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Albanese's Campaign Promise: An Office of Southeast Asia

09 Sep 2022
By Nicholas Whitwell
A DFAT representative at a meeting in Indonesia. Source: Australian Embassy Jakarta

Australia’s international engagement structure is chained to the 2017 White Paper, a once effective, now outdated document. A new strategy and structure should now be formalised that establishes an Office of Southeast Asia, an Envoy, and shapes DFAT capability for the modern world. 

The new Australian Federal Government led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced during the election campaign two critical initiatives for Australian foreign affairs: the establishment of an “Envoy to Southeast Asia” and the establishment of an Office of Southeast Asia within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). These were reiterated when the prime minister visited Jakarta and committed $670 million for Southeast Asia, of which $200 million was for Indonesia, over four years. The newly minted and highly active minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, has made huge strides in recalibrating the government’s focus to the region. It is on her now to deliver on the announcements.

To demonstrate it is of regional value, able to achieve Australian goals, and garner necessary political capital, the new envoy to Southeast Asia has the classic 100 days from taking on the job to commence meaningful actions. There are then a limited number of initiatives that can be undertaken, and to achieve this, time and resources must be allocated effectively.

Building a functioning Office of Southeast Asia inside DFAT must be priority one. It is difficult to engage in foreign affairs without the home front being staffed. While DFAT has staff highly capable of engaging Southeast Asia, there are questions of institutional efficiency and modernity at play now that the region has been designated a priority. Establishing a true Office of Southeast Asia would go a long way to instituting effective lines of communication and project delivery that support the government’s current and ongoing priority realignment.

The announced Office of Southeast Asia is a vague notion, and one on which many interpretations could be laid. As yet there is no indication on the size or scope intended for an Office of Southeast Asia. The minimum would be to provide a senior bureaucrat or academic with a namesake office, much like the Chief Economist, and claim that the election mandate is fulfilled. However, a limited restructure of DFAT would better serve Australia’s interests and the government’s objectives. Regardless, the Office of Southeast Asia must be able to handle the increased political attention, responsibilities, and focus Australia now has on the region. That leads to a consideration that it may be a middle tier restructure, capable of the task, without straining the department’s identity and structural integrity.

Within the DFAT organisational structure there is currently one geographic office – the Office of the Pacific (OTP). There is precedent, though, for smaller offices such as those within the Trade and Investment Group, most notably the aforementioned Chief Economist, Office of Trade and Investment Law, and Office of Trade Negotiations. The OTP was establishing in 2019 to enact the priority Australia places on Pacific partners and deliver consistent coordination and implementation of associated projects. Outside the stunning failure regarding the Solomon Islands-China military agreement (which is a shared failure between Defence, Home Affairs, and DFAT), the OTP has been well received by partners, and anecdotally by foreign affairs watchers for its robust budget and world-leading expertise.

When forming an Office of Southeast Asia, DFAT should draw on experts within the existing Southeast Asia and Global Partners Group (SGG) and move all others into the Geostrategic Group (GSG). Within this group are the Southeast Asia Regional Division, Southeast Asia Maritime Division, and the Indonesia Policy Review Taskforce. For perspective, those three makes up more than half the entire SGG. The SGG Southeast Asia divisions should be pulled into a new group along with the Indian Ocean and South Asia branch, and India branch from the GSG. The North East Asia branch of the GSG should then move in with East Asia Division (renamed North & East Asia). The remaining two SGG divisions, Europe and Latin America Division and Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan Division should be placed into the GSG.

It doesn’t end there, though. There is a plethora of other branches and divisions of DFAT which capture elements of Southeast Asia. These include the North and South Asia Division and the US and Indo-Pacific Strategy Division, the Trade and Investment Group, and Development and Multilateral Group and their associated branches. Rather than slip an Office of Southeast Asia into this byzantine structure, it makes sense that a limited scope restructure should be implemented to achieve a true office with dedicated functions, responsibilities, purpose, and initiatives. You might consider it an East Wing to the Office of the Pacific’s West Wing.

This restructure up would mean that combined there would be three dedicated Southeast Asia Divisions (the Maritime Division, Regional Division, and South Asia and Indian Ocean Division). These three would then sit neatly alongside the Indonesia Policy Review Taskforce. Together these three divisions and one task force would be the smallest group in DFAT, but they would function as and could be called the Office of Southeast Asia. The SGG could then be extinguished, and any remaining functions responsibly allocated between the office itself and the GSG.

From this contained restructure, it would be possible to charge an Office of Southeast Asia with suitable responsibilities similar (but not identical) to the OTP. This could include a Key Sectors Taskforce, an Education and Scholarship Branch, and Economic Integration and Development Branch. The Pacific is not Southeast Asia, and while they may have some similar challenges, they are not and should not be conflated to exactly mirror one another.

In this limited restructure, the current deputy secretary of the SGG would remain on as deputy secretary of the Office of Southeast Asia, while the incoming envoy to Southeast Asia receives their own branch within the Office. In practical terms, the envoy should be responsible for a small to medium team, some new, some brought in from other divisions or branches. The envoy could then function as something like an ambassador and as the deputy head of the office without being truly either. The envoy should be capable of providing expert advice to the nominated deputy-secretary, DFAT Secretary Jan Adams, and Minister Wong and able to travel the region, engage with external partners, and work freely as an expert bureaucrat dedicated to their function.

It does not make sense for the envoy to be a true ambassador. Australia already has an ambassador to each of the Southeast Asian nations, ASEAN, and APEC. The role of the envoy should be to listen and speak on priority issues and coordinate and consult in Southeast Asia from within the department. They must be able to directly deliver projects and support to Southeast Asia, the DFAT posts, and regional bodies simultaneously, without being captured in a web of politicking. As envoy, they should not be captured by ambassadorial responsibilities, such as maintaining direct bilateral relations, responding to day-to-day requests, or managing an embassy. Quite simply, the envoy role is different, more wide ranging, and reflexive to regional partners. Establishing an Office of Southeast Asia as described would enable the envoy to do their work and allow DFAT to represent Australia as effectively as possible in a region of equal importance to the Pacific.

No restructure, maximalist or minimalist could be completed within 100 days. However, the commencement of such a restructure, announcement of intent, and the goals of the formation of a true Office of Southeast Asia could be done within 100 days. DFAT is a lumbering beast, risk averse, and often slower than other agencies when change is necessary. It is pivotal that Minister Wong, the new Secretary Adams, and the nominated envoy, work diligently on progressing this change.

Nicholas Whitwell is a graduate of the Queensland University of Technology and holds a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Master of Education. In 2022, Nicholas was awarded a Japanese Government MEXT Scholarship to undertake a Master of Public Policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Nicholas has a particular focus on Southeast Asia, and the potential for minilateral cooperation. He is an active member of the #AIIANextGen Policy Experts Network.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.