Australian foreign policy in 2017: a year of delivery?

This year is shaping up as a big year for Australian foreign policy. This FlagPost highlights some of the key milestones expected over the coming months.

The centrepiece of the Australian Government’s foreign policy agenda in 2017 will be a new white paper that will ‘provide a roadmap for advancing and protecting Australia’s international interests and define how we engage with the world in the years ahead’.  This will be only the third Australian foreign and trade policy white paper and the first since Advancing the National Interest was released by the Howard Government in 2003. In the interim, there have been two foreign affairs-related white papers:  the Howard Government’s 2006 Australian Aid: Promoting Growth and Stability and the Gillard Government’s 2012 Australia in the Asian Century.  

As the first strategy since the 2013 integration of the former AusAID with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the white paper confronts the challenging task of providing a narrative that ties together Australia’s core interests and objectives across the foreign, trade and development policy domains. It will do so against the backdrop of a strategic environment characterised by intensifying global uncertainty, fragmentation and pressure on the ‘rules-based order’. The framing of Australia’s relationship with a less predictable US ally—as well as how to most effectively calibrate our future engagement with this ally’s principal strategic competitor, China, and fellow ‘Indo-Pacific’ powers such as Japan, India and Indonesia—is likely to feature prominently. Defining our interests and responsibilities when it comes to development, democracy and diplomacy in the South Pacific will also be important, as will the links between the strategic assessments contained in the foreign policy white paper and those contained in other policy frameworks such as the 2016 Defence White Paper.

Public submissions to the white paper closed on 28 February and consultations involving international partners, experts, business, and community and non-government organisations are continuing. While originally expected mid-year, the Government recently stated that the white paper will be released in August or September 2017 due to ‘additional uncertainties in the international environment’. DFAT has indicated that the white paper will be approved by the full Cabinet.

At last year’s Pacific Island Forum Leaders’ meeting in Micronesia, Prime Minister Turnbull promised a new ‘Pacific Strategy’, a policy that will also be considered by Cabinet. This strategy will help ‘provide longer term policy direction and coherence’, as well as ‘longer term actions and investment that will support continued stability and resilience in the region’. Such a strategy would be the first of its kind and would be among only a handful of regionally focused, whole-of-government policy frameworks—precedents include the 1989 Garnaut report on Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy  and the aforementioned 2012 ‘Asian Century’ White Paper. The Government has not indicated when this strategy will be publicly released.

Ahead of the white paper’s release, and perhaps with a view to foreshadowing its themes and directions, Prime Minister Turnbull will deliver the keynote address in Singapore in June at this year’s ‘Shangri-La Dialogue’, the region’s premier regional security conference.

Towards the end of the year, in October or November, Australia’s candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for 2018–20 will be subject to a vote in Geneva. Australia is competing against two other members of the UN’s ‘Western Europe and Other Group’, France and Spain. DFAT has acknowledged it will be ‘a fairly tough race’ and that in seeking other countries’ support for its bid, Australia’s recent cuts in aid to Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have been ‘a topic of conversation’. The US recently stated that it is considering withdrawing from the UNHRC, a move that some argue ‘would be cheered by dictatorships like China, Cuba, Egypt, Russia and Iran that have been bothered by [US] success in using the council to highlight most serious human rights abuses around the world’.

On the trade and economic diplomacy front, Indonesia and Australia have committed to concluding by the end of the year, a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which has been under negotiation since 2010. Australia’s commercial links with Indonesia are routinely described as ‘underdone’. A high quality agreement may prove challenging, however, in the face of Indonesia’s pursuit of economic nationalist policies, as illustrated by Jakarta’s current row with US company Freeport over mineral export licensing.

A firm timeline for a bilateral free trade agreement between Australia and India, originally slated for completion in 2015, appears to have fallen away amid reports of disagreements with New Delhi over market access issues. With the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, advancing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and proposed free trade agreements with the European Union and the United Kingdom will also be a focus in 2017.    

After successive funding cuts to overseas aid, the May Budget is expected to be the first since 2012–13 in which Official Development Assistance (ODA) will increase. Total ODA is expected to rise in line with inflation from an estimated $3.828 billion in 2016–17 to around $3.912 billion in 2017–18. While increasing in nominal terms, Australia’s ODA as a proportion of gross national income is forecast to continue to fall to a record low of 0.22 per cent in 2017–18. The Government’s ability to apply additional funding to country programs will be constrained by the need to: honour deferred multilateral payments from previous budgets; meet the Coalition’s 2016 election commitments on regional health security and gender equality; and respond to growing demands for increased humanitarian aid in the face of worsening emergencies in Africa and the Middle East. It will also be an important year for aid effectiveness, with an OECD peer review of Australia’s aid program expected to commence in mid-2017 and a wide suite of program reviews and strategic evaluations scheduled.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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