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If Australia is to walk the geopolitical tightrope, it will need a bigger aid program: opinion

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Originally by Joanna Pradela for Brisbane Times


Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, got into some hot water recently by questioning the quality of Chinese foreign aid to Pacific nations. In the furore that erupted, a broader point was lost on how and why we use our aid program.

No country’s aid should be used simply as a tool of transactional statecraft. Justifying aid primarily for the returns accruing to the donor is a good way to get bad results. But good aid – primarily working for the poorest – builds stronger, closer and longer-term connections, benefiting diplomatic relations. As Australia faces an uncertain diplomatic future in a changing region, aid and development may be the salve of many such relations. It will be fundamental to delivering on Australia’s new foreign policy plan.

The essence of the government’s new foreign policy white paper is a view that Australia is a country caught in a geopolitical hot spot. On the one hand, a rising China – with whom our economic prosperity is closely tied – is taking a more powerful position in the international order. On the other, the United States – with whom our security is closely bound – is withdrawing from a decades-long leadership role in maintaining the structure of that order. The US is hungry to hold on, but is antagonising its allies. China is hungry to gain ground and build relationships.

Australia is stuck in the middle, and the white paper is its hedging strategy: stay on the right side of all partners and build regional prosperity and security, where Australia and its neighbours can flourish regardless of geopolitics. Some say this is no strategy at all, while others say it’s the only way forward in uncertain times.

Whatever your interpretation, it is the government’s strategy. Accepting this, the Australian government will need to build as much soft power as it can to create and galvanise a regional bloc, which it terms the “Indo-Pacific”, and which it hopes will be able to deftly navigate the perils posed by two superpowers jockeying for position.

Koala diplomacy aside, the strongest form of soft power Australia has at its disposal is its aid program. Using Australian aid, we can help build roads to markets, linking the poorest and most remote citizens to economic opportunities. We can help communities be better prepared to withstand natural disasters, and be even better prepared to respond to them – investing in local capability before disasters strike. We can help provide more individuals a chance to attain a quality education – from early childhood through to tertiary and vocational skills.

In a moral universe, none of these objectives can be traded quid pro quo for alliances. But it’s easy to see how providing such support leads naturally to such alignment. Playing the long game of relationship-building is what is now required from the foreign affairs arm of government.

Yet the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has fallen prey to government belt-tightening. Now, Australia’s hedging strategy depends on increasing the department’s resources. Reflecting the disaster-prone nature of the Indo-Pacific, and Pacific nations’ critique of Australia’s climate policy, we need to help build resilience to climate change, increase humanitarian funding and truly recognise Pacific concerns. So badly needed in our region, the aid budget can support disability-inclusive development and build water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure and programs.

If the defence budget protects us when threats manifest in attacks, the aid program protects us from that very manifestation. It helps create peace and stability and is our bulwark against an uncertain future.

And there is a sense of urgency. Climate change is increasing the frequency and ferocity of natural hazards and food security is under threat because of rising sea levels. A regional youth “bulge” – coupled with collapsing economic opportunities – is set to create conditions ripe for unrest. In addition, protracted crises and prolonged state fragility, as well as a lack of protection against problems as basic as preventable diseases, threaten human development.

The last five years have seen Australia’s aid budget slashed dramatically. At 0.22 per cent of gross national income, our investment is at its lowest point since records began. These cuts were short-sighted and unwarranted when they were made, but having now laid out the white paper’s strategy, they are counterproductive.

To embrace the white paper’s ambition, our foreign affairs team needs more resources, and soon. This year’s federal budget would be a good place to start.