined, the financial cost of Australia’s military engagement is estimated to be $8.4 billion.

In 2021 5.7 million Afghans were forcibly displaced, 12 million Afghans now face crisis levels of food insecurity.

US sanctions froze $9.5 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves and prohibited dealings with the Taliban which have disrupted financial transactions, supply chains, and aid programs. 

Afghanistan is heavily dependent on aid and, as Afghan public servants, teachers, doctors, and other professionals flee the country, there is a grave risk of economic decline, exacerbated by years of drought. Australia should accept its responsibility as a player in this prolonged conflict and continue to support the Afghan people. It should use its wealth and influence to persuade the Taliban regime to respect human rights, the rights of women to participate in all levels of society, and for education to be the cornerstone of recovery. 

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported in 2021 that the 9 nuclear-armed states (USA, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) possessed around 13,080 nuclear weapons at the start of 2021, which was a slight decrease from the beginning of 2020 (see table below). However, the estimated number of nuclear weapons currently deployed with operational forces increased to 3825, from 3720 in 2020.

In 2020 around 2000 nuclear weapons, nearly all of which belong to Russia or the USA were kept in a state of high operational alert.

Total 2021Total 2020
UK 120105225215
N. Korea[40-50][40-50][30-40]
Source: SIPRI Yearbook 2021

Australian governments were once at the forefront of nuclear disarmament campaigns but have since taken the position that US nuclear weapons enhance Australia’s security. Views differ on this concept of deterrence but Chatham House engaged with 8 experts in the field and concluded that a number of factors cast doubt on the overall credibility of nuclear deterrence in its present manifestations.

The Federal Government boycotted the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, initiated in 2007 by an Australian NGO, ICAN. The Treaty has now been ratified by more than 50 countries, came into force in January 2021, and is now permanent international law. The first meeting of States Parties will take place in March 2022 and Australia should at least be there as an observer.

The Australian Democrats became an ‘ICAN Partner’ in 2019.

According to the Lowy Institute, the potential for a full-scale new global nuclear arms race is clearly there.

Australia must push for:

  • The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 
  • A ban on the development of weapons that can threaten space systems 
  • A ban on offensive cyber capabilities  
  • All nuclear weapons states to be signatories to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty 
  • A reduction in the deployment of nuclear warheads

The suppression of human rights is a common feature of many governments, and criticism has also been leveled at Australia’s record.

In January 2021, 122 countries made 344 recommendations in Australia’s Universal Periodic Review. In July 2021 the Australian Government accepted 177 of these but rejected 167, including key recommendations to prohibit children being held in immigration detention, ending offshore processing of people seeking asylum, and raising the age of criminal responsibility above 10. Nevertheless, with a more enlightened approach, Australia can set a strong example, and that example can provide leverage in dialogue with other countries about their human rights abuses. 

Globally, women must be equal participants with men in decision-making across government, in development of foreign policy, and within the community. Australia should strongly argue for equal rights for women and girls in all aspects of life and against gender-based violence and social injustice both at home and overseas. This includes equal numbers of men and women to represent Australia in foreign postings. In 2016 only 19% of senior diplomatic posts were held by women, but since the appointment of Frances Adamson as DFAT’s secretary between 2016 and 2021, the number of women leading posts increased to 39% (see here our platform on gender equality). 

Australia needs to manage relationships with the major powers more carefully without surrendering ground on key security issues such as foreign control of critical Australian infrastructure or Australian internal affairs.

In 1972 the Whitlam government recognised the Peoples Republic of China as the sole government of China. Since 1972 Taiwan has progressed from martial law to the be rated 11 out of 167 nations in the World Democracy Index  (with Australia at 9), but only 13 countries and the Vatican currently recognise Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has maintained its long-standing goal of annexing Taiwan. Xi Jinping stated recently that the CCP must and will take over Taiwan. With or without Taiwan, China will be the world’s largest economic power, and like all major powers, it is likely to export its governance style and advance its own interests. Australia should therefore aim to improve trade relations with China, in particular the import of renewable energy technologies and the export of primary products, except for fossil fuels. But whilst Australia should not ignore human rights abuses, the pointless antagonism of China by Australian government ministers needs to be avoided.

It is possible that the USA may swing back to Republican control at the next US election, which may present challenges to liberal democratic countries hoping to make progress on environmental and social issues. Relying exclusively on the USA for security will also become more difficult. Any military assets Australia buys from the USA (or other countries) need to be operable independently of external control. 

Ideally, closer relationships and alliances can be forged with like-minded democratic states and the EU to improve collective security and wellbeing.  

Australia should have a clear and generous strategy to support small nations in our region in economic development and security.

PNG, Bougainville, Timor Leste, and the South Pacific. Low-lying islands such as Tuvalu are at enormous risk from climate-related sea level rises and Australia should not only take stronger action on greenhouse abatement but indicate a willingness to assist in adaptation and resettlement. 

Australia should grant citizens from these nations the right to work in Australia and ensure free trade. 

In general, free trade between nations has been a net positive for Australia and other nations That said there are multiple issues with existing Free Trade Agreements (FTA’s) that need to be considered with future agreements:

  • FTA’s rarely consider the environment or human rights. This needs to be corrected to avoid member states engaging in an environmental race to the bottom. 
  • Multilateral FTA’s should build in common rules on tax and employee protections. Without this the FTA becomes another race to the bottom for member States. Multilateralism favoured over bilateralism for the sake of simplicity and to improve compliance. 
  •  No onerous investor-state clauses. While investors need to be protected from having governments openly steal their property, democratic governments should have the right to tighten environmental, health, social and other regulations without being sued. 
  • No excessive intellectual property rights. Companies and individuals need to get reasonable return on investment for taking the risk to create new IP but this should not be allowed to become anti-competitive or clearly against the interests of ordinary consumers. 
  • A potential outcome of global ‘free trade’ is that companies may become global monopolies. This may yield significant efficiencies, but global monopolies may also exploit their position to the detriment of consumers around the world, as has sometimes been seen during the current global pandemic. FTA’s need to recognise this possibility and build in protections against this outcome. 

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

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