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Regional relations report card

Minh Nguyen*

Meeting Place, 1(3), Summer 2006

It has been a busy year for the Australian Government in its engagement with the Asia Pacific region with several crises in the Pacific and the volatile relationship with Indonesia to manage. Prime Minister John Howard seems to have managed these issues well enough to confidently boast in Vietnam that Australia is ‘naturally and comfortably and permanently part of this region’ and ‘a country which has both a presence and a significance in the region.’ But to what extent does the region share his assessment of the relationship?

While a poll in October by the Lowy Institute suggested that ‘Australians are comfortable with Asia and our Pacific neighbours,’ it is only now that there is evidence of what our neighbours really think about us. According to a survey of regional non-governmental organisation (NGO) opinions conducted by Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre in partnership with Griffith Asia Institute, there is significant goodwill in the region towards Australia.

The bad news for the Government was that there is no evidence of a link between Australia’s good image and its foreign policies. In fact, the survey respondents cringed over Australia’s immigration and trade policies, and the way in which it engages with other nations in the region.

The study, conducted in June and July, sought to understand how NGOs in the Asia Pacific region perceive Australia and whether or not their perceptions are changing. It was also designed to explore the foreign policy issues that concern these organisations and the perceived impediments to better relations between Australia and the region.

Researchers at Uniya focused on the opinions of NGOs as they have strong links to the general public and would be able to reflect or influence the views and perceptions of ordinary citizens. Although there are suggestions that ‘the sum of NGO opinions does not equal public opinion’, this group is increasing its influence in national and international politics.

The results show that NGOs in the region generally have ‘positive feelings’ toward Australia and regard Australia as a ‘good international citizen,’ although Pacific respondents are a bit more hesitant about this assessment than their Asian counterparts.

While many respondents said their feelings about Australia have not changed in the past year, of those whose feelings have changed, nearly twice as many say they have changed for the worse. Putting Australia on notice, NGOs in the Pacific, ironically the group with the most contact with Australians, have become even more dissatisfied about Australia over the past year compared to Asian organisations.

In addition, Asian and Pacific respondents showed little in common with the Government’s top foreign policy priorities. Their concern for the global environment, which is shared by the Australian public according to the Lowy Institute poll, shows that the Government is also lagging behind regional opinion on this issue. The survey seems to suggest that Asia and Pacific NGOs placed greater importance on regional or global than national issues.

Controlling illegal immigration, combating terrorism, and strengthening their country’s economy are listed among the least important foreign policy goals for the Asia Pacific. This is in contrast to the Australian Government’s heightened concerns in recent years over these issues, illustrated by the foreign and trade ministers’ assertion that ‘security threats, especially from terrorism and people smuggling’ and ‘reform of our own economy’ are the top priorities bearing on Australia’s reputation.

In his speech in Vietnam the Prime Minister talked up the positives for the region of Australia’s close military and economic relationship with the United States. However, the survey’s respondents did not seem to agree. Asked whether they agree that a close relationship between Australia and the US is positive for their region, twice as many NGOs disagreed with the statement than agreed.

Comparing this to the same statement regarding mainland China, regional organisations generally agreed that a close relationship between Australia and China is positive for the region. NGOs do not seem deterred by China’s growing economic and military influence, and although they consider Australia’s cultural heritage closer to Europe or America, they would rather see Australia turn its attention away from the US and towards Asia and the Pacific.

Although differences in perception of foreign policy priorities are not enough to threaten good relations, there are some issues that are clearly sensitive for the region. Australia’s strict immigration laws, its restrictions on temporary working visas, and its harsh policy on asylum seekers are impacting on Australia’s reputation. The quantity and quality of Australian development aid and unfair trade have also been listed as barriers to better relations.

The region in general feels positive about Australia but the survey suggests the need for improvement. It suggests that Australia’s pragmatic bilateral approach to diplomacy is not enough to win the hearts and minds of civil society. It also implies that transnational issues like migration, development aid and fair trade are critical concerns for our neighbours. While Australia ponders about stricter immigration rules and citizenship requirements, the level of its contact with civil society in Asia and the Pacific remains worryingly low. All push and no pull does not make for a good regional image. These are considerations that the Government will ignore at its own peril as it seeks greater ties with ASEAN and greater influence over events in the Pacific.

* Minh Nguyen is Uniya’s Research Officer. The full report will be published on the Uniya website, www.uniya.org.

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