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Downer On Advancing The National Interest: Australia’s Foreign Policy Challenge

This is the text of a speech delivered by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Alexander Downer.

The speech is part of the process established by the government leading to the publication of a new White Paper on Australia’s foreign and trade policy.

An earlier White Paper, In The National Interest, was published in 1997.

  • Listen to extracts of Downer’s speech (2m)

Text of speech by Alexander Downer, Minister for Foreign Affairs.


Ladies and Gentlemen

There has never been a time when Australia’s foreign policy was a more vital ingredient in forging our nation’s future or a more crucial factor in how we view ourselves.

Today, Australian foreign policy must operate in a very unpredictable world, therefore now more than ever it must be a very Australian foreign policy.

We are a nation respected for our strength, our pragmatism, our responsibility and our generosity…and I believe most Australians and certainly our neighbours respect our views, our actions and our sincerity.

We have to respect and build on our past allegiances and relationships…we have to work with our friends of the past…large and small, powerful and needy….but we also have to protect our own interests, which means forging new relationships and developing coalitions of mutual interest.

Our economic security…our border security…and our ability to help shape a more secure world…all rely on Australia exercising a strong, independent, responsive and pragmatic foreign policy.

Over the past six years the Australian Government has dealt with enormous challenges…from a watershed moment in East Timor to the shocking and unexpected horror of September 11th  – that has forced us all to re-evaluate the way we think about security, international relations and defence.

Today I will talk briefly about Australia’s achievements and then focus on the primary drivers of change and the challenges ahead.

The Government’s achievements

Five years ago I commissioned the first ever White Paper on Australia’s foreign and trade policy.

That paper –  In the National Interest – was a landmark document…. a blueprint for the conduct of Australian foreign and trade policy.

The document has served us well, but the world has changed markedly since then.  It is therefore appropriate that we begin work on a fresh White Paper that builds on the original blueprint.

The new paper, which will be called Advancing the National Interest, will assess the Government’s achievements.

And it will set out the new challenges ahead.

As we identified in 1997, at the core of our foreign and trade policy are the goals of promoting Australia’s economic prosperity, national security and our values.

The Government has ensured that Australia’s national interest is advanced in an ambitious yet pragmatic and clear-minded fashion. Because if we don’t…no one else will.

To borrow the words of English realist Martin Wight,  ‘A foreign minister is chosen and paid to look after the interests of his country, and not to delegate for the human race.’

We are not about trumpeting our own international good citizenry simply for the sake of it.  That is a trap for the ideologues and the naïve.  We are about good international citizenry where it can be shown to deliver tangible results for our interests and those of other people.

The big lie perpetrated by some about our Government is that somehow we have not paid enough attention to the Asia Pacific region.

The fact is that since 1997 we have sought to restore some of the balance in our foreign policy and to get away from an Asia-only focus to an Asia-first focus.  We have achieved this objective without any erosion of our core interests in our region.

There is no doubt that Asia and the Pacific remain the primary focus of our foreign policy.

Let me highlight a few examples of the Government’s achievements, starting on the economic and trade front:

  • our domestic economy has grown at an average of 3.8%, and is currently one of the strongest in the world – interest rates are at their lowest level in 30 years
  • Growth has been assisted by a 54% jump in the value of Australia’s total exports.  Our export success has been broadly-based, with a 45% rise in merchandise exports to East Asia (to $65 b), exports to the Middle East doubling (to $6.8 b), and up 111% to the US ($11.7 b)
  • 1 in 5 Australian jobs now depend on our exports – illustrating the vested interests all Australians have in our international economic relations.

We have ensured that the mandate for a new round of multilateral trade negotiations serves our interests, and that the WTO dispute settlement system delivers wins for our farmers on beef and lamb exports.

We are now on paths to Free Trade Agreements with Singapore and Thailand and the United States.  Prime Minister Howard and his Japanese counterpart, Mr Koizumi, agreed last week to strengthen our economic and trade relations, including the long term prospect of an FTA.

We are pursuing closer trade and investment links with ASEAN through the AFTA-CER Closer Economic Partnership. And our proposals for formal economic agreements have won interest in both Beijing and Seoul.

