Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 09:29 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 09:29 | SYDNEY

Australia at the centre


Nick Bryant


29 November 2011 16:15

To the outside eye, the British one especially, the sight of wall maps locating Australia in the centre of the world initially come as a surprise. In the place where one would normally expect to see the Greenwich Meridian and the Cape of Good Hope sits Darwin and the Great Australian Bight.

In matters geographic, the British have tended to side with Owen Harries, the Welsh-born former planning head at the Department of Foreign Affairs – and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute — who noted during his 2003 ABC Boyer lecture series that 'one needs very good peripheral vision to see Australia on the world map.'

Recently in a children's shop in Sydney, where a gigantic map was displayed hanging above a cot, I pondered its cartography anew. No longer does it seem so jarring. Indeed, does it not make sense for Australian infants to grow up thinking that their country is occupying a far more central role?

My final dispatch, before hanging up my microphone as the BBC's Australia correspondent in August, was entitled 'The Consequential Country', a theme I built upon during a lecture at a Lowy lunch in Canberra. Had I waited a couple more months, perhaps it could have called 'The Even More Consequential Country'. For let us consider what has happened over the course of the past few weeks. 

The whirl of diplomatic activity started in Perth, a city that used to define itself by its remoteness, with the meeting of Commonwealth leaders. Boasting a membership of 54 countries, CHOGM is another increasingly important diplomatic network that Australia is hard-wired into. What was telling about CHOGM was the heightened importance that the British attached both to the event, and also to the country hosting it.

Rather than make the long haul flight, David Cameron might have been tempted to remain in Europe, following an exhaustive marathon of negotiations over Greece. But the debt contagion in the eurozone made his attendance in Perth all the more important. With foreign policy now viewed within Downing Street primarily as an arm of economic policy, Britain's once neglected former dominions have become a much more urgent priority. After all, Commonwealth nations harbour almost a third of the world's population and a middle class that has expanded by nearly one billion people over the past two decades.

Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, made no secret of this when he delivered a speech to the Lowy Institute — them again! — in January. Britain would 'look East as never before, to new sources of opportunity and prosperity,' he said, and 'unlock the potential in the Commonwealth.' He even referred to it as  a 'facebook of international relations' in which Britain could already boast 54 friends.

Central to the British strategy is an upgraded relationship with Australia, a country which Hague spoke of admiringly – even enviably — as 'a nerve centre of new economic activity' and 'a major player in a region of great importance.' Why, he even apologised for penal transportation and Britain's entry in the Common Market, which was indicative of a new sense of diplomatic party between the two nations.

For the Australians, the downside of CHOGM was that the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, did not attend. Yet he was about to get something much better than an invitation to Western Australia: the prospect of access to the state's uranium. The uranium turnaround was arguably not only the most important diplomatic initiative of the past month but also of Julia Gillard's tenure as Prime Minister. It promises to place Australia inside a new kind of golden triangle marked out by this century's global giants: India, China and the US.

CHOGM will also live in the memory for the Qantas shut-down, which threatened for a moment to leave some international leaders stranded. But perhaps they would have appreciated the irony of the situation: an Australian national flag carrier in dispute with its workforce largely as a result of its plans to orientate the airline much more towards Asia.

Next stop for the prime ministerial VIP plane was Cannes for the G20, an organisation which Peter Costello was instrumental in creating and which Kevin Rudd helped cement into the annual diplomatic circuit. Gathering for the 'family photo', Julia Gillard drew an approving glance from Silvio Berlusconi. But in recent years international leaders have taken much more note of Australia's eye-popping economic figures. Again, they have boosted the country's international profile, and bolstered its diplomacy.

APEC, another Australian invention, again emphasized the difference between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean nations and those in the Pacific Rim. European summitry is focused on debt. Asian summitry is focused on trade.

Then came an Obama visit that further buried the idea of Australia being a 'strategic  backwater', to use Kim Beazley's phrase, and an East Asia Summit, where Australian diplomatic efforts had helped furnish the way for America's attendance for the first time.

Doubtless, Julia Gillard has incurred some collateral damage from this tumble of diplomacy. Obviously, China is unhappy with the Marine deployment at the Top End; Indonesia has also expressed strong reservations.

And as ever with this confounding country, paradoxes abound. Julia Gillard was supposed to be the prime minister who preferred the classroom to the summit table — with Barack Obama, tellingly, she combined the two — but has improved her personal standing through her newfound internationalism. Conversely, Kevin Rudd was the leader who set out to reshape the diplomatic architecture of the region, but who has almost been sidelined in recent weeks. After all, the biggest foreign policy reversal of the Labor Government's four years in office took place without him knowing.

So in a month renowned in Australia for the immobilising effect of a horse race, Julia Gillard has not only been 'moving forward', but reaching out in all sorts of the different directions: to Washington, to Delhi, to Downing Street and to the members of APEC and the East Asia Summit. Crucially, with the single exception of her trip to the French Riviera, she did not have to travel far to do it.

So that map in the children's shop makes even more sense at the end of this month than it did at the beginning. Australia is looking more central — in the right place at the right time. The inquisitive child will also find further clues about their nation's destiny on the flip-side, for it most probably reads 'Made in China'.

Photo by Flickr user ComSec.