2 December 2020
Australia has received support from several other countries after China escalated bilateral tensions by tweeting a doctored image of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan.
The support may indicate that moves to foster greater international cooperation to manage China’s rise – and to encourage it to reconsider its assertiveness – are gaining momentum. But it may just reflect shock that China’s foreign ministry would release such blatant disinformation.
Australia has rightly devoted much diplomatic energy in recent years to bolstering regional relationships and building new ones to deal with China and its tensions with the United States.
However, the Morrison government needs to take responsibility for resolving many of the strains that now exist in the China–Australia relationship.
Regional allies such as Japan and South Korea seem able to balance being democratic countries with their significant economic relationships with China.
Australia would do well to learn from these countries rather than simply counting on them for support when policy decisions and broader political rhetoric in Australia result in aggressive responses from Beijing.
Australia will still need to find a way to reopen communications with China, possibly using back channels or even another country as an intermediary. Despite its efforts to develop economic connections to neighbouring countries like India, Indonesia and Vietnam, China will likely remain its biggest trading partner for years.
Last week, Australian diplomats secured the release of academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who had been imprisoned in Iran on espionage charges for more than two years.
During that period, Moore-Gilbert’s supporters criticised the government for not doing enough to help her, questioning the efficacy of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and urging stronger public action against Iran.
But we now know the government was involved in complex negotiations with Iran, Thailand and Israel to secure Moore-Gilbert’s release.
The government persuaded Thailand to release three Iranians jailed in relation to a bomb plot targeting Israeli diplomats, reportedly in return for Moore-Gilbert’s freedom.
This shows that diplomacy can effectively resolve these types of cases, but it takes time. Public criticism can both amplify and undermine the negotiations involved.
But critics have raised concerns that such deals only encourage authoritarian regimes to detain Australians, which puts other travellers at risk.
Australia could also be drawn into otherwise distant tensions, such as the continuing tit-for-tat assassinations between Israel and Iran or the struggle over democracy in Thailand.
However, these complexities only underline the value of Australia maintaining diplomatic relationships behind the scenes with countries such as Iran so that it can adroitly assess the difficult decisions.
The United Kingdom has announced plans to cut its spending on aid by almost 30 per cent as it responds to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.
The move recalled the Australian government’s aid cuts of more than 20 per cent in previous years to reduce the budget deficit.
Australia may have also provided a model for the United Kingdom’s merger of its aid agency with its Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Australia brought AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2014.
Last week, former New Zealand prime minister and United Nations Development Program administrator Helen Clark warned that other nations could follow the example of the United Kingdom, which is seen as an “aid superpower”.
The United Kingdom has long advocated for rich countries to devote 0.7 per cent of their national income to aid, and it was one of the few countries to meet that benchmark.
As the United Kingdom’s aid stature wanes, Australia has unexpectedly changed course in response to the pandemic. Its recent federal budget outlined new aid spending in the South Pacific, and during last month’s regional leaders’ summits, it announced increased aid to South-East Asia. It is also planning to assist with COVID-19 recovery in these regions.
The government has recognised the role aid plays in national security, though Australia’s spending will still be well below the United Kingdom’s as a share of national income.