On the security front, the Government has expanded the range of opportunities for Australia to engage key regional players on matters affecting the region’s security.   Formal political-military dialogues have been established with Japan, Korea, China and India.  And we are forging a new trilateral dialogue with Japan and the United States on regional security issues.

We have consolidated our security alliance with the United States and, following September 11, invoked ANZUS for the first time since ANZUS was created.  Together, the web of US security alliances in the region are the linchpin for regional security and prosperity.

And Australia is a founding member of a number of new regional structures designed to address new realities – the trilateral dialogue with Indonesia and East Timor, the Indian Ocean Rim Association Regional Cooperation forum, the Forum of East Asia – Latin American Co-operation, and the South-West Pacific Dialogue, which should have its inaugural meeting later this year.  We have continued to advance our security and economic interests through the ARF and APEC.

While advancing Australia’s national interest we have also actively promoted core Australian values such as democracy and respect for human rights.  By establishing human rights dialogues with China and Vietnam and conducting workshops in Burma, the Government has created important opportunities to engage these countries constructively on issues of importance to the world community.

Today I would like to announce that Australia will deliver a further two human rights workshops in Burma in July, again targeting middle-level public officials and civil society representatives.  In a further step to promote human rights in Burma, Australia will also support the participation of two Burmese judges at a regional judicial reform course, to be held in Sydney next month.

We have used our aid program over the years to encourage good governance…promoting democracy, respect for the individual and equality before the law. This heightened focus has seen Australia spending on governance programs in the Asia Pacific region more than double since 1998 to $291m in 2001.

These are some of the tangible benefits of our pragmatic groundwork as opposed to substance-free grandstanding…it is our way of helping the region.

We intend to pursue the same approach as a newly-elected member on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.  In particular, to continue our push to reform UN human rights machinery so practical advances can be made to make them more credible.

Nowhere have Australian values been better demonstrated than through our contributions to peace and stability and the promotion of democracy in the region – in East Timor, Fiji, the Townsville Peace Agreement for the Solomon Islands and in Bougainville (where, over nine years, more people were killed than in three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland).

Our efforts in the South Pacific have significantly enhanced the profile of Australia in the South Pacific.

Globally, we are a full participant in the war against terrorism, providing political will, logistical support and troops on the ground.

We are also contributing to regional efforts to counter the spread of international terrorist networks.

We are committed to using all the resources at our disposal – military, intelligence, law enforcement, and customs – to address this most insidious threat to security.

And finally, let me deal with another misconception – that Australia’s image abroad has been eroded because of our pursuit of a strong Australian economy, secure borders and focused interests.

Australia’s standing abroad is in excellent shape.  This is reflected by some key facts:

  • in 2001 our educational institutions hosted 68,000 students from South-East Asia, an increase of 26% from just six years ago;
  • Since 1996 Australia has attracted some $74 bn in foreign direct investment, compared to $46 bn in the period 1990-1995;
  • We remain a highly sought after destination for immigrants from all corners of the globe;
  • Australia remains one of the world’s most attractive tourist destinations, reaffirmed before a global audience through the successful 2000 Olympic Games;
  • We have successfully seen off the Hanson / One Nation movement and its racist undertones…you only have to look at the current climate in Europe, where several countries are grappling with the anti-immigration and anti-globalisation backlash, to appreciate the significance of our achievements.

I have not sought to be exhaustive.  We are pleased with what we have achieved, but we cannot afford to be complacent. And, as a country, we must remain ambitious.

The Changes

We must remain focused on a rapidly changing world, and the impact of those changes on our interests.  And in recent times change has been simply enormous.

No-one could have predicted at the time of the original White Paper the extent of change in our foreign and trade policy environment…the East Asian financial crisis, the aftermath of continued economic and political uncertainty and transition in many countries…Indonesia is still undergoing a historic transition to democracy and decentralised rule.  East Timor is on the threshold of independence.

And our South Pacific neighbours are grappling with an array of economic, governance and security issues.

The events of September 11 showed graphically the nature of new and emerging threats to sovereignty and international order.  They also represented an attack on the lifestyle and democratic values of all Australians and of all peace loving people.

September 11 has jolted the established international order, and has led to a significant reassessment of the international agenda and shifts in traditional alignments.

There has been a marked improvement, for example, in US relations with Russia and China.

