25 August 2021
Scott Morrison has refused to say whether he supports the United States’ withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan as Canberra struggles to adjust to Washington’s increasingly inward-looking agenda.
Questioned on ABC’s Insiders on Sunday, Morrison would only say that Australia’s role in Afghanistan was “entirely conditional on the United States’ presence”.
Morrison’s comments come after four former prime ministers strongly criticised US president Joe Biden for announcing in April that he would withdraw US troops by the end of this month.
The sharpest rebuke came from former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, who said that the “shameful withdrawal from Afghanistan and the manner of that withdrawal has left my faith [in the United States] badly shaken”.
The Sydney-based United States Studies Centre criticised the United States on another front. Its major new report, Correcting the Course, says the Biden approach to the Indo-Pacific has “so far lacked focus and urgency”.
Meanwhile, senior Biden officials have continued to find fault with the Morrison government’s climate change policies, and the United States has reportedly not responded to Australian requests for extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
Australia is one of the closest US allies, but the countries’ latest differences show that the Morrison government is still coming to grips with Biden’s scaled-back foreign policy agenda, designed to appeal to middle-class American voters.
The Australian government needs to carefully weigh up what realistic alternatives it has to its alliance with a more domestically focused US president.
Downer says Australia must rely more on its regional allies. But that would mean adjusting to a separate reality – that most of our regional partners have better relations with China than Australia does.
Foreign policy research
The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee has urged the Australian government to consider establishing a foreign policy research institute to generate ideas on combating emerging international challenges.
It suggested a number of options, including a foreign policy think tank similar to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an Australian adjunct to an established international institute or a more structured research funding program for existing universities or institutions.
The committee also recommended that government departments dealing with foreign issues recruit a more diverse workforce with better language abilities, organise more staff exchanges with non-government institutions and do more outreach with the media and community to explain foreign policy.
Because new strategic challenges are difficult to anticipate, the committee said, “foreign policy practices and procedures of preceding decades are no longer fit for purpose”.
The upheaval in Afghanistan has shown the need for Australia to be better prepared for the changing international environment, and for this the government needs input from outside the public sector.
However, the committee’s focus on a single new publicly funded body suggests it hasn’t considered the outcomes of previous funding initiatives for university-linked institutions focused on the United States, China and Indonesia, established under the Howard, Rudd and Abbott governments.
Nor did it discuss the role of philanthropy, which has led to the creation of the Lowy Institute and the Judith Neilson Institute, which supports innovative media coverage in Asia.
Examples of privately funded media ventures include The Diplomat, which was founded by Australians but is now US-based; ChinaFile, published by the Asia Society; and Schwartz Media’s Australian Foreign Affairs.
These various initiatives do not supplant the need for more substantial foreign policy research, which could possibly be undertaken by a new institution, but they do contribute to a richer discussion of these issues, which the committee says is needed.*
New visa scheme
Temporary workers will be given a pathway to become permanent Australian residents under a new agriculture visa, in a significant change to migration rules.
The Morrison government announced on Sunday that the visa would be available from 30 September. It will mostly benefit workers from South-East Asia, but workers from the United Kingdom and other countries will be eligible for it as well.
The visa was demanded by the National Party in June, during negotiations over the UK free trade agreement. But it has now been substantially extended geographically, and will be applicable to workers in a broader range of industries, such as forestry.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been given responsibility for rolling it out, apparently in response to earlier concerns that the visa would lower labour standards and undermine existing Pacific worker programs, which are a key part of the Pacific step-up.
The timing of the visa announcement was ironic – the government is currently resisting pressure to accept more evacuees from Afghanistan, even though Afghan refugees have a record of successfully integrating into regional towns.
The visa appears to have been hastily introduced, and questions remain about how it will work. Despite this, it could be a positive for international relations if it persuades nativist rural voters of the value of aid and engagement with people from neighbouring countries.
* The author has received funding from the Lowy Institute, Asia Society Australia, three universities, DFAT and the Judith Neilson Institute. He has also made decisions on foreign policy research funding at the Australia-ASEAN Council and the Australia Japan Foundation.