Wither Japan?

Mohsin Zeb

Much is made of the rise of China as a superpower these days, with comparatively scant attention being paid to the concurrent decline of Japan as the regions’ leading power and the impact of that slide down the global power tables has and will have on the Japanese people and Japan as a state.


Two things are important to note from the start – one, that historically and certainly over the past few centuries, Japan has had the better of its regional rivals Korea and China and has in comparative recent history subjugated both via military conquest. The second core point is that the rise of China to superpower status – now surely undisputed as a reality in the near future if Beijing is not already acknowledged as such – will impact Japan more directly than any other state – including the United States. It is Japan that sits a stone’s throw away from China, Japan that is directly in line of the growing and increasingly assertive Chinese military, Japan that faces being sucked into the economic dynamo that China now is – finding itself usurped as the regional leader in every field. Indeed steps towards further economic integration, the one area where cooperation seems logical and desirable by all in the North East Asian region, are somewhat stymied by the fear amongst Japan and South Korea that in a free trade area, neither could complete with China on cost – thus seeing a sizable outflow of capital to maximize the benefit of China’s comparative cost advantage for Japanese and Korean producers. However this article deals not with the economics of China’s meteoric rise – but rather hopes to focus more on the political and social impact of the shifting power dynamics in East Asia.

To gauge this, I rely partially on my own unscientific but tremendously interesting experiences. Many moons ago during my first incarnation as a doctoral student I struck up a friendship with a Japanese student enrolled on the same program. Perhaps we both subconsciously thought that the only other ‘Asian’ in the class would enable an easier friendship to emerge or perhaps he assumed I too was a foreign student who would be equally shy speaking in English before more obviously apparent ‘native speakers’- but none the less over time we became quite close and despite my zigzag journey though different programs and cities to where I am now, we remain good friends. I shall not give his full name as he is still on the program and I have no wish to embarrass him but Nish as I called him (Nishi was too much to say!) gave me a tremendous insight into the mindset of segments of the educated strata of Japanese society and how they both view and react to the sea geopolitical changes taking shape around them.

To say he is a nationalist would be an understatement. His grandfather and granduncle fought and died in Iwo Jima in spring 1945, he had been taught to be proud of his roots and over the years has interned for politicians who now make up the second tier of Japan’s ‘Japan Restoration Party’ – a fiercely nationalistic outfit who govern Osaka and now have a few dozen MP’s in Japan’s parliament. The rapid national rise of the JRP is reflective of the mood of a particular set of Japanese of which Nishi is perhaps representative. Affluent, culturally aware and with a family tradition of military service, their concerns centre on the future of Japan – and I shall relate them as follows.

Why they ask, nearly 70 years after World War Two ended; does the US still have troops in Japan? They see Japan as being occupied and sold out by governments to agree to humiliatingly one sided terms in bilateral US-Japanese ties.

Why is Japan still governed by a constitution forced upon it after the War ended by the Allies? This constitution constrains Japan’s freedom as a sovereign state and leaves it at the mercy of the US in so far as security is concerned?

Why is it wrong for Japan to honor their war dead yet the war dead of other countries are celebrated? Are Japanese war heroes less worthy of recognition?

The undercurrent of frustrated nationalism in the Japanese may not remain so hidden should the feeling that their nation is being superseded by China become more apparent. World War Two and the subsequent political mechanics have bottled Japanese nationalism, have cut out from common conscience that history that glorifies Japan and emboldens the nationalistic Japanese. However, Japan may not wither into second tier power status quietly as some have expected. We have all seen the protests against US troops; against China when events transpire between the two and the rise of right-wing parties such as the JRP reflect the existence of a very real current of nationalistic rebirth evident in some Japanese.

Somewhere in the national psyche of the complex Japanese people is that warrior spirit that made them so feared by Allied powers and so successful as an expansionist military power for centuries. It is my belief that the right external stimuli could well bring this characteristic back to the forefront should the Japanese people – who remain fiercely proud and xenophobic as even close Japanese friends will admit to ‘outsiders’ when they are being honest – feel they face permanent national loss of position and prestige in their region.

It is this undercurrent of anger, frustration and regret that the Japan Restoration Party taps into and the same sentiments are expressed by even some amongst the most educated, worldly and sophisticated Japanese people. It is possible that Japan withers as a power or it may attempt to bridge the gap by investing heavily in its military and in reviving its’ still mighty economy to try and retain its regional leadership.

