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Interview: Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr

“Australia’s experience – our multiculturalism, economic strength and political stability – has much to offer the world.”

By Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe for
Interview: Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr
Credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

As a regional middle power perched on the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific region, Australian diplomacy has entered a more challenging era. In an interview addressing a diverse array of topics, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr spoke with The Diplomat’s Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe about the implications of Australia’s role as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council, the growing importance of engaging with other middle power states, expanding bilateral relations with Africa and South American nations, Australia’s key transnational security concerns, and his foreign policy agenda in view of a looming federal election.

Now that Australia is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, how will the Government use its influence? For instance, will the vexed issue of Security Council reform be addressed?

Bob Carr: Australia has highlighted the need for the UN to become more responsive and we support reform of the Security Council to make it more effective and representative of the UN membership. On reform of membership we support expansion of permanent and non-permanent membership to ensure a better geographic balance including permanent membership for Japan, Brazil, and India, and two permanent seats for Africa. We oppose extension of the veto to new permanent members. We will use our time on the Council in 2013-14 to work with other Council members to increase transparency and effectiveness. We are supporting more interaction and dialogue with the broader UN membership on peace and security issues; increasing the quantity and quality of engagement with regional organisations, in particular the African Union; and identifying a number of ways to improve the efficiency of the Council sanctions committees that we Chair (Al Qaida, Iran and Taliban).

In what way are middle powers important to Australia? What is the Australian Government’s strategy to leverage its ties with emerging middle powers such as South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil and Chile?

Bob Carr: As we're heading into a world where the poles of power are going to be more dispersed and the capacity of a single country or even a single region to dominate the agenda is going to be severely constrained, Australia recognises the importance of engaging emerging powers. Australia’s membership of key multilateral forums such as the G20, East Asia Summit and, currently,  as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council enables us to engage with emerging powers on a wide range of issues of mutual concern, including global norms. Over the past five years, Australia has substantially strengthened its engagement with the countries and institutions of Africa, including South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt. This policy has led to increased commercial relations, expanding development assistance, and intensifying engagement on African peace and security issues, including through Australia’s term on the UN Security Council.

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As South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt’s economic and strategic weight grows, Australia has sought to broaden its dialogue and collaboration with these countries to focus on issues of mutual concern, such as climate change, the global economy and trade liberalization, and regional peace and security issues. Australia and Turkey have a productive relationship, which we are enhancing through frequent high-level visits, including my own in June last year, and expanding bilateral trade and investment ties. We are currently working on further opportunities for international collaboration, especially as members of the G20 Troika with Turkey following Australia as chair in 2015. Both countries will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015.

Australia and Mexico enjoy a strong relationship based on like-minded views on major global issues such as trade liberalisation, strengthening and reform of the international financial system, climate change, transnational crime, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and arms control. We have a long history of working together in multilateral forums, such as the UN, APEC, the G20 and the WTO. The relationship is underpinned by a comprehensive framework of bilateral agreements including a bilateral Plan of Action (2011) and an MoU Formalising Political Consultations (2009). The new Mexican government aims to expand bilateral and multilateral ties in the Asia-Pacific region as a foreign policy priority. The successful completion of Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement negotiations, of which we are both parties, will accelerate the integration of Mexico’s economy into the region and potentially provide greater market access for Australian goods and services into Latin America and North America.

The depth of Australia’s relationship with Brazil is demonstrated by the Strategic Partnership announced jointly by the Australian Prime Minister and Brazilian President in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. As well as continuing high-level dialogue, the partnership envisages regular political-military discussions and a further deepening in the economic and political bilateral relationship. Australia works closely with Brazil in key multilateral forums such as global governance in the G20 and on international security. Australia publicly supports Brazil’s claims to permanent membership in a reformed UN Security Council. We are strengthening our educational links with Brazil, and are becoming a preferred target country for Brazilian students funded by the Brazilian government’s ‘Science without Borders’ scheme. Australia and Brazil also cooperate on liberalising agricultural trade as members of the Cairns Group. The CSIRO and its Brazilian counterpart, EMBRAPA, are also collaborating closely on agricultural and other scientific research.

Australia’s relationship with Chile involves regular ministerial-level dialogue between the countries. We have a bilateral free-trade agreement, signed in 2009, and we are both members of the OECD and APEC and parties to TPP negotiations. Chile has been the launching point for Australian investment in South America, which, spearheaded by mining and METS (mining equipment, technology and services), is evolving to include education and scientific and technological cooperation. Chile chose the CSIRO to operate a Centre of Excellence in mining and we expect further opportunities to cooperate on sustainability. Australia supports an increasing level of Chilean involvement in the South Pacific region (including in fisheries management). We see prospects for increasing our defence cooperation. Chile is an outward‑looking modern economy which shares our views on economic policy settings and trade liberalization. Significantly, Chile is one of the inaugural members of the economically progressive Pacific Alliance (along with Mexico, Peru and Colombia), which Australia joined as an observer in November 2012.

