Soft power’s hard edge
19 Aug 2019|

I’ve just returned from the frontline of Australia’s soft power engagement in Asia. The New Colombo Plan that provided this opportunity is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and is a key component of Julie Bishop’s legacy as foreign minister. In a reorientation of the original Colombo Plan, which enabled students from the region to study at Australian universities, the New Colombo Plan sends Australians to drink at our neighbours’ springs of wisdom.

Sixteen students from the Australian National University visited Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand in a whirlwind tour of their security thinking. We heard from former generals and foreign ministers, think-tank directors, professors, journalists and diplomats. Perhaps most importantly, we got to exchange views with the region’s future leaders: our student peers.

Put together by the ANU’s Professor John Blaxland and Dr Greg Raymond, the tour gave us an unparalleled insight into the region’s contemporary security challenges. We explored everything from the geopolitics of the Mekong to the fraught nation-building of multi-ethnic former colonies. Hearing all this first-hand from the region’s most experienced policy practitioners—and the youth who will inherit their mantle—helped us understand Southeast Asian states as agents, not just objects in our strategic calculus.

Despite having provided such an opportunity to thousands of Australians, the New Colombo Plan is criticised by some as too limited in scale to foster broad-based understanding of our neighbourhood. It’s fair to say that a program available to a small number of university students will not see Australia become a widely Asia-literate society. But that shouldn’t discount the program’s value as an instrument of Australian soft power.

The fact that we were welcomed by such eminent figures as Marty Natalegawa and Kasit Piromya, the former foreign ministers of Indonesia and Thailand, is testament to the value our neighbours place on the program. It gives them a chance to dispel stereotypes of being pawns in a great-power contest, a trope to which Western commentary too easily succumbs.

Our hosts seemed also to value the program as a demonstration of Australia’s commitment to the region. After all, it’s a powerful gesture: sending our youth to learn from our neighbours is a sign of humility. It shows a willingness to cooperatively shape the region’s future. And we shouldn’t underestimate how these positive exchanges linger in the memories of both sides, reinforcing favourable mutual perceptions that increase trust, cement shared values and build reserves of goodwill for times when relationships may be tested.

The New Colombo Plan’s soft power, though, can have hard outcomes too. Providing greater opportunities to study our neighbours’ strategic policymaking will tangibly improve our own.

The irony is that even as our near-abroad has become more critical than ever, our efforts to understand it have steadily declined. Southeast Asian departments at Australian universities are shrinking, and the number of students learning Indonesian is at an all-time low. At the same time, polling from the Australia–Indonesia Centre published in 2016 showed worrying misconceptions about our largest neighbour. This is clearly cause for concern.

Ignorance of the region will inform a poor strategic response to it. If there’s one thing I took away from the trip, it’s that Southeast Asia resists generalisations. If our foreign policy isn’t informed by an appreciation of the myriad political, institutional and historical factors shaping our neighbours’ anxieties and aspirations, we’ll struggle to engage with them effectively.

That’s why we need in-country study programs like those funded by the New Colombo Plan, especially ones with a strategic tint. They give the next generation of diplomats and strategists the chance to gain the depth of regional knowledge needed to shape successful foreign policy. Study programs will also distribute that knowledge more widely, as their alumni end up working in other areas of the public service or in the private sector. This is crucial, because good policy outcomes require high levels of awareness and understanding from everyone engaged in formulating those policies. Deep knowledge and appreciation of our neighbours shouldn’t be confined within the walls of our embassies.

Yet the greatest benefit of the New Colombo Plan is perhaps not the knowledge Australians return with but the relationships it helps them forge. These people-to-people links enmesh us with our neighbours. They create informal channels of communication that alleviate distrust and help us weather diplomatic spats. Suddenly, our neighbours seem less like feared others that we seek security from, and more like partners with whom we enhance our security.

These benefits may sound rather intangible. Yet the Defence Cooperation Program, which for decades has cultivated such informal links between the ADF and regional militaries, proves how critical they can be. In his book Counterinsurgency, David Kilcullen recounts an incident during the intervention in East Timor that nearly degenerated into a lethal firefight between Indonesian and Australian troops. Without his language training and personal knowledge of the Indonesian military, Kilcullen claims he wouldn’t have been able to broker a life-saving ceasefire.

As successful as the Defence Cooperation Program has been, the relationships we foster in the region shouldn’t serve only as pins in grenades. They should positively shape relations before politics is extended by other means.

That’s the missing link the New Colombo Plan fills. With more study programs like the one my university group just went on, Australia will see its people-to-people links switch from a focus on mitigating conflict to a more deliberate focus on building a security community in which conflict is unthinkable.