However, should Japan wither, it is my understanding that it is unlikely that Japan will wither away quietly. Efforts are underway to try and open up the constitution to allow for some offensive military capability and just recently Japan inaugurated the largest warship it was had since its halcyon days of Empire in World War Two – a huge helicopter carrier named Izumo. As China becomes more assertive and expansionist – it should be ready to face stiff resistance from Japan, resilience lesser states such as the Philippines cannot possibly offer. I do not doubt that East Asia has seen a changing of the guard – a passing of the baton to a new primary power, but judging by political developments within Japan – and a renewed overt patriotism within an influential element of Japanese young adults – those who will tomorrow govern the nation on account of their education and noble blood, the Japan will to retain leadership remains. From a valued friendship I have learnt of a culture I knew nothing off, learnt to appreciate a finely crafted Masamune sword or the epics of Japanese literature – but as a political scientist, I have learnt most importantly to observe – not just the ideas of one friend, but a movement led by Japan’s youth – a youth who yearn for the power and prestige their ancestors once knew and enjoyed. From everything I take one core lesson – Japan’s youth will not surrender its regional status without a fight.

Mohsin Zeb, MA Reading University



Leadership Change, Alliance Support and Domestic Priorities: Australia’s election and the US in the Asia-Pacific

Andrew Kwon

This week, Australia will be going to the polls to decide on whether it should keep the incumbent Center-Left Labor Party or the Opposition Centre-right Liberal-National Coalition. A culmination of several years of domestic instability and drama, when considered in the context of the regional ‘big picture’, the Australian election is potentially another leadership change following on the heels of others that have occurred in Major US Allies in the Asia-Pacific. At a time when the Obama Administration is increasingly looking to its partner to insure the success of some of its key legislation (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) as well as unity in the face of destabilizing threats (such as North Korea), the importance of understanding the potential effects of the Australian election and its representation of a larger trends in the region cannot be underscored.


Recently having undertook my civic duties as an Australian Citizen and voted (living abroad, I pre-polled), the lead up to the election and the events which triggered it had led me to see parallels with Australian counterparts throughout the Asia-Pacific. Though it is true that China and North Korea recently went through change, the degree of uncertainty that resulted from these leadership transitions was due in no small part to similar changes occurring in The Republic of Korea (hereafter referred to as South Korea) and Japan.

Much like Australia, South Korea and Japan are key US allies that recently experienced leadership changes amidst a highly divisive and domesticized political climate fed by economic tumult or uncertainty. South Korea recently saw the election of Park Geun-hye to the presidency. Though the candidate who seemed most likely to succeed, the road to the presidency was a tumultuous one. The president’s familial ties to one of the most divisive figures in South Korean political history (her father was the authoritarian figure Park Chung-hee), substantial criticism over and undistinguishable policy alternatives between candidates on key issues as well as the unpopular and controversial legacy of her immediate party and presidential predecessor were all major factors. Japan in turn saw the return of the Centre-Right Liberal Democratic Party and a contentious former premier, Shinzo Abe. Winning in a landslide election following mass public outcry against the Centre-Left Democratic Party of Japan, now-Prime Minister Abe rode to power on not only a platform to satisfy the electoral demand for economic recovery but by also appealing to its resurging nationalism. Australia has similarly dealt with considerable turbulence. The last several years have been a roller-coaster in Australian politics, acts ranging from internal party coups (called leadership spills in Australia), partisan mudslinging, scandals as well as doubts over the sustainability of Australia’s economic growth has created a poisonous political environment, pushing party and leadership disapproval to almost parity.

However, in comparison to the domestic negativity, political support for the US is contrastingly high. The first high profile summit abroad for Prime Minister Abe and President Park was in the US. Also, besides the multiple occasions Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has visited, even the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has visited the US and declared the importance of the US-Australia alliance on that occasion. In addition, public support is also extremely favorable in the aforementioned countries of South Korea, Japan and Australia. Overall, all of this raises questions as to what happens when domestic concerns collides with continued support of the US alliance, which of the two forces will prevail?

Though it is difficult to say what either a Labor or Coalition government will do, a divisive pre-election period which includes critical elements like a lackluster economic projections have led Australian counterparts to create some difficult self-imposed obstacles. Much like Japan and South Korea before it, the winning party in the Australian election will remain highly supportive of the Alliance but will likely be tied down by a heavy domestic agenda and be posed to prioritize the economy and consolidate amidst the still fresh fissures of a divisive period. This will likely lead to foreign engagement which has maximum potential domestic gain but minimal effort required, this is particularly so for large and time-consuming activities like those led by the US. Hence, the Obama Administration should watch closely the events in Australia and take overtures of support with a grain of salt. When all is said and done, the calculus is shifting and so are the priorities.

