Divorcing and remarrying the defence-diplomacy-development triune, for better or worse

Rebekah Baynard-Smith | Indo-Pacific Fellow

Australia’s international engagement, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, is constantly shifting, unpredictable and contentious. The Australian Government’s recent upscaling of Defence capabilities through the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, alongside underinvestment in diplomacy through a fresh bout of DFAT job cuts, as well as the repurposing and diversion of aid funds away from sustaining crucial development outcomes, are all testament to this state of flux.


At risk of being perceived as a divorce between these three forms of international engagement, recent adjustments are also an opportunity to reassess the roles each may play and what benefits could present from a less-siloed and more-integrated approach: a remarrying of sorts.


Australia has long played a vital leadership role in the region, whether in diplomatic negotiations and peacebuilding, meeting important development outcomes with poverty- and disaster-afflicted neighbours, or in providing hard power support to ward off common threats. Australia’s recent intensification of its deep friendship with India, prompted by fresh tensions on the India-China border, has demonstrated the necessity for diplomacy to help cool trade and political tensions. Similarly, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-awaited and recently launched Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement promotes Australia as a strategic partner seeking to harness opportunities for open bilateral trade with our closest and most important neighbour.


Vowing to ‘work with neighbours and allies’ to deter and respond to threats, the Defence Strategic Update makes some assumptions about Indonesia’s tendencies to align itself with either the US or China: a crucial tug of war raising concern in Jakarta for the implications of Australia’s Update in the near to medium future. Australia cannot rely on the trade deal to smoothen out the projected road bumps inherent in Defence’s pursuits: the soft power tactics of development assistance and the diplomatic corps are not Defence’s ‘poor cousins’ in these contexts, but rather a wealth of effective influence fundamental in reassuring an unsettled Indonesia.


Elsewhere in the region, in the Philippines and PNG, the need for Australia to present consistent and engaged diplomacy and development agendas should not be overlooked. The persistent conflicts in Southern Philippines (Muslim Mindanao/Bangsamoro) and President Duterte’s recent passing of the controversial Anti-Terror Bill should concern Australia. The combination of terrorism-related activity underpinning the southern region’s unrest, this new Bill, the human rights violations increasingly exacerbated by COVID-19, and Australia’s conflicted relationship with Duterte highlight the need for ongoing, balanced and healthy development and diplomatic relations with key regional partners as essential tools to compliment Defence’s missions.


Similarly, the unresolved tensions in Bougainville (PNG) will require Australia’s vigilance and sustained support across defence, development and diplomacy, as they demonstrate alignment in their commitment to PNG as a key negotiator, human rights defender, aid donor and trade partner. ASEAN countries are also struggling in their efforts to (re)act strategically to contain China’s advances, be it the Belt and Road Initiative investments, the large-scale relocation of Chinese companies in response to COVID-19, or tensions in the South China Sea. As ASEAN navigates its dependence on Chinese investment, a perceived imbalance in Australia’s strategic engagement with the region flags serious questions as to how Australia might lead the region towards security and prosperity.


An indifference towards, or retreat from, development and diplomatic engagement is dangerous. So, what of remarrying the happy family? Are there any positive lessons we can learn from a more integrated and less siloed approach to international engagement?


Recent changes to the governance structures in the US and the UK have highlighted what could be possible and positive about merging some aspects of this triune together to bolster and complement each other more effectively. For example, US Congress has seen larger support for aid investment thanks to the constant advocacy by influential former military personnel who promote the value of investing in democracy, good governance and human rights abroad as key strategic components to the US’ international engagement. The US’ reluctance to ease off Defence commitments in the Philippines reflect the ongoing need for healthy bilateral relations and collaborative development programs to secure the Philippines’ peace and stability.


Similar to the drafting of AusAID into DFAT in 2013, the UK’s recent merger of the Department for International Development into the newly formed Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office signifies a monumental shift in thinking about international development. It reinforces how the aid and development sector are part of much broader international engagement goals. For example, sustainable development and tackling climate change are increasingly considered integral parts of diplomatic, finance and trade efforts. Unlike Australia, the UK has long met its commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development, and the merging of these sectors exemplifies its capacity to be integrated into, and take a leadership role within, these broader aspects of international engagement.


Despite structural similarities with our UK equivalents and some wins emerging over the seven years since the AusAID-DFAT merge, Australia’s opportunity to not only match, but better integrate, its diplomacy and development step up with that of Defence cannot be put on the backburner. The spread of challenges facing the Indo-Pacific, Australia included, will require a well-balanced, cohesive and sufficiently resourced triune of international engagement.


Rebekah Baynard-Smith is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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