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2 December 2020

With Greg Earl

The China tweet

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.


Quiet diplomacy

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.


Cutting aid

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.


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Beijing’s line on the South China Sea – “Nothing to see here”

“China’s strategy in responding to concerns about its intentions in the South China Sea is to claim that none of the activities, statements or behaviours that concern other countries are actually happening.” Oriana Skylar Mastro,The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

Australian threadbare diplomacy in conflict

“Halving the proportion of spending on diplomacy at a time of rising tension is shockingly irresponsible and ensures Australia’s diplomatic service is so inadequately funded and staffed that it cannot be fully effective.” Tania Miletic & John Langmore, Australian Outlook (AIIA)

China continues its COVID-19 diplomacy in the Pacific

“The video conference also inadvertently served as evidence that China’s focus on the Pacific islands is not top level ... China’s vague offer highlights the differing priority levels ascribed to the Pacific island region by Beijing and Canberra.” Shannon Tiezzi, The Diplomat

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Twitter attack will only further harm China’s collapsing soft power

“It will simply cause more governments, more civil-society organisations and more citizens in multiple countries to inquire into the mass-scale abuses that Beijing’s authorities are committing every day.” Michael Shoebridge, The Strategist (ASPI)

ASEAN’s productive year

“A great deal of ASEAN’s success this year can be attributed to Vietnam’s ability to keep the focus on critical bread and butter issues ... The finalisation of RCEP [the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership] is a big deliverable and reasserted ASEAN’s centrality in the economic architecture of East Asia.” Huong Le Thu, Asialink (The University of Melbourne)

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

City on Fire, book review by Primrose Riordan

“Critics say Hong Kong's leaders have already used the new law to attempt to suppress opposition in upcoming elections. Some in academia and the media say the law has increased pressure to avoid displays of sympathy for the movement – many fear losing their jobs if they speak out.” Primrose Riordan, HERE

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