Australia’s die-hard diplomacy

Author: Susan Harris Rimmer, ANU

What an extraordinary beginning to foreign policy Australia has seen under the new Abbott government, especially in the realm of diplomacy. There has been more drama in a few months than would normally fill a book reviewing the decade.

Australia’s first female foreign minister, Julie Bishop, was sworn in and days later chaired the UN Security Council as Australian president for the first time in decades. The Snowden leaks showed that Australia tapped the phones of the Indonesian president, his wife and friends. The Indonesian ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, was recalled to Jakarta and is still there. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono voiced displeasure on Twitter. Liberal Party strategist Mark Textor gave a master class in e-diplomacy — what not to do — with an ill-conceived Twitter message about an unnamed Indonesian politician. Prime Minister Abbott appeared late for the 2013 APEC summit because he was hanging out with the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper. Prime Minister Abbott also appeared to make light of torture, stating that ‘sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen’, while attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka — in stark contrast to Prime Minister David Cameron, who strongly urged the Rajapaksa government to establish an inquiry into alleged war crimes.

Chinese ambassador Ma Zhaoxu was called in by Julie Bishop over China’s air defence zone. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi rebuked Bishop, and Australia, in front of international press at the most awkward-looking meal of the year. (Possibly of any year.) Timor-Leste accused Australia of spying over the law of the sea case involving large oil and gas reserves. Australia failed to send a minister to the Warsaw climate negotiations in November. Trade negotiations were leaked during Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Aung San Suu Kyi made her first official visit. Australia’s host year of the G20 began. The Zimbabwean ambassador claimed asylum. Australian environmental protesters got locked up in Russia. Australia saw its first suicide bomber in Syria. The closing arguments in the whaling case against Japan were delivered at the International Court of Justice. Australia’s national aid agency, AusAID, was abolished, aid was cut, and aid policy and climate negotiations were handed back to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Former foreign ministers Bob Carr and Alexander Downer kept up a constant stream of media commentary on all of the above stories.

The new Abbott government has had greatness thrust upon them in foreign policy terms, with the Security Council term and the G20 Leaders’ Summit elevating Australia’s normal diplomatic standing. The government has also had foreign policy disaster thrust upon them in relation to the Indonesian spying leaks, which date from 2009 and the Rudd government in power at the time. But diplomacy is all about nuance and the manner in which you react to the situations thrown up by the anarchical society that is international relations in 2014.

Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop have talked about being ‘open for business’ and sticking to Australia’s values. Those values appear to shift depending on whether the government is dealing with Sri Lanka, the Burmese opposition or China’s air defence zone policy. What is the narrative? Australia looks towards its Anglophone partners like the United States when the slightest stir happens with China, but what about Indonesia’s position as Australia’s most important neighbour? Bishop has shown considerable grace under fire in China, although many have argued that calling in the new Chinese ambassador was an overreaction. Australia needs to show restraint in lining up too quickly with the United States over China. Australian trade and investment minister Andrew Robb seems to have participated well in the Bali WTO negotiations in December, but the trade negotiation leaks do not reflect well on Canberra. The environment minister, Greg Hunt, is also going to have to do better in public climate debates than referencing Wikipedia in a BBC interview. Tony Abbott has got to abandon some of his forthright style when it comes to Indonesian relations, and there was no need to court public controversy over Sri Lankan torture allegations.

Foreign policy and diplomatic relations are not as easy as they look. Being in government means you have to master this difficult area of public policy. At the moment it looks more like Mr Toad’s wild ride.

Susan Harris Rimmer is Director of Studies at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University.

The article is a part of an EAF special feature series on 2013 in review and the year ahead.