A more contested and uncertain world
Australia’s international environment is undergoing a profound transformation. Trends identified in the government’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper are accelerating in ways that challenge our interests. Geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific region is intensifying as trade tensions between the United States and China deepen. Global growth is slowing and the risks to Australia’s economy are rising. Institutions that have supported peace and prosperity since the end of World War Two are under strain. Around the world, trust in democratic institutions is declining, populism is gaining ground, and breakthrough technologies are presenting as many dilemmas as they are opportunities. These trends threaten to test the practice of diplomacy.
Despite these challenges, Australia is well placed to respond to and help shape our increasingly fluid international context. The department works to maximise our influence and impact. Advancing long-term objectives can be slow and buffeted by setbacks beyond Australia’s control. When we rate the department’s performance as ‘on track’ in this report it can reflect incremental progress, or holding the line against sliding backwards.
The year in review
In 2018–19 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade designed and delivered a range of policies and programs, implementing the White Paper and pursuing our core objective of an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. We implemented policies that capitalised on our domestic strengths—our stable political system, flexible economy, resilient institutions and liberal democratic values—and promoted the rules and principles that have enabled our country and many others to flourish. We invested in bilateral relationships, encouraged economic cooperation, and worked to shape an Indo-Pacific in which the rights of all states are respected.
Deeper engagement with the Pacific was at the forefront of the government’s international strategy. Our new Office of the Pacific began implementing the government’s ambitious Pacific Step-up. We worked with Pacific island nations to deliver a record $1.2 billion in aid to address the region’s development priorities and enhance security and sovereignty. We supported greater economic opportunities for more than 12,000 Pacific and Timor-Leste workers through the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme, and established the government’s $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific to underpin sustainable growth in our region. Together with Japan and the United States, we signed a memorandum of understanding to mobilise private sector investment to help meet the Indo-Pacific’s infrastructure needs.
Australia’s alliance with the United States remained integral to the government’s foreign policy and we reinforced our joint commitment to supporting an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. We pursued deeper economic and security cooperation with the region’s major democracies: Indonesia, Japan, India and the Republic of Korea. Our Australia now public diplomacy program showcased Australian innovation, diversity and creativity in Japan and Southeast Asian nations.
The department supported high-level interactions with Chinese counterparts. We began work to put in place the government’s new National Foundation for Australia–China Relations to deepen our important bilateral relationship with China. We worked to assist the government in elevating Australia’s relationship with Indonesia to a comprehensive strategic partnership and pave the way for economic gains with the conclusion of the Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.
Against a backdrop of rising protectionism, we spearheaded the government’s commitment to free trade. We worked with Austrade to help Australian companies of all sizes access a larger share of global markets, and led legislative change to provide Export Finance Australia with an additional $1 billion to assist exporters and to finance infrastructure in our region. We opened markets for business and supported new jobs, with the Trade Minister’s signing of the Australia–Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement and associated Investment Agreement. The world’s most significant trade and investment agreement in more than two decades—the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—entered into force, with our support. We made good progress towards a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and an Australia–European Union Free Trade Agreement.
The Australian-supported territorial defeat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria was an important breakthrough in the global fight against terrorism. Attacks closer to home in Sri Lanka and Christchurch reinforced the importance of the government’s commitment to countering violent extremism in all its forms. To this end, the department worked with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to support the Prime Minister in his successful efforts to secure an agreement by G20 leaders urging social media companies to guard against the weaponisation of their platforms. As part of the government’s efforts to ensure a free, open and secure cyberspace and prevent its exploitation, we worked with our partners in ASEAN and the Pacific to build resilience against cyber attacks.
Australia’s development assistance program is imbued with our values, driven by our interests and focused where we can make the most difference: the Indo-Pacific. In 2018–19 we supported Pacific partners to build stronger and more inclusive political, economic and social institutions to enhance security and prosperity. When natural disasters hit Vanuatu, Indonesia and Laos, Australia provided vital humanitarian assistance. When an outbreak of vaccine-derived poliovirus struck Papua New Guinea, we worked with global partners to immunise 3.3 million children. We concluded a five-year program to improve water, sanitation and hygiene for 5.3 million poor and vulnerable people in 19 countries, including more than 70,000 people with disabilities. We also supported 46 Australian community organisations in 15 countries to expand their valuable international development work through the government’s new Australian Aid: Friendship Grants.
