Time for diplomacy?


Recent  years have seen a steady shift in Australia’s relationship with China, and over the last six months this shift has become dramatic as tensions continue to build. There are of course multiple reasons for this, not least of which is the decline in positive relations between the US and China, putting Australia in a difficult place between our largest economic partner and our most significant military ally. How Australia responds to an increasingly assertive China will have huge ramifications for Australia’s economic prosperity and security well into the future. However, recent trends in government spending indicate a narrow, alarmist and typically realist-oriented response hinging on defence and security agencies. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) and foreign aid have repeatedly been the targets of funding cuts and descaling, while security and defence expenditure have steadily increased.  This spending trend degrades the country’s ability to wage historically cost effective tools of diplomacy and international standing. Such an approach not only disregards the success Australia has had as an active member of the liberal international order, but limits future foreign policy choices to those shaped by a Cold War mentality.

Diplomatic tensions with China continue to be strained by a pattern of tit-for-tat provocations on both sides. Australia’s restrictions placed on Huawei as the emerging 5G market is perhaps a point of reference to begin tracking the decline, however the examples of friction have emerged thick and fast in the past 12 months. Investigations into the activities of journalists both in China and Australia have recently come to light, with the resultant exodus of 17 Australian journalists from China in the first half of 2020 (Speers, 2020). Cheng Lei, a respected Australian business journalist who anchored for a state-run network in China, remains under house arrest in an undisclosed location since August (Speers, 2020). Regarding diplomatic manoeuvring by the federal government, it has been rapid and difficult to keep track of.  In short, in 2020, the Australia  federal government has done the following:

  • rescinded the extradition treaty with Hong Kong and offered asylum to Hong Kong residents at the height of the anti-government protests.
  • called for an international investigation into the origins and initial handling of Covid-19
  • renounced China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as illegitimate
  • publicly sided with India and denounced China’s activity along the India-China border.

More recently, the meeting in Tokyo between the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, and counterparts from Japan, India and the United States (colloquially labelled ‘The Quad’) has largely been interpreted by China as movement toward a military alliance to counter China’s regional ambitions (Basu, 2020). To date, China demonstrated its displeasure by applying pressure through economic policies, with trade restrictions being placed on Australian barley, wine and red meat. Recent reports indicate that coal, an export hitherto immune to the effects of growing tensions, is coming under pressure with reports indicating verbal instructions from the China customs authority to power stations and steel makers to cease imports of Australian coal (Hurst, 2020). If substantiated, such a move may prove to be the most dramatic in China’s response to what it sees as provocative behaviour by the Australian government. In a recent development that will doubtlessly sour relations further, Australia has decided to re-join the naval exercise featuring Japanese, Indian and US forces (Greene, Dziedzic, & Oaten, 2020). Originally abandoned in 2007 for fear of provoking China, the reaction to date remains trade oriented with further restrictions on Australia lobster, timber and wheat amounting to $6 billion dollars in further trade restrictions (Mercer, 2020)

In the midst of this, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) should be suitably equipped to fulfil a vital role in exercising diplomacy, both in managing tensions with China and ensuring relations with regional partners remain strong. However, the opposite is true; DFAT funding has been systematically whittled down by multiple governments, from $8.3 billion in 2013-14 to $6.7 billion in 2019-2020 (Conley, 2020). In the latest budget allocation, this amount has been reduced further to $6.1 billion (DFAT, 2020). In other words, the institution delegated to maintaining, improving or expanding diplomatic relations has been continuously reduced in a time when such diplomacy is perhaps more valuable than ever. In addition, the foreign aid budget has shrunk to $4 billion, down by $1billion since 2013 and equating to 0.2% of gross national income, the lowest levels in Australia’s history (Conley, 2020; DFAT, 2020). Essentially, while running a skeleton crew disguised as a diplomatic corps, the means by which Australia might bolster goodwill and enhance its regional and global influence is also the target of funding cuts. China, on the other hand, has vast resources at their disposal and continues to push forward with the unprecedented Belt and Road initiative, effectively allowing them to cultivate influence and diplomatic relations throughout the region. Individual states are not immune to this opportunity, even while the federal government remains cautious.

Such drops in funding could be somewhat explained in light of the exceptional circumstances of Covid 19 and recession that Australia appears to heading for. The government seems determined to stimulate the economy with significant tax cuts. However, the recent budget saw the federal government’s original promise of 2% of government spending devoted to military exceeded, with 2020-21 levels reaching 2.19% (Hellyer, 2020). Going back further, from 2001-02 to 2019-20, the Department of Defence budget has increased by 291%, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has grown by 528% and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service by 578% (Tyler & Vandewerdt-Holman, 2019). For many, in light of the tensions outlined above, this spending is logical, welcome and timely, and may well be prudent planning. The concern is that out of the three pillars of Australia’s defence, made up of military, intelligence and diplomacy, it is diplomacy that is repeatedly on the chopping board. Framed in realist terms, it is reducing the capabilities of a proven and cost-effective method of conflict prevention. In liberalist terms, it’s reducing the ability for Australia to utilize the liberal international order and collective security that Australia has benefited so much from and has thus far prevented large scale conflict between states. Bolstering defence and intelligence capabilities is itself a provocation to others in a textbook example of the realist security dilemma. More importantly than that, such a clear emphasis within the federal government frames the debate and any further decision making.  By preparing for an adversary, we will inevitably find one.

2020 marks the 75th year of the United Nations. Australia continues to honour its financial commitments in this regard, though it is noteworthy that China’s relative contribution to the UN has grown in proportion since 2018, growing from 10% to 15% for 2020-21 (UNGA, 2018). Australia’s contributions to peacekeeping however, remains a token gesture with recent personnel contributions amounting to 26 staff and police, compared to Bangladesh for example who is represented by 6731 personnel (United Nations, 2020). All of this appears as if, despite official protestations, diplomacy in Australia, along with participation and leadership in the international community are just not priorities anymore. While we have not gone so far as to withdraw from multilateral groups, nor reneged on existing agreements, it would not be a stretch to imagine walls being proposed for our coastlines. The recent budget and the privileging of the military and security agencies over DFAT indicate that Australia may be more prone to a Cold War thinking than the government would like to admit. If we are to confront China for perceived belligerent behaviour or challenge their claims of regional dominance, we simply can’t eviscerate the very department that should be spearheading those efforts. It is not too late to remember the success Australia has enjoyed in the rules-based international order, but perhaps we need a reminder on how to utilize it. If now is not the time for diplomacy at its best, then when is?


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About the author

John Fowler is an educator and researcher for UNAAQ, currently acting as the Research Coordinator for the Peace and Security Group. He has a Masters degree in International Relations and particular interest in security studies.