The Indo-Pacific focus of ‘Expanding Australia’s Diplomatic Footprint’

Budget Review 2015–16 Index

Marty Harris

In what Foreign Minister Julie Bishop termed ‘the single largest expansion of Australia’s diplomatic network in forty years’, the 2015–16 Budget announced that Australia would open five new overseas diplomatic missions, all in the Indo-Pacific.[1]

The Government will provide $98.3 million over four years to open new diplomatic missions in:

  • Buka, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (PNG)
  • Doha, Qatar
  • Makassar, south Sulawesi, Indonesia
  • Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and
  • Phuket, Thailand.[2]

The Government justifies the new posts in the following terms:

New posts in Makassar, Doha and Ulaanbaatar will advance trade and investment opportunities for Australia. A consulate in Phuket will help manage Australia’s significant consular load while a new post in Buka will provide greater focus for Australia’s development assistance to Bougainville.[3]

These are the latest in a series of new diplomatic missions the Australian Government has opened—after some years of think tank and parliamentary committee criticism of Australia’s diplomatic network. A 2009 report from the Lowy Institute for International Policy calculated that Australia had ‘fewer diplomatic missions than all but a few OECD countries’, concluding that Australia’s network of overseas diplomatic missions was ‘overstretched and hollowed out’.[4] A follow-up report from 2011 found that Australia had the smallest overseas network of all G20 nations.[5]

In 2012, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade (JSCFADT) published its report Australia’s Overseas Representation—Punching below our weight?, which recommended to the Government that ‘the budget priority for overseas representation should be significantly raised because of the benefits that accrue from diplomacy’ and that Australia should establish at least 20 new diplomatic posts ‘to bring it to a level commensurate with its position within the G20 and OECD’.[6]

Since 2009, Australia has opened a further six diplomatic missions—Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Lima (Peru), Chennai (India), Mumbai (India), Chengdu (China) and Kyiv (Ukraine). The former Labor Government announced in May 2012 that it would open a post in Dakar (Senegal), though the incoming Coalition Government cancelled this decision in December 2013.

The new diplomatic missions announced in the 2015–16 Budget have a distinctly ‘Indo-Pacific’ focus. In 2012 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was asked where it would like to see new posts opened, should the Department receive extra resources. Then Secretary Dennis Richardson said at the time that should DFAT receive an extra $100 million over four years, the Department would like to see posts opened in the following five locations: Astana (Kazakhstan), Ulaanbatar (Mongolia), Dakar (Senegal), Phuket (Thailand) and Funafuti (Tuvalu).[7] The $98.3 million allocated in the 2015–16 Budget is a very similar figure, yet only two of DFAT’s recommended locations made the cut. Considering Foreign Minister Bishop argues that ‘our foreign policy focus must be on our region—the Indian Ocean Asia Pacific (Indo-Pacific)’, this is not surprising.[8] Indeed, not long after winning government the new Foreign Minister stated her intention to expand Australia’s diplomatic network, while signifying that any new posts would be located in the Indo-Pacific.[9]

Alex Oliver from the Lowy Institute provides further possible reasoning for the location of these particular posts:

The mission in Phuket, presumably a consulate-general, was probably the first priority on anyone's list. Phuket is Australians' fourth most popular travel destination, and one of the most demanding places for DFAT to provide consular services, accounting for the largest number of Australian deaths overseas.

The Makassar post, in eastern Indonesia ... in order to serve Australia's considerable interests there (although the cuts to Indonesia aid trim those interests somewhat). Of the others, the post in Bougainville anticipates the independence referendum sometime in the next five years, the Ulaanbaatar post was in [then DFAT Secretary Dennis] Richardson's top five, and the Doha post is more of a surprise—presumably it's to serve increasing bilateral trade and investment interests.[10]

The announcement that Australia will open a diplomatic mission in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville has drawn sharp criticism from the PNG Government. Speaking in Sydney two days after the Budget’s release, PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill stated that ‘we were shocked to learn from the budget documents that Australia was planning to establish a diplomatic post in Bougainville ... We have to sanction this. You can't just go around and open offices at your pleasure’.[11] Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, for her part, claimed that Australia had consulted PNG on the Bougainville post in December 2014, and that Australia's High Commissioner had formally informed the PNG Government in the lead-up to the Budget.[12]

Bougainville is a sensitive issue for PNG, where a civil war in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in 15,000–20,000 deaths. Following a peace treaty in 1998, Bougainville received autonomy status, with a referendum on independence to occur prior to 2020. The Australian Government’s announcement that it would open a post in Buka came while elections were underway in Bougainville, with the resulting regional government becoming responsible for negotiating a referendum date with PNG.[13]

[1].          J Bishop (Minister for Foreign Affairs), 2015 Foreign Affairs budget, media release, 12 May 2015.

[2].          This also includes an undisclosed amount of funding to provide ‘increased resources’ to the Australian consulate in Houston, Texas. The budget figures have been taken from the following document unless otherwise sourced: Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2015–16.

[3].          Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2015–16: budget related paper no. 19: Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio, p. 19.

[4].          Australia’s diplomatic deficit: reinvesting in our instruments of international policy, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Blue Ribbon Panel report, March 2009, p. viii.

[5].          A Oliver and A Shearer, Diplomatic disrepair: rebuilding Australia’s international policy infrastructure, Lowy Institute for International Policy, August 2011, p. viii.

[6].          Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Australia’s overseas representation—punching below our weight?, House of Representatives, Canberra, October 2012, p. vii.

[7].          Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Submission to Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, Inquiry into Australia’s overseas representation, no date, accessed 14 May 2015.

[8].          J Bishop (Shadow Foreign Minister), ‘Why the Coalition is the best choice on foreign, aid and trade policy at this election’, Lowy Interpreter weblog, 19 August 2013.

[9].          AAP, ‘Julie Bishop plans to expand diplomatic footprint abroad’, The Australian, 4 October 2014.

[10].       A Oliver, ‘DFAT's Dickensian budget’, Lowy Interpreter weblog, 13 May 2015, hyperlinks removed.

[11].       AAP, ‘Planned Bougainville diplomatic mission shocks PNG prime minister’, The Guardian (online), 14 May 2015.

[12].       S Mitchell, ‘Julie Bishop denies allegations Government failed to consult with PNG over diplomatic post in Bougainville’, ABC News, 14 May 2015.

[13].       L Cochrane, ‘Polls open in Bougainville as island nation looks towards independence from Papua New Guinea’, ABC News, 11 May 2015.


All online articles accessed May 2015. 

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