15 September 2021
Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton have embarked on Australia’s most intensive streak of in-person diplomacy since COVID-19 began, attending meetings in four countries in one week.
The “two plus two” meetings with foreign and defence ministers in Indonesia, India, South Korea and the United States mark a return to conventional diplomacy, which was interrupted when Australia’s tough border controls largely restricted ministers from travelling overseas.
Senior ministers, including Scott Morrison, have made one or two trips abroad during the pandemic, but generally Australian officials have been forced to meet online.
While these restrictions actually increased the amount of contact many officials had with their foreign counterparts, senior ministers have come under criticism for appearing to ignore certain close partners – notably Indonesia.
This week’s meetings allowed Payne and Dutton to scale up personal contact with three major Asian partners in symbolically and strategically useful ways ahead of their visit to Washington tomorrow.
Common issues came up, but the way they were addressed reflects the region’s diverse experience in dealing with issues such as democracy, regional institutions and the rise of China.
Amid uncertainty about the Biden administration’s international agenda, particularly in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Australian ministers now have an opportunity to be what their predecessors often claimed they were – interlocutors between Australia’s neighbours and the United States.
On their return home, instead of repeating the usual ministerial mantra about the US bilateral relationship being stronger than ever, it would be useful if they also reflected on the nuanced issues discussed with their partners in Asia.
Australia has now participated in seven “two plus two” meetings with Indonesia since 2012, meaning that Indonesia is on the front line of an increasingly significant aspect of Australian diplomacy.
At last Friday’s meeting, Australian and Indonesian ministers upgraded a defence cooperation arrangement, agreeing to allow more training of Indonesian soldiers in Australia and greater cooperation between the countries’ military forces.
They also signed agreements on counterterrorism and cybercrime prevention, and Australia announced it has donated fifteen Bushmaster vehicles to Indonesia’s peacekeeping operations.
Speaking from Jakarta, Payne sought to dispel criticism about the lack of diplomatic visits to Indonesia during the pandemic, emphasising “just how strongly Indonesia figures in Australia’s thinking as an emerging economic giant, who is also a friend, a neighbour, with whom we have many aligned interests”.
While democracy is currently waning in South-East Asia, the Biden administration is making its “Summits for Democracy” a pillar of its foreign policy. Payne sought to present Australia and Indonesia as special partners navigating this complex landscape.
In a statement that was more measured on the subject of democracy than much government rhetoric of the past, she said that the two countries “are proud of our democratic systems, but do not seek to impose or export them”.
The “two plus two” meeting between the foreign and defence ministers of India and Australia on Saturday was the first of its type for the two countries, underlining the mercurial history of a relationship that is only growing in importance.
The ministers highlighted Australia’s continued participation in India’s Malabar naval exercises, and India was invited to join future Talisman Sabre exercises, biennial training activities between Australia and the United States. The ministers also agreed to explore whether the two countries’ defence industries could cooperate on the development of unmanned vehicles and other niche technologies.
On the economic front, the ministers reiterated their plans for an “early harvest” trade agreement by the end of the year, emphasising that it would be a “balanced” agreement.
While Payne was in Jakarta, she talked up how central South-East Asia is to regional diplomacy. In New Delhi she changed lanes, describing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – an alliance of Australia, India, the United States and Japan – as “the kind of innovative diplomacy we need in the twenty-first century”.
But when Payne faced pointed questions, in both Indonesia and India, about whether such a successful new institution should be expanded, Payne defended its exclusivity, saying it was not necessary to “grow what is currently a very strong and productive group of four”.
The Australia–South Korea relationship is often overshadowed by Australia’s other regional connections, but when Payne and Dutton met with their counterparts in Seoul on Monday, it marked the fifth “two plus two” meeting between the two countries.
Earlier this year, Scott Morrison and President Moon Jae-in also agreed to upgrade the relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, marking the sixtieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and South Korea.
The defence ministers agreed to increase joint military training, especially as part of the Talisman Sabre exercises, and the foreign ministers agreed to strengthen their cooperation on multilateral trade, cyberspace and technology rules, and the development of more resilient supply chains.
Economically and development-wise, Australia has more in common with South Korea than with India or Indonesia. The two countries also have a longer history as major trading partners. Additionally, they share the conundrum of being US allies but economically dependent on China.
These similarities arguably make South Korea a better interlocutor on China-related matters than either India or Indonesia. But the emphasis on economic cooperation at Monday’s meeting possibly reflects South Korea’s desire to maintain good relations with China, especially when it needs help managing North Korea.
Despite South Korea’s China sensitivity, the ministers’ joint statement does not hold back on the vexed issue of regional democracy – which Payne was more circumspect about in Jakarta – reaffirming “the importance of close cooperation between the two countries, as leading liberal democracies in the face of a variety of global and regional challenges and a rapidly changing security environment”.