Is high handed regional diplomacy really in Australia’s interest?

Author: Donald K. Anton, ANU

In recent times reports in the popular press recount too often international actions taken by Australia that appear decidedly undiplomatic — at least undiplomatic in the sense that they belie an effective management of international relations. These actions have been perceived as provocative (or worse) by a number of neighbours in the region.

Instead of skillfully managing regional relations, Australia has found itself defending against legal action surrounding disturbing espionage claims and demands for the return of property by Timor-Leste in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). Espionage activities and action over asylum-seekers has prompted Indonesia to suspend cooperation with Australia across a number of fronts. And, to curry favour with Nauru, there has been what has been called a ‘craven silence’ from Australia about Nauru’s constitutional crisis, where the Australian chief justice and resident magistrate have been deposed by the Nauruan government (and where Australians fill many elite positions of influence on the island). These are some of the diplomatic consequences of contentious Australian international action. These actions, at least those in the current public spotlight, are related to two major aspects of Australian foreign policy.

The first are actions associated with attempts to deter asylum-seekers from seeking refuge in Australia beyond the limited, ordered way the government will tolerate. Three examples illustrate this. First, even with what amounts to essentially a news blackout about ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, we have seen reports of the repeated ‘tow back’ of asylum-seekers to Indonesian waters, the forcible transfer of asylum-seekers to lifeboats that are then sent back to Indonesia, and the very public Australian apology over six illegal incursions by the Royal Australian Navy into Indonesia waters.

Second, the international media has reported that other countries are concerned that Australia is working to ‘actively undermine’ the appointment by the UN Human Rights Council of a Special Rapporteur into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, because of Australia’s eagerness to stem the flow of asylum-seekers bound for Australia from that country.

Third, there has been at least the appearance of what Ben Saul has called the Australian abuse of ‘relative wealth and power’ to foist large detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea — two countries without the resources or capacity for such centres when compared to Australia — to imprison asylum-seekers out of the sight of the world.

The second questionable aspect of Australian foreign policy is tied to Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste over oil and the maritime boundary in the Timor Gap. There is the alleged espionage of Timor-Leste cabinet discussions carried out in 2004 by Australian agents to strengthen Australia’s already greatly superior position during contentious treaty negotiations over maritime boundaries and oil in the Timor Gap. And there is also the matter of ASIO’s seizure of documents from the office of one of the lawyers representing Timor-Leste in the PCA on the day before proceedings commenced, where Timor-Leste is seeking to have the 2006 Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea declared invalid or void on account of Australia’s espionage.

These actions by Australia, seen by a number of governments and observers as domineering, lend weight to a description of Australia as, diplomatically, the neighbourhood bully of the Pacific.

Even discounting this assessment with the genuinely ‘good deeds’ Australia continues to perform by way of significant economic assistance, disaster relief, and so on, in the region, an underlying mean-spirited diplomatic posture unfortunately seems set to continue.

For instance, following the indication of provisional measures by the ICJ against Australia in relation to the ASIO raid on the office of Timor-Leste’s lawyer, Australia responded with threats instead of a clear respect for the rule of law. A senior Australian diplomat reportedly warned Timor-Leste that it was ‘being naive to think the arbitration and maritime boundary issue will not affect the bilateral relationship’ and that ‘the relationship will suffer’.

These actions, alone and more certainly in combination, as they have played out in the international press, have damaged Australia’s international reputation. Of course, a state’s reputation, like that of individual state leaders, is one of its most important assets in international relations. As Alfred Rubin has demonstrated, the better a state’s ethical international reputation is, the more authority and influence it tends to have in international relations. And recent Australian action puts it in a dubious reputational position, and would seem to make the achievement of its foreign policy goals more difficult.

It was not so long ago, however, that the diplomatic perception of Australia was quite different. For instance, up until the long intransigence about ratifying the Kyoto Protocol starting in the mid-1990s, Australia had been long lauded as an international leader and model international citizen in the field of international environmental action, and had notable influence in cooperation over normative arrangements in Antarctica and the marine environment. In December 1988, in a speech at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, then Foreign Minister Gareth Evans stressed that one of the themes in Australian foreign policy is ‘the national interest in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen’.

More recently, in 2007, Stephen Smith as foreign minister spoke of the ‘fair go’ as the basis of an Australian diplomacy based on ‘civility, dignity, and respect’. And, on the whole, both sides of politics have been champions of the virtues of diplomatic multilateralism.

Of course, reputation is not a zero-sum game. Given that changes to reputation are incremental and that reputation is never all bad or all good, states are able to and do manage reputation over time.

A reputation as a more or less ‘virtuous’ international citizen has served Australia well. It has helped to generate esteem, which in turn engenders trust and influence.

A small, harsh and mean diplomacy, such as that exhibited in connection with asylum-seekers and the maritime boundary dispute with Timor-Leste, on the other hand, diminishes Australia’s standing and effectiveness in persuasion. This is so even though sovereignty and treasure are involved. As Erasmus wrote in 1516 in his epistle to Prince Adolph of Veere, actions that ‘will win the prince approval … and a good reputation’ are ‘something more important than any financial gain’. This sentiment had clear resonance with the American diplomat George Kennan while serving as the US Ambassador to Russia. In his Memoirs 1950–1963 Kennan writes about participating in a deceit to help discover Soviet listening devices in the US Embassy. He questions whether it ‘[w]as proper for an ambassador to involve himself’ in this sort of ‘deception’. He concludes that he ‘was not sure’ because of the loss of reputation and significant fallout that ensued.

Donald K. Anton is a professor of law at the ANU College of Law.

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