Australia’s interests are strongly served by multilateral cooperation to solve global challenges. In 2018–19 we continued to help address tough cross-border issues that no one country can solve alone, including modern slavery, human trafficking, and nuclear proliferation. We played a central role in obtaining agreement on an international rulebook for implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change, and we provided humanitarian assistance for refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria and Myanmar. We assisted the government in drawing attention to human rights abuses around the world, advocating for fundamental freedoms and initiating joint statements to convey the views of traditionally underrepresented Pacific nations in the United Nations Human Rights Council. We supported the government in its advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty and in pursuing the prosecution of individuals alleged to have brought down flight MH17.
The department continued to provide high-quality, secure passport and consular services, and supported 13,715 Australians in difficulty overseas. We issued a record 2.1 million passports and developed bespoke facial recognition systems to stop fraud. The safe passage of eight Australian minors out of Syria and the return of an Australian citizen from North Korea were testament to the department’s ability to work in a cohesive and focused way across our network and with our partners. During the reporting year, we upgraded our Crisis Centre with state-of-the-art facilities to better coordinate Australia’s responses to emergencies overseas. The cave rescue of the Thai Wild Boars soccer team, for which the department provided logistical support, was a standout example of international cooperation in action.
As competition for influence in the international arena intensifies, Australia’s soft power—our ability to affect the behaviour and thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas—becomes more important. During 2018–19 we leveraged our nation’s sporting excellence to build friendships in the Pacific through a new sports linkages program. We consulted widely for the first review of Australia’s soft power. We strengthened links between people and institutions by offering 3,161 Australia Awards scholarships and short courses to develop future leaders from more than 55 countries. We also awarded 11,600 scholarships and mobility grants to Australian undergraduates through the New Colombo Plan, strengthening people-to-people links and bringing to around 50,000 the number of awards made since the program’s inception in 2014.
The department places a high priority on providing a secure and effective Australian presence overseas. We are upgrading our security network to ensure the security of our staff abroad. We also began a three-year program to modernise and streamline our corporate operations. Our Post-in-a-Box—a secure communications capability for quickly setting up new or temporary diplomatic posts—was successfully deployed for the first time in Rabat. We officially opened new diplomatic posts in Funafuti, Kolkata and Shenyang, bringing to 109 the number of overseas posts through which we advance Australia’s interests, with an additional 11 managed by Austrade.
Throughout the reporting year, the department continued to build a workforce that reflects the vitality and diversity of the Australian community. An independent review found our strategy to improve gender equity had achieved strong results, with a higher number of female heads of mission than ever before and a more inclusive organisational culture. We still seek to boost our cultural and linguistic diversity, disability and LGBTI inclusion. Under the department’s Reconciliation Action Plan, our Diplomatic Academy offered Ngunnawal language workshops to staff and reinforced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage as part of our national identity.
The year ahead
In the face of a challenging budget environment in 2019–20, the department will need to become even more efficient and productive, without compromising its efforts to prosecute Australia’s interests overseas. The capability of our workforce and our systems has at times been under strain, as we face growing and emerging challenges. In response we are focusing on agility, learning and innovation, building fit-for-purpose systems and directing our efforts where they are needed the most.
With the international system becoming more competitive, we will lead by example to help shape a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Managing our important but complicated relationship with China will be a challenge in the year ahead. We will advocate for open markets and strengthen the trade relationships that have supported global economic growth. We will bolster our neighbours’ efforts to build democratic resilience and sovereignty, and we will foster respect for international law while supporting the modernisation of the institutions that underpin cooperation. Most importantly, we will ensure Australia’s foreign policy remains agile and capitalises on our strengths as a nation to enhance our future security and prosperity.