Regional relations report card
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
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
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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