Oceania | Diplomacy | Oceania | Southeast Asia

Australia’s Southeast Asian Step Down

Diminishing Canberra’s presence in Southeast Asia to reinforce its goals in the South Pacific is a trade-off with a significant cost. 

Grant Wyeth
Australia’s Southeast Asian Step Down
Credit: Unsplash

Last week at an event organized by the Australian Financial Review, U.S. Ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse made comments that likely raised a concerned eyebrow in Canberra. Making note of the efforts Australia has made to reinforce its presence in the South Pacific (known as the Pacific Step-Up), Culvahouse suggested that Canberra’s heightened regional engagement should also be extended to Southeast Asia. While the ambassador’s idea has significant merit, it will most likely find itself stifled not only by Australia’s capability deficit, but also its deficit of will. 

Australia’s Pacific Step-Up strategy is currently considered the country’s highest foreign policy priority. Historically the core component of Australia’s strategic doctrine has been to prevent any unaligned powers from gaining significant influence in the South Pacific, and due to China’s increased activity in the region Canberra now sees the need to fortify this objective. But to do so Australia has made trade-offs, and it seems that Australia’s Pacific Step-Up is being funded by a Southeast Asian step down. Culvahouse’s comments indicate that this has not gone unnoticed in Washington. 

For all its wealth, Australia remains a limited power. As a country of only 25 million people it lacks the human capital to be an expansive diplomatic player, and therefore needs to make hard choices about how it uses its capabilities. Yet even with the resources it does have, Australia under-extends itself. In an article in last October’s Australian Foreign Affairs magazine, Melissa Conley Tyler outlined the anemic state of Australia’s diplomatic capacity, and warned that the country is limiting its “ability to prosecute its interests abroad, leaving it hostage to international forces rather than trying to shape them.” 

Conley Tyler writes: 

In 2017, Australia was ranking twentieth of twenty-nine among developed nations in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) for its diplomatic resources. With 116 diplomatic missions abroad, Australia is below the OECD average of 132, and nowhere near the G20 average of 194. It is beaten by countries such as Portugal, Greece, and Chile, which have smaller populations and less than 20 per cent of Australia’s GDP.

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There are some obvious reasons for this lack of diplomatic investment. Since the conclusion of World War II, the United States had functioned as a global hegemon — and primary security partner for Australia — that took its role as a security guarantor seriously (albeit imperfectly), projected values that Australia could feel comfortable with, and created conditions that allowed Australia to flourish. For Australia, extending itself simply felt unnecessary. 

Yet these conditions now seem less secure, and Australia’s weak diplomatic capacity appears complacent. It has become a more pressing concern for Australia to project its values and work toward preserving a world order that has served it well. This has to include working to persuade other states in its region that their interests are equally advanced by this order, and thus they should not be tempted by revisionism. Most notably the Philippines now seems to be repositioning away from these established norms, which should trouble Canberra. 

In an Indo-Pacific region where Australia finds itself culturally distinct, and therefore lacking natural communicative advantages, an extra investment in its diplomatic resources should be considered a major priority. While the South Pacific is recognized as a region where Australia has the capability to be highly influential, Southeast Asia should also be seen in the same light. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper made note that Southeast Asia “frames Australia’s northern approaches,” making its stability and prosperity vital for Australia’s own. Its investment in the region should therefore reflect this importance. 

However, this will require Australia to abandon its inclination for the adequate over the ambitious. It will require Australia to find a way to purposefully engage in its region without having to make the kind of trade-offs that the U.S. ambassador felt the need to publicly highlight. And even though political parties see no votes in foreign affairs, it will require politicians to understand the importance of diplomacy to regional security and invest it in accordingly (and maybe also take their jobs seriously and explain this importance to the public). 

Beyond this, to facilitate a more engaged diplomatic reach, Australia will need to take a more holistic approach to its foreign policy and understand the domestic initiatives that could increase the country’s capabilities. This would include a more purposeful immigration intake to expand its human capital, as well as a serious investment in urban infrastructure to advance a more complex and resilient post-industrial economy (one less reliant on commodities exports to China). And, of course, Australia needs an enhancement of Asia literacy within its population to bridge the cultural divide Australia has in its region. Yet these are all policies that the country seems reluctant to pursue.

If the shifting geopolitical landscape in the Indo-Pacific leads to relative decline in U.S. power in the region, then Australia will be required to do more of the heavy lifting to protect the region’s norms. The most important component will be building trust and mutual perspectives with other countries, particularly with Southeast Asian states that may be inclined to acquiesce to revisionism, like the Philippines. Therefore diminishing its presence in Southeast Asia to reinforce its goals in the South Pacific is a trade-off with a significant cost. Yet for Australia to also step up in Southeast Asia it will first need to step out of its shell.