Inevitably, there will be more far-reaching consequences.  Much will hinge on the role of the United States and events post-Afghanistan.

Conflict in the Middle East continues to have an impact beyond its borders.  Developments there will have a profound impact upon regional and global security.

We cannot ignore the rapid advances in science and technology, both in their commercial and  military applications.  We are still at the early stages of a revolution in military affairs, in information technology, in biotechnology, material science and nano-technology.

No analysis of the changing world can ignore the pre-eminence of the United States.

  • In 1980, the US accounted for 25% of the world economy and authors such as Paul Kennedy wrote of the imminent decline of what was described as the US empire.  Yet in 2001 the US economy accounted for 34%, or more than a third, of world GDP.
  • US military expenditure is nearly US$400bn, over six times that of the next largest, Russia, at US$60bn and nearly ten times that of China, at US$42bn.
  • In research and development, the US is equally dominant.  In absolute terms, the US spent US$265 bn on R&D in 2000, a sum larger than the total R&D expenditure of Japan, Germany, the UK and France combined.

We should draw confidence from the fact that Australia, under this Government, is well placed to meet the challenges of rapid and profound change.  We have enormous assets – tangible and otherwise – in our physical and intellectual resources, our political institutions, our defence capabilities, our dynamic, strong economy and our innovative and tolerant society.

The Challenges

Out of these changes emerge at least eight key challenges Australia has to face.  This is not an exclusive list, as I could include many more.

Clearly the war against terrorism represents a pivotal challenge. Our effort must be local, regional and global.  It must be sustained. But it must also be mature.  We must guard against this war becoming something that it fundamentally is not – a clash between Islamic and Western civilisations.

We must work with moderate Islamic leaders, particularly in our region, to defeat those who seek to extinguish human freedoms and are prepared to use horrific means to bring about their dark ends.

Secondly, we have to face the challenges of our region.

We must not fool ourselves that terrorism has somehow erased the other daunting concerns in our region.  The Asia-Pacific region is home to the world’s six largest armies (China, the US, Russia, India, North Korea and South Korea) and, after the Middle East, the world’s three most volatile flashpoints – the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula and Kashmir.  Australia will need to use its influence, as part of broader international efforts, to help ease tensions in these places.

Australia must keep developing its relations in Asia, where we have abiding economic, security and other interests.  These interests reach across both the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, and from New Zealand to India, to North Asia.  Japan, Korea and China remain vitally important, as do the emerging giant of India and the recovering region of South East Asia. Our efforts to maximise the benefits of all these relationships will include developing people-to-people links, exploiting our advantages in education and training and nurturing our own cultural diversity.

We must continue to place a great deal of emphasis on Indonesia and work with the Indonesians as they embrace democracy and seek a more decentralised power structure.  Recent times have witnessed historic meetings between our leaders, including the first State visit by an Indonesian President to Australia in over 25 years, and Prime Minister Howard was the first foreign leader to visit President Megawati.  We must maintain high-level exchanges, including between our Parliaments.

China’s rising economic, political and strategic weight is the most important long-term trend in the region.  Its entry to the WTO and support for the US anti-terrorism coalition are positive indications of China’s maturing role as a regional and global power. And despite its economic difficulties, Japan remains the world’s second largest economy and our largest trading partner. It will remain a critical player regionally and globally.

In pursuing relations with Asia, we must continue to find the right balance and interplay between Australia’s engagement with Asia and our broader international relations. This is not about choosing between regions…it is about maximising our strengths.

Indeed, we have shaped our foreign policy so that the various strands are mutually reinforcing.  Just as our strong relationships outside the Asia-Pacific enhance our standing in the region, so do our strong regional links improve our international standing.

Thirdly, we need to solve our recurring trade problems, including with the world’s largest economy: the United States.

Our relationship with the United States is vital.  But we must work to match the strong security relationship with a much better economic relationship.  Too often, American decision-makers harm our trade.

That is why we are seeking to put the economic relationship on a more strategic footing through our proposal for a Free Trade Agreement.

We have to build upon the mosaic of economic agreements we are developing in order to maximise opportunities and eliminate barriers. We must also protect and enhance our interests in the Doha Round of global trade negotiations.

