Problems in Australian Foreign Policy: January-July 1997

By Johnston, W. Ross; Stokes, Geoffrey | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Problems in Australian Foreign Policy: January-July 1997


Johnston, W. Ross, Stokes, Geoffrey, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Introduction

During the first six months of 1997, Australian foreign policy-makers faced three major challenges -- overcoming a crisis in Papua New Guinea which briefly threatened the survival of civilian government; building a durable relationship with the new leadership of China which could accommodate an independent Australian line on sensitive issues such as human rights and Taiwan; and persuading Australia's major allies to adopt a flexible regime of international climate change controls. In the first instance, the crisis passed, but without any solution to its underlying causes. Engaging China will remain, for the foreseeable future, a delicate balancing act of economic interests and democratic scruples. With an international agreement on post-2000 emission controls due to be concluded in December 1997, the government faces a severe test of its influence, and its professed willingness to pursue an independent policy regardless of the views of traditional allies.

Early 1997 also saw significant decisions made in trade and tariff policy, in particular the announcement in June of a post-2000 tariff pause for the passenger motor vehicle (PMV) industry. The PMV decision was seen in many quarters as confirming the government's pragmatism (and setting a powerful precedent for decisions on the post-2000 arrangements for the clothing, textile and footwear industries); what was less often discussed was the extent to which both major parties had lost their enthusiasm for trade liberalisation.(1) The release of the Trade Outcomes and Objectives statement in February seemed to presage a more activist approach by Australia, through the World Trade Organisation, and a concentration on key markets. Relations with Europe were strained by a clash over the proposed inclusion of a binding human rights clause in the Australia-European Union framework agreement on trade and cooperation. European comments about quarantine rules being a "subtle" Australian trade barrier also aggravated relations. Australia's exclusion from the Asia-Europe summit continued to rankle (the second ASEM meeting will be held in London in 1998).

Papua New Guinea

For nine years Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea (PNG) have been complicated by the secession struggle on Bougainville. As the former colonial administrator, Australia has longstanding ties to PNG, reflected in the substantial Australian aid provided to the countries ($320 million in 1996-97), and a defence cooperation programme worth about $12 million per annum. On the issue of Bougainville, however, Australia and PNG Governments have often had their differences. The Australian Government has consistently supported a negotiated settlement with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). PNG Governments have wavered between negotiation and a military solution. In late 1996, frustrated by the failure of the latest round of peace talks and concerned about the plight of five PNG soldiers held hostage by the BRA, the government of Sir Julius Chan began to prepare for a renewed military effort. Whilst this raised the prospect of strained bilateral relations, there still appeared to be grounds for optimism in early 1997. During a visit to PNG in late February, Alexander Downer announced that the delivery of an emergency aid package to Bougainville had been agreed with the PNG Government. In a departure from previous policy the PNG Government agreed to allow distribution of relief by the Red Cross.(2)

A week later, what was to become known as the Sandline crisis erupted. According to Australian newspaper reports, on 22 February the PNG Government had engaged foreign mercenaries to train and possibly serve alongside PNG Special Forces in covert operations in Bougainville. Commentators speculated that the mercenaries would be used to kill BRA leaders. An estimated forty mercenaries, provided by a British firm (Sandline International) known for similar activities in Africa, had apparently arrived in PNG two weeks earlier. …

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