What do you make of Australia’s relations with Africa? How important is the continent to Australia’s national interests today?

Bob Carr: African economies have shown great resilience in the face of the global financial crisis. Remarkably, economic output in Africa has tripled since 2002. For most of the last decade, economic growth in Africa exceeded East Asia. In 2011 foreign direct investment in Africa was around $80 billion – five times greater than a decade earlier and far more than Africa receives in development assistance. Australian investment in African resources has nearly tripled since 2005. More than 230 ASX listed resources companies are engaged in at least 700 projects across 42 African countries. For example, in Kenya, Australia's Base Resources will soon be one of the world's major producers of rutile, accounting for around 14 per cent of global production. It has the potential to more than triple Kenya’s mineral sector export earnings.

Australia’s relations with South America appear to be publically under-acknowledged in comparison to other regions. Could you expand on the growing ties between Australia and South America?  

Bob Carr: Latin American countries are among the forces driving change in global influence and Australia is engaging them as part of a global foreign policy approach. The pro-trade liberalising Pacific Alliance economies (Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) provide practical opportunities for engagement. Australia and Latin America have similar resource endowments and common approaches to environmental issues. This provides opportunities to work together to advance trade liberalisation, food security and climate change. Australian firms are highly competitive in a number of sectors, particularly mining, education and agriculture. Over 240 Australian companies are active in Latin America, including 50 ASX200 companies. In addition, with one-quarter of the world’s freshwater resources and just eight per cent of global population, Latin America will become more important as global food security re-emerges on the international agenda. With Asian demand driving growth in Latin American markets, Australian expertise, skills and established networks in Asia give Australian companies the competitive potential to integrate Latin American production into global supply chains, directed to Asia, as we have seen in particular in the mining sector.

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Moving to transnational and regional security: could you apprise us of the current status of the Regional Cooperation Framework and the key developments which  came out of the Bali Process 5th Regional Ministerial Conference in April this year?

Bob Carr: The RCF is being implemented through the Bali Process Regional Support Office (RSO), established in Bangkok in 2012 and co-managed by Australia (DIAC) and Indonesia. The RSO is promoting greater information sharing and practical cooperation on refugee protection and international migration, human trafficking and smuggling and border management including through coordinated capacity building and exchange of best practices. At the Fifth Bali Process Ministerial Conference on 2 April 2013, Ministers agreed on a plan for continued implementation of the RCF and to further strengthen regional cooperation by establishing a partnership between the Bali Process and the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC). Bali Process Ministers also agreed to set up a working group to better coordinate and direct Bali Process efforts to address human trafficking. This new group will work with Governments, civil society organisations and the private sector in countering human trafficking and to support and protect its victims. Importantly, it will focus on labour exploitation aspects of trafficking which is a serious problem in the region. By connecting the Bali Process with the good work being done by a range of groups such as World Vision, the Walk Free initiative, STOP THE TRAFFIK, and union and industry groups, we will be better able to address labour exploitation aspects of human trafficking.

In the Asia Pacific region the activities of radical Islamist groups appear to be another matter of regional concern. How is the Australian Government responding to this ongoing and complex challenge?

Bob Carr: Australia is a diverse society respectful of all faiths. Over half a million Australians are Muslims and Islam is our country’s third largest religion after Christianity and Buddhism. Australia has supported initiatives including youth exchanges between Australia and people of different backgrounds in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand as well as support to community-based projects in the conflict-affected southern Philippines. The Australian Government takes a hard line against groups and individuals that advocate violent extremism. Australia recognises that violent extremism is a transnational issue and that international cooperation is essential if the threat is to be countered effectively. Australia is cooperating with regional partners to address violent extremism in management of extremist detainees and promoting social cohesion. We co-sponsor the Regional Interfaith Dialogue to promote understanding and tolerance across cultures and between different faith groups in South-East Asia. With Indonesia, Australia co-chairs the South-East Asia Working Group of the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

Now that the Australian Federal election is around the corner tell us what your immediate foreign policy priorities are? 

Bob Carr: My priority as foreign minister is to maintain Australia’s good standing in the international community. We are an effective middle-power with a strong international network. Australia’s experience – our multiculturalism, economic strength and political stability – has much to offer the world. Australia shows the international community what a prosperous, stable and open-trading economy can achieve. A key challenge will be to look for ways we can continue to build on these strengths. Over the past year, I was particularly honoured to bring Australia’s campaign for a two year non-permanent position on the United Nations Security Council to a successful conclusion, Australia played a leadership role in finalization of the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations in April 2013, and we have strengthened our regional relationships. Looking ahead, Australia will take its place as Security Council President in September 2013, we will make a continuing contribution to the successful military and political transition in Afghanistan to the end of 2014, we will advocate for broad based signature and ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty in the coming period and will work as a member of the G20 troika ahead of chairing the G20 in 2014.

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is a security analyst, defense writer, consultant and visiting fellow at the National Security Institute, University of Canberra.