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Expanding Australia’s diplomatic toolkit for a changing strategic environment

Posted By and on August 27, 2020 @ 08:00

The Australian government’s 2020 defence strategic update provides opportunities to strengthen our role in the Indo-Pacific and elevates the importance of our relationships with regional nations. Navigating the shifting strategic landscape in the region will require effective interaction with these nations as we pivot away from Asia’s economic giant, China.

Trust and confidence are at a premium and Australia must redouble its efforts to engage meaningfully in the region.

China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy has worked in Australia’s favour. Its undiplomatic handling of the pandemic and willingness to use the Covid-19 crisis to seek strategic advantage have revealed the Chinese Communist Party’s true nature.

The shifting sentiment resulting from Beijing’s coercive and belligerent behaviour has opened a window of opportunity for Australia and like-minded nations to exercise collective influence to balance China’s growth with regional security imperatives. Working more closely with countries such as Japan, Vietnam, India and Indonesia will strengthen trust and confidence to influence security outcomes in our respective national interests.

The mainstay of such regional management is, of course, formal diplomatic endeavour, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s 2017 foreign policy white paper provides an excellent blueprint for that work. However, surging and sustaining our diplomatic presence is costly and takes time—time that has evaporated with the urgency to upgrade our strategic strike and defensive capabilities.

Second-track, or ‘non-official’, diplomacy is an inexpensive, remarkably effective and enduring method of engagement practised by governments, the education and commercial sectors, independent think tanks and non-government organisations. Informal contact between national representatives below official level isn’t a new idea, but it could be more effectively implemented.

Australia’s use of second-track diplomacy has been ad hoc and would benefit from refinement, especially since DFAT has recently announced reductions to its regional diplomatic footprint.

The end result of diplomatic efforts is usually an agreement that articulates the aims and limits of an arrangement or venture. But we need to do more than just capture a relationship’s operating parameters. This clinical, legalistic and typically Western approach isn’t necessarily preferred by Indo-Pacific cultures and may not match the friendship bonds that are highly valued in the region.

Formal diplomacy and dialogue can build valuable relationships when the participants are active, but connections attenuate as officials change jobs or retire.

Language and cultural barriers often frustrate the development of nation-to-nation relationships. Personal connections build trust that, over time, carries much weight in nations’ decisions. That’s a key goal of programs like the New Colombo Plan. The plan’s student-focused initiatives will take time—beyond the current window of opportunity—to mature.

Gaps in the foreign policy framework can be filled quickly by regular second-track engagements. Genuine friendships—beyond the transient touch points of formal diplomacy—can overcome difficult or sensitive bilateral issues not suited to official mechanisms.

A regularised second-track system could smooth undulations that prolong negotiations or slow their momentum. However, it should not replace the work of officials or dictate policy settings. Both approaches are valuable, and they’re more effective if combined.

The trust built through more personal second-track engagements keeps communication channels open when formal diplomacy falters. This addition to our soft-power toolkit would signal a deeper, more meaningful effort by Australia as a partner in regional development.

It will be particularly important as officials explain Australia’s military capability expansion, especially while nations watch Beijing’s reaction, some with more concern than others.

Care must be taken to avoid pre-empting policy development or sending mixed messages, and that can be done by using the expertise of former diplomats and officials whose networks, friendships, knowledge and experience would otherwise be lost. The minimal expense should be calculated against the costs of diplomatic failures.

Access and influence are always important—and vital in a crisis. We need to be agile, especially when doors have closed, which happens more often than is publicly acknowledged, and invariably at critical moments. That’s when the real but hidden value of friendship is realised.

A second-track approach supports Australia’s regional outreach by keeping doors open and dialogue happening. It’s an investment in regional stability.

Informal arrangements should nest within a framework overseen by a proper authority. They’d be best implemented under DFAT’s direction, though departments could manage a decentralised version. There should be lateral reach across departments pursuing dialogue with counterparts under the guidance of the foreign policy white paper and other departmental objectives. Discussions should address agenda items outside the scope of formal treatment by officials. Topics could include future interests that aren’t yet a priority, difficult matters that for the time being are best avoided by officials, or crisis matters when normal channels have been interrupted or closed.

Joint reporting to parent governments would enhance transparency and build further confidence in relationships.

The structure need not be complex. An example is the Australia–Indonesia Defence Alumni Association (Ikahan) and its senior advisers group established at the instigation of the current governor-general when he was Australian Defence Force chief. General David Hurley wanted to strengthen ties between the ADF and the Indonesian military—the TNI—and the broader bilateral relationship.

Ikahan has been an outstanding success in both regards. The advisory group is co-chaired by a former Australian army chief, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, and a former assistant for intelligence to the TNI chief. Its membership includes former high-level national security officials who have developed deep trust and personal relationships over time. Regular in-person and virtual meetings discuss the ‘unusual as business’, addressing diverse concerns important to their governments. This simple but effective model could be emulated by other departments, and with other key nations.

Now is the moment for Australia to strengthen its relationships through increased dialogue with regional friends. Bookending our diplomacy with a more integrated second-track system would complement official efforts and support the formal messaging in our changed strategic situation.

Importantly, informal dialogue will provide advance warning of impending hazards in regional relationships and smooth any ructions that could arise as the new security equilibrium is formed. This relatively small investment is key to our future stability and security. Working on multiple levels with friends has never been more important to our respective national interests.

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[1] 2017 foreign policy white paper: https://www.fpwhitepaper.gov.au/

[2] could be more effectively implemented: https://www.cis.org.au/publications/analysis-papers/mitigating-the-new-cold-war-managing-us-china-trade-tech-and-geopolitical-conflict/

[3] would benefit from refinement: https://www.rusi.org.au/resources/Documents/QLD/191101%20RUSI%20Seminar%20Record%20Final%20cfm.pdf

[4] New Colombo Plan: https://www.dfat.gov.au/people-to-people/new-colombo-plan/pages/new-colombo-plan

[5] Australia–Indonesia Defence Alumni Association (Ikahan): http://ikahan.com/