Looking for a Foreign Policy, Mr. Harper? Try Australia's John Howard

Authors: Yuen Pau Woo, Paul Evans

John Howard of Australia has a record that is the envy of conservative leaders around the world. Recently elected to a fourth term (with an enhanced majority to boot), he has charted a distinctive and largely successful course for Australia’s international relations over the last decade.

As the Harper government begins to formulate its own approach to foreign policy, Mr. Howard arrives in Ottawa at an opportune moment.

Under Howard’s leadership, Australia’s relations with the United States have warmed considerably, stemming in large part from Canberra’s staunch support for US-led anti- terrorism initiatives and the invasion of Iraq. Howard has a mateship with George W. Bush that Jean Chretien and Paul Martin were never able to strike. In 2005, Australia signed a free trade agreement with the US, joining an elite club of countries that have preferential access to the richest market in the world.

The most important lessons from Canberra are not closer relationship to the White House. Rather they are the way that Australia has burnished its credentials as a serious player in Asia and invested in a long-term strategy for commercial and diplomatic success in the region.

Even allowing for geography, Australia has out-performed Canada in a variety of areas. For example, the stock of Asian foreign direct investment in Canada is about a fifth of Asian investment in Australia. In the area of international education, Canada hosted about 87,000 students from Asia, compared to the 230,000 Asian students who studied in Australia in the same year.

Australia has signed Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Singapore and Thailand, and isinnegotiatingthemwithASEAN,Malaysia,ChinaandJapan. Itexportedabout$25 billion worth of goods to Japan in 2005, compared to Canada’s $9 billion. The Howard government has made a substantial commitment to the promotion of Australian goods and services overseas by establishing trade, investment, and education marketing offices in key Asian countries. Australia has also invested substantially in tourism promotion throughout Asia, attracting 60 percent more visitors from Japan, China and South Korea in 2005 than Canada did. Howard’s government has been successful in making the case for Australia as an integral part of As ia, and in promoting the Australian “brand’ in the region. The determination and persistence of the Australian lobby in Asia (which predates the Howard government) was rewarded in December 2005 when Australia became a charter member of the “East Asia Summit” meeting of leaders in Kuala Lumpur.

Australia demonstrates that long-term thinking and patient development of human relations with Asian countries, backed by significant investment of human and financial resources from the private and public sectors, yield commercial and diplomatic results. By consistently stressing the importance of Asia for Australia in rhetorical and material ways, Canberra sent a very strong signal to the private sector and civil society about taking Asia seriously. As a result, Australians generally consider Asia as a natural destination for business, educational linkages, and cultural exchange. Outside of American Ivy League schools, Australian universities are the most successful in the world in attracting Asian students and establishing campuses in Asian countries. Unlike Canada, where international education marketing is fragmented, Australia has a single window approach – including admissions and visa applications – that is both more efficient and more effective in promoting the merits of an Australian education.

Australia’s success in Asia is all the more impressive considering that many Asians resent Canberra’s “closer embrace” of the United States. Howard has skilfully separated Australia’s economic interests in Asia from its pro-US stance on broader global issues. While Americans constantly lecture Beijing on the value of the Yuan and threaten major protectionist actions, Australia is quietly negotiating a free trade agreement with China and vigorously courting Chinese investment. When the Chinese oil giant CNOOC proposed a takeover of UNOCAL, there was outrage in the US Congress and among American opinion leaders. The same company was able to acquire a significant stake in the massive Gorgon liquefied natural gas field off Western Australia with little or no opposition from the Australian public.

Howard’s experience and track record in Asia may well be a source of comfort and inspiration for the Harper government as it develops its own approach to Asia. Maintaining a strategic partnership with China, promoting an Asia Pacific Gateway, and connecting to the economic dynamism of an increasingly integrated East Asia – all while deepening economic and political relations with the US —will demand the blend of pragmatism and innovation that Howard espouses. As Ottawa looks for a Conservative foreign policy, Mr. Howard could be a better teacher than his American mates.

Paul Evans and Yuen Pau Woo are co-CEOs of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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