Waiting for the Government to invest in our international development footprint and strategically drive Australia’s international development program is like waiting for a bus that never comes. This year sees the sixth successive Australian aid cut. The resulting long-term decline adds up to a Government bereft of vision for development assistance, failing to meet its international commitments, and unable to foresee how Australians and their expertise can build cooperation with Asia and harness our place in the evolving world order.
Australia’s international relationships – crucial for trade, peace and stability – are being risked in favour of isolation and a retreat to our “backyard.” Last year, the OECD asked Australia to “shore-up development aid.” The Australian Government has ignored their call.
In the world of realpolitik, Australia has decided with the US and other allies that it will now “step up” in the Pacific. But in their haste, there remain unanswered questions, policy incoherence and financial trade-offs which are ill-considered.
Quick, knee-jerk reactions to China’s Pacific expansionism has clouded our long-term judgment. The epitome was the Australian Government’s last-minute gazumping of Chinese telco Huawei to build the Pacific undersea internet cable between Australia, PNG and the Solomon Islands. Soon afterwards – and despite a flurry of Australian intervention to stop it – Huawei was approved to construct the domestic internet cable in PNG.
Siphoning funds from poverty alleviation programs in Indonesia and the Pacific to pay for the cable is a symptom of the incoherence spreading through the development program. In the context of a declining development assistance envelope, moves like this guarantee that our Pacific “step up” is also a “step down” in Asia. Every time a new initiative is funded by a withdrawal elsewhere, we pick-up a relationship at the cost of another. This time, the Government is halving bilateral assistance to Pakistan and Nepal, two of the poorest countries in the world.
The alarm in the defence and foreign policy establishment has led to a $2-3 billion push on infrastructure lending into the Pacific – a region that is already highly indebted. Why countries should be servicing debt to the Australian Government instead of budgeting for their own health and education costs has not been explained. A reallocation of $500 million has been made from existing aid programs to fund the new Pacific infrastructure facility. It is unclear where these funds will be drawn from.