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Australian Soft Diplomacy: How is Australia Perceived Internationally?

16 Oct 2014
Colin Chapman
Image credit: Flickr (R0b0l)

What are the foreign policy priorities for Australia as a Top 20 nation?

This is the theme of this year’s AIIA National Conference to be held in Canberra on October 27. There are many issues. High on the list is our security, and the strategy to protect it. As one of the world’s wealthier nations, we need to guard what we have, while also operating an open economy. We need to build our wealth, and extend it to others. With a bipartisan commitment to free trade, we have to persuade the world that this is the course to pursue. These are among many other related issues.

But we must not forget that we have to take into account how others see us, if they see us at all. What is their perspective of Australia? We think we are a Top 20 country, but do they? We have considerable evidence to both justify and refute the claim.

What the Numbers Say

Measuring gross domestic product, Australia comes in 12th in all four comparison lists; that of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Central Intelligence Agency.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Australia is the greatest place to live. We have four cities – Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Perth, in that order – in the carefully assessed top ten ‘most liveabl e’ cities list. The United States has none; neither does Asia nor Latin America. Australia also rates highly in health and is ranked 10th for life expectancy by the World Health Organisation.

In primary and secondary education the results are patchier; and in The Times Higher Education Supplement only the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University make it into the top 50.

But what of other perceptions? Many of these are individual and anecdotal, rather than scientific, such as those expressed by BBC United Nations correspondent Nick Bryant. In a recent book, The Rise and Fall of Australia, published by Random House, Bryant provides a detailed analysis of politics, and concludes that Australia “seems to be in speedy regression, with the nation’s leaders, on both sides, mired in relatively small problems, such as the arrival of boat people, rather than mapping out a larger and more inspiring national future. But there is also good news.

Australia: the Beloved

The way government works in Australia has, from time to time, come in for praise. The cost of election promises is often challenged at home, but recently the Institute of Government in the UK reflected favourably on the role our Treasury plays in this regard. The Times recently ran a main editorial—“Ending the Age of Entitlement”—lauding Abbott’s crackdown on welfare as a radical experiment in economic reform.

In the US, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has praised Australia’s lead in humanitarian and rescue efforts in the Asia-Pacific region. In April, The Council on Foreign Relations noted he had “pulled off an impressive feat”, praising the prime minister during his first tour of North Asia in managing to express support for Japan and South Korea without antagonizing Beijing.

However, not all feedback has been positive.

Enter the Discontents

Australia’s tough bipartisan policy towards ‘boat people’ has also attracted comment, much of it unfavorable. The Brookings Institution republished such an article by a senior fellow, Professor Jane McAdam under the heading “Australia’s draconian refugee policy built on myths”.

The New York Times also criticised Australia for abolishing the carbon tax—its board of editors calling it a “retreat”—alongside an article suggesting Canberra had abandoned its moral leadership on the issue.

Regular updates on Australia’s asylum seekers policies and problems are recurring themes. If a European citizen knows about something that is going on down under, the chances are high of it being related to the treatment of refugees, boat people or Papua New Guinea. As in the US, the issue is largely perceived in a negative way rather than as analysis. The main argument put forward is in the context of a violation of The United Nations Refugee Convention and basic human rights. One gets the impression Australia has done a poor job of explaining the policy of ‘stopping the boats’; with the saving of lives at sea given little if any attention.

Views from the US

The US magazine, National Interest, recently carried an article from Rod Lyon of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute presenting a present-day SWOT analysis of the Australian-US relationship. Three strengths were seen as familial closeness, shared grand strategies, and a solid foundation. He listed weaknesses as time, place and strategic personalities while adding that “Australia is not Washington’s top priority; geographically we sit too far back from a strategic order essentially built along the Eurasian rim lands”.

In addition, CSIS has devoted considerable time and space to East Asia issues and is currently running the US-Australia Speaker Series that that seeks to focus attention on US-Australia relations. A recent example of this focus has been the near-hour long conversation with Andrew Mackenzie, CEO of BHP Billiton.

European Sphere of (Non)Influence

Across the Atlantic in Europe, it is a different picture. Despite relatively strong cultural, historical and economic ties Australia continues to share with Europe nowadays, the two are certainly not in each other’s centre of attention.

This fact translates itself directly into a lack of media attention given to Australian affairs in Europe. Australia certainly does not feature much in European newspapers or magazines. Nevertheless, there is a number of certain issues the European public is (vaguely) aware of.

