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Defence or Diplomacy?

By Dr Alison Broinowski, AWPR Vice-President

When the government’s Defence Strategic Update was released in September 2020, the Prime Minister anticipated ‘Defence forming even deeper links and trust with regional armed forces a further expansion in our defence, diplomacy, cooperation, and capability and capacity building’. But the Update and its accompanying Force Structure Plan said nothing about diplomacy or aid. The only capabilities and capacities the two reports envisaged building were for the armed services.

Australia’s investment in development and diplomacy has fallen to its lowest ever as a percentage of national budget expenditure. Negotiation with countries outside a narrow allied group is mistrusted, scepticism of contrary opinion is encouraged and expertise scorned, nationalism and militarism are favoured over collaboration, economic isolationism displaces multilateral cooperation, political ‘strongmen’ are validated over democratic governments, and international agreements and conventions are routinely breached. (Melissa Conley Tyler, ‘How to rebuild Australia’s Diplomatic Capacity’, Australian Foreign Affairs, October 2019).

This is not new. DFAT has no natural voter constituency and is a recurrent target for expenditure cuts. But Australia’s ‘diplomatic deficit’ has deepened since the Lowy Institute identified it in 2011. Recent figures prove the emptiness of the Prime Minister’s promise of diplomatic expansion. The military budget will grow by 87.4 percent over the coming decade. Spending on ODA has fallen from $5.5 billion to $4 billion since 2015-16. By 2030, growth in defence spending and cuts to aid will result in ODA dropping to one-sixteenth of what Australia spends on defence. Historically, the defence budget has been between five and eight times the aid budget: the gap is now much wider. DFAT has recently lost 60 positions due to ‘budget issues following COVID-19’, but why those issues don’t affect Defence staffing is not explained.

Australia has for more than a decade had the smallest diplomatic network of all G20 nations and has fewer diplomatic missions than most of them. Smaller countries take diplomacy more seriously – New Zealand and several Latin American states in particular – and are more effective in multilateral organisations than Australia. The ‘international rules-based order’ our leaders often cite is what middle powers must rely on, but Australia fails to consult such countries, and our foreign and defence policies and priorities are widely seen as little different from those of the United States. We often act in disregard of the UN Charter, the ANZUS Treaty and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, all of which commit countries to refrain from the threat or use of force.

Having promoted ‘good international citizenship’ in the past, Australia now fails to meet international targets for greenhouse gas emissions, treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and human rights of indigenous people. Australia selectively criticises the human rights failings of China and North Korea, but not of Israel, and not of the US and UK in respect of Diego Garcia. Australia still has forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq for no good or legitimate reason. Australia refuses to sign the anti-nuclear treaty which Australians drafted.

The Defence Strategic Update claims that Australia faces the greatest threat to our independence since 1942. If so, diplomacy should be our first resort, and armed force our last. If China threatens Australia, we should seek to rebuild communications with Beijing. We should consult our neighbours about accommodating legitimate Chinese aspirations, rather than joining with others to encircle China by force. As former Ambassador Geoff Raby says, if we treat China as an enemy, it will become one. In a military contest with China, Australia would lose.

The world faces a global pandemic. Efforts to save lives and rebuild the global economy are contradicted by plans to threaten other countries with lethal weapons. Now more than ever, Australia needs diplomacy and development strategies more than militaristic ones, and our resourcing of DFAT should reflect that.

Dr Alison Broinowski joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1963, lived in Japan for a total of six years, and for shorter periods in Burma, Iran, the Phillippines, Jordan, South Korea, the United States of America and Mexico, working alternatively as an author and Australian diplomat.

Since leaving DFAT she has received a PhD in Asian Studies from ANU, and has continued to lecture, write, and broadcast in Australia and abroad on Asian affairs and cultural and political issues.

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