An important element in the new White Paper will be the need for Australia to develop functional affinities with countries and groups of countries where we share specific interests.  The vital work of the Cairns Group, which includes many Latin American countries, in defending and taking forward Australia’s agricultural trade policy interests is a good example.

Fourthly, we cannot afford to under-estimate the problems of the South Pacific.  Helping the countries of the South Pacific to ensure that they are viable, and sustainable, will remain a considerable challenge for Australia.  The prognosis for Papua New Guinea is better, but still worrying.

Our development assistance program, and our emphasis on governance and reducing poverty in the region, will continue to play an important role.  And our partnership in the region with New Zealand will remain crucial.

Fifthly, we need to understand better the emerging significance of the European Union.  Not only has much of Europe been transformed into a single market, with a common currency, but we are now seeing an emerging single voice on foreign, defence and security policy.

We need to work hard on building our links not only with the individual member states of the European Union, but also with European institutions. We need to see Europe through a new prism, not just through the United Kingdom and traditional bilateral relationships.

We need to encourage greater trade flows, and remove market distortions. I think that in this context, it is disturbing that high income countries, including those in the EU, spend nearly $1.8 bn per day  on agricultural support and protection – a sum seven times greater than the amount they provide in development assistance, and twice the value of agricultural exports from all developing countries.

Sixthly, we must address the continuing emergence of trans-national issues such as people smuggling, money laundering, drug smuggling, access to clean water, environmental problems, the security of reliable energy sources, and prevention of diseases such as HIV/AIDS – they pose new threats to sovereignty and security, including in our region.

Some of the statistics bear this out very graphically:

  • Already, a number of countries in our region are suffering serious water shortages.  Some estimates suggest that by 2025 as much as two-thirds of the world’s population could be facing water scarcity.
  • The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that there are 21.3 million refugees and displaced people.  When you add undocumented labour figures, the figure may be closer to 100 million.
  • The International Organisation of Migration estimates that 4 million people are being trafficked across international borders every year, earning people smugglers around $15 billion a year.
  • According to the UN Drug Control Program, the annual drug trade is worth between US$400 bn to US$500 bn, a sum larger than the combined GDPs of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
  • In June 2001, it was estimated that 7.5 million people in the Asia Pacific region had AIDS or were HIV positive.

I mention these statistics because these problems demand effective, sometimes new, solutions. Australia is, for example, already playing a lead role, having facilitated regional conferences on HIV/AIDs and people smuggling.

Seventh, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear – as well as missile proliferation is a growing problem – and a frightening one.

The United Nations is a critical arena for dealing with such problems. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in which we played such an important part, is one such example.

But the multilateral system is not a cure all.  Sometimes it can lead to lowest common denominator outcomes or outcomes that are simply not in our interests.

We have to be tough and insist on raising the bar to meet our objectives and defend our interests where they are under threat.  So it was that we raised the bar for the Ottawa Landmines Convention.  And so it is that we will continue to seek the participation of developing countries in global action to address climate change.

Finally, a challenge not always seen as synonymous with foreign or trade policy but one that is essential to the work of my Department – consular assistance.  It is an issue to which I have personally devoted great attention, because Australians make over 3.3 million trips overseas each year and believe me – they are capable of getting into all sorts of strife!

While certain cases grab the headlines, each day Australian consular officials provide a helping hand to facilitate the travel and well being of tens of thousands of Australians abroad.  We have a clear responsibility as a Government to assist – to the extent that we can – Australians in trouble.  While I believe we have developed a very capable and modern consular service for Australians, the demands on that service will continue to increase at a rapid rate as we continue to travel and engage with countries across the globe.


Let me return to where I began.

What the original White Paper sought to do, and what this new Paper will do, is to set the course for ensuring the security of the Australian nation  – the security of our economy, our jobs, our standard of living and our way of life.

It is from our secure base that we seek to make a valuable contribution to improving the lot of all peoples around the world.

The Government has a responsibility for the national interest and to fight for the interest of all Australians.  But we also have to be responsive to the values and ethics of the Australian people.

These are the twin pillars – responsibility and responsiveness – upon which I base Australian foreign policy, and which will be the thread common to both White Papers.

We must remain ambitious.  We must continue to develop a positive and confident future for Australia in a world of change.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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