French, German and Swiss media provide fair but limited coverage; most of it sourced from the French news agency, Agence France Presse. Spanish media pay attention to Australian immigration policies and inform their large number of young unemployed about new options of Work Holiday visas in Australia for Spanish citizens as well as updates on Australian immigration laws.

In Britain there is considerable coverage of Australian business through the Financial Times, one of the few media outlets to have a full-time staff correspondent in the country. Prime minister Tony Abbott’s initiative after the downing of MH20 in Ukraine, and foreign minister Julie Bishop’s persistence in getting a unanimous UN Security Council resolution won plaudits.

Other subjects tackled in the European media include climate change, and the repeal of the carbon tax, US marines being trained in Australia, and, most recently, the possibility of Australian involvement in a new war in Iraq.

These apart, much of the focus has been on shark attacks and man-eating crocodiles. The arrival of Clive Palmer and his PUP did cause some comment, and his appearance on ABC’s TV’s Q & A – where he referred to Chinese as ‘mongrels’ – received widespread coverage. The more eccentric aspects of Australian life seem to dominate.

News from the Middle East

In the Middle East, the Jerusalem Post pays frequent attention to what is suggested as anti-Semitic views expressed in Australia; covering the public’s criticism of the ‘excessive’ force deployed by the Netanyahu government in Israel in the war with Gaza.

For its part, the Arab press is displeased with the announcement by attorney-general George Brandis that Australia (unlike the United Nations and the European Union) will no longer refer to East Jerusalem and the West Bank as ‘occupied territories’. Brandis had said the use of this term was ‘judgmental with pejorative implications’.

Tehran’s Iran Daily reported the Australian ambassador being summoned to explain this decision, with the journal expressing irritation that foreign minister Julie Bishop had apparently seen the Brandis announcement as no significant change in policy. The Palestinian Telegraph suggested Ms Bishop had ‘reinvented’ international law. Al Ahram went much further, accusing Australia of being a “Colonial partner in Israel’s crime”.

Perceptions in the Asia-Pacific

While Australia looms fairly large in the Asia-Pacific, (although, surprisingly less so in New Zealand) our profile is not high amongst the larger nations of the Asia Pacific region. This is despite the fact that four out of five of our top trading partners are Asian giants.

Meidyatama Surodiningrat, editor of the Jakarta Post, a thoughtful and serious newspaper, is one of the few to focus on Australia, and is currently running an in-depth three-part series on the “Asianization” of Australia that concentrates on the positive and negative aspects of multiculturalism in the country

Asian think tanks seldom mention Australia either in their commentaries or in meetings. The Singapore Institute of International Affairs seems to have little or no interest in Australia and, in an assessment of regional leaders, Australia did not merit a mention – rather different to the way we see ourselves. The same is true of institutes in China, Korea, and Japan.

Japan, South East Asia and Hong Kong seem to cover major Australian financial news and sport through Bloomberg and Reuters, and what little that is published on politics and foreign policy tends to be negative, some of which being government-inspired.

In July, prime minister Abbott’s praise for the bravery of Japanese soldiers in World War II irked Beijing. This inspired the Global Times, a paper linked to the ruling Communist party, to say Australia was in no position to criticise China’s human rights record, in part because it “used to be a place roamed by rascals and outlaws from Europe“.

A Reuter’s report on the possibility of Japan selling submarines or submarine technology to Australia also attracted considerable attention, but, for the moment, Chinese comment seems muted. That may change if, as was reported, the Abbott government decides to accept the offer of an association with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Concluding Remarks

If it were possible to draw a conclusion from the limited amount of attention that gets paid to Australia, it would be that both the Australian government and the business community need to devote more energy to explaining policies to international audiences, including media. As a member of Foreign Correspondents Association of Australia and the Asia Pacific, I hear repeated complaints from journalists; particularly from Europe and Asia, that they are given little access to political and business leaders. Australia has recently begun to appreciate the benefits of soft power, but we still have a steep hill to climb.


Colin Chapman is President of the AIIA in NSW.

Gaby Nash, Megan Fung, Elisabeth Wale, Jana Dekanovska contributed to this brief. The author does not claim or suggest that the brief is an exhaustive analysis of perceptions of Australia, not least because it does not include non-English texts, nor does it take into account the large number of focus groups and surveys that have polled selective audiences for opinions. Above all it does not include any analysis of social media, in itself a major exercise requiring months of study. The AIIA welcomes contributions to the subject of the perception of Australia from informed individuals living in other countries.