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Australia and Germany: Being Friends is not Enough

15 Jul 2015
By Melissa Conley Tyler
The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo Source: Davis Staedtler (Flickr). Creative Commons.

Australia and Germany are friends, but something stronger than friendship will be needed, if current attempts to achieve a greater level of co-operation are to succeed. 

Berlin is beautiful at this time of the year. If you have friends there, it’s a great time to visit. But it’s definitely a long flight.

Friends and distance were on my mind as I attended the first Australia-German Dialogue to give input into the German-Australia Advisory Group The Advisory Group was established to build closer ties between Australia and Germany following the meeting between Prime Minister Abbott and Chancellor Merkel during her visit to Brisbane last year. This means that there is real political will to increase Australia-German cooperation.

Despite all the warmth in the relationship, the frank advice is that the relationship has not kept pace with developments; we need to do a lot better to create a 21st century relationship.

The positive starting point is that Australia is a comfortable country for Germany. German participants noted that “Australia is a like-minded key country and potential partner” and that “although situated in the Pacific, Australia is part of the West.” A number of participants referred to “Australia as a natural partner.” Parliamentarian Andreas Nick noted that as a Western nation with the rule of law but a different geography and perspective, Australia is an attractive partner.

However distance does matter: that’s 15,500 kilometres to be exact. As one participant noted, “it’s good to have good friends wherever they live in the world” – but that doesn’t mean you visit them often. The common refrain is “it’s just too far away.” In a depressingly frank assessment from an official: “Australia is very far away and there are only limited time slots to pick up the phone.”

Germany and Australia have an emphasis on different issues simply as part of their geography. For Australia the first circle of focus is Asia-Pacific. For Germany, the initial focus is on the EU, the Middle East and North Africa. Particularly at the moment, Germany is bound up with concerns close to home: Russian aggression, Grexit and Brexit. Germany is playing a leading role in trying to deal with these issues and this takes significant attention.

So the trick is to find things that are high enough in the other country’s priority list to have a realistic hope of gaining attention.

There are a number of areas for potential collaboration in security and foreign affairs including counter-terrorism and border control, arms cooperation, military-to-military contact, diplomat exchanges, Indian Ocean maritime cooperation, conflict prevention and crisis management, development coordination and cybersecurity. If Germany is successful in its bid to build Australia’s submarine fleet, this will catapult the relationship to a new level.

In economic issues, possible topics for collaboration include tech start-ups, agri-tech automation and the transition to “Industry 4.0” (look it up here Energy and the transition to a low carbon economy offers significant economic opportunities. With the signing of ChAFTA this week, Australia offers opportunities for the financial services industry to expand into China. As a potential host of G20 in 2017, Germany may appreciate Australia passing on its knowledge and working with Germany in this important global economic forum.

In terms of research and education, Australian Research Council figures show that Germany is already Australia’s third biggest research partner, after the US and UK. There is real enthusiasm for research collaboration, internships, scholarship programs and cultural activities. Other areas where Australia and Germany can learn from each other’s experience include social inclusion and multiculturalism, vocational education and training, financial regulation, welfare spending and (controversially) nuclear power.

An important note struck at the dialogue was guarding against overoptimism. ASPI Director Peter Jennings gave the example of Australia’s relationship with Canada where, despite great friendship and a desire to improve cooperation, inertia has overcome ambition. Improving collaboration with other countries requires money and the thinking time of senior people. Otherwise, it’s easy for people to decide that it’s all too much work.

Paradoxically, one of the most significant things in Australia’s favour is the increasing concern about security developments in the Asia-Pacific. According to one participant, “Germany can’t risk ignoring strategic developments in the Asian region.” This means that “Australia is much more on the screen.”

Former Liberal Party President Alan Stockdale noted that Germany and Australia are two of the strongest nations on earth: in terms of the highest standards of living and the capacity for their citizens to pursue their dreams. They both have a real stake in the liberal international order, and could work together to preserve as much of this international order as they can.

Just don’t assume that friendship is enough.

Melissa Conley Tyler is the National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.