Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Issues in Australian Foreign Policy

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Issues in Australian Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

July to December 2000

For the makers of Australian foreign policy, the second half of the year 2000 was a time of diverse challenges and some fresh thinking about key relationships. In East Asia, Australia found itself excluded from discussions intended to create new regional agreements and institutions. The post-Timor difficulties in the relationship with Indonesia continued; this was also a complicating factor in Australia's dealings with ASEAN. In the economic realm the push towards multilateral free trade in the Asia-Pacific, by which Australia had set much store, continued to lose momentum, prompting Australia to pay increased attention to other possibilities such as joining a regional trade bloc or establishing bilateral free trade deals. At the end of the period Australia was preparing to approach the incoming administration in Washington with a proposal for an American-Australian free trade agreement, a notably big idea that had not previously been canvassed in such a serious way. There were further diplomatic challenges in multilateral fora, with problems arising for Australia in its relations with United Nations human rights committees and in the negotiation of a new international protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. Closer to home Australia found itself involved in peacemaking in Melanesia, even as the government undertook a comprehensive rethinking of its policies for defence and security in the wider region.

Whither Engagement?

Where did the grand project of "engaging with Asia" stand at century's end? On this issue there were some strongly contrasting opinions. The view of the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, was that in recent years Australia had adopted a realistic and above all practical approach to the neighbourhood, and in the process had shed its old anxieties about belonging. "Those who cling to a myopic view that Australia must genuflect to gain acceptance in our region", Downer wrote in March 2000, "are out of touch with Australian and regional sentiment".(1) Australia had proven its regional credentials both with its financial assistance in the East Asian economic crisis and with its leadership of the Interfet operation in East Timor. It had won acceptance, in short, as a practical contributor to regional affairs.

There were others who were less certain of Australia's standing in, and commitment to, the region. Stephen Grenville, Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank, felt that Australia's role and linkages in the region were "rather disappointing"; that the tensions in the relationship with Indonesia had "blocked off" Australian participation in key Asian fora, and that Asian neighbours might have mistaken Australia's allusions to its own competence in the economic crisis as "boastful blowing of our own trumpet during the time of their misfortune".(2) Anthony Milner, Dean of Asian Studies at ANU, was another who warned that the government's celebrations of its successes "offend people in the region. They also promote a comfortable and even complacent Australia, rather than the tenacious, resourceful and Asia-sophisticated community" envisaged in the government's 1997 White Paper on foreign policy.(3) Paul Kelly, International Editor of the Australian, sensed in October a "shadow" overhanging Australia's regional links, and predicted difficult times ahead.(4) In Parliament the Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, argued that the government had "deliberately and repeatedly stressed our separateness from Asia ... We are in real danger of being marginalised in Asia, to the considerable detriment of our national interests and prosperity.(5)

A major development giving rise to these kinds of assessments was the emergence and consolidation of ASEAN plus three -- that is, the ten ASEAN states plus Japan, China and the Republic of Korea -- as an arena for discussions about ways and means of enhancing regional cooperation. Proposals for an Asian monetary fund, closer currency ties, new trade agreements and an Asian security forum all indicated a strong interest in building East Asian solidarity. …

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