Andrew Kwon is a Joseph S. Nye Jr. Research Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, USA. The views expressed are his own.

It’s not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.

Ben Moles.

In keeping with a running theme of this blog and pertinent to what follows, I decided to go with the above title to this opening post.

A few weeks ago I was asked if I would be interested in temporarily taking over the reins of International Security Discipulus, something I have happily agreed to do.

So, if you haven’t done so before, please check the blog out and have a read over some of the old posts, if you like it please help spread the word and if you have any suggestions for ideas that could make it better, or blog posts you want to get published yourself then please send them to me at bwmoles@gmail.com 


What is International Security Discipulus?

International Security Discipulus (ISD) – is a blog publisher and networking platform for students, recent graduates, and interested others covering International Security and International Relations.

Why Blog? Australian Professor Hugh White, responding to ISD had this to say:

Yes, young scholars, do blog – but not just to get your name on the net.  It gives you practice in clear, crisp, concise non-scholarly writing, which is the kind of writing you need to learn. It sharpens your skills in debate on the big current issues, which are the skills you need.  And it helps teach you to give, and take, criticism gracefully, which is essential to anyone who intends to argue for a living.  But one word of caution: blogging is publishing, so always think very carefully before hitting ‘send’.

So, get thinking, get writing, get sending, and get published.

ISD is now accepting your blog submissions

The Hard Truth about Syria

Mohsin Zeb

They are the most shocking images I have ever seen, as far removed from my life in a quiet college town suburb as is feasible. Children withering on the ground in pain, grown men wailing over the dead bodies of their children, women screaming and piles and piles of bodies – too many to count. Seas of white shrouds as the survivors bury their dead – almost all it would seem innocent people. I cannot imagine that the child shaking on the ground – aged perhaps five or six, or the little girl on a hospital bed, fighting for life as she turns blue represented any serious threat to Assad’s criminal regime.


Each time a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds before our eyes, the world declares “never again” – never again will such actions be tolerated, never again will the world sit back and watch war crimes take place. As ever, nothing will ever happen. This is the hard truth of Syria – no one is going to save the civilians. No one will stop Assad and his backers, or his paid mercenaries from butchering civilians, from bombing innocents with chemical weapons. The moral indignation of the wider world has become meaningless- red lines come and go, now so unclear as to be invisible for all practical purposes.

Now this is not to say I support the Free Syrian Army. I recognize that both sides have unsavoury characters – but it is not the opposition that commands a complete, modern military machine that is conducting war crimes every week. It is not they who drop bombs on civilians from MiG fighters, or they who fire scud missiles into neighbourhoods. Sometime ago I wrote of the need for intervention – to bring a war that was then still quite young to a swift end – to avoid this very outcome. The passing of time has resulted in untold horrors, scores of thousands of extra deaths and now once again the use of chemical weapons. However it seems moral outrage is meaningless – the political powers that be in the Middle East and the West and within those states such as China and Russia that back Assad care not for any personal loss or about the conduct of war. All that matters is the bottom line – the strategic outcome of a proxy war being fought within Syria between the various states involved. That the tab for this conflict and strategic tussle is being paid by little girls and boys, old women and the like is immaterial.

It is doubtable that Syria as a state can be saved now. Should the guns fall silent, who amongst the masses will forgive and forget the horrors perpetrated against them by the faceless ‘other’? Who will accept the status quo when so much blood has been spilled to change just that? How can the people accept Assad in power when much of the state has been physically destroyed and an endless stream of Syrians seek refuges abroad all as a result of his unwillingness to loosen his grip on power?

I cannot imagine a post conflict Syria will be stable. This civil war is to a large degree shaped along sectarian lines. Assad is a Shia, Iran and Hezbollah – his key backers are Shia. The opposition is overwhelmingly Sunni – as are those who provide them with materials, recognition and support – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This war has exacerbated the delicate fault lines within Syrian society – and the Muslim world more broadly. The likes of Russia have geopolitical reasons to prop up Assad and the West too has reasons to oppose him – all of it amounting to a complex web of factors that keeps anything from bringing this conflict to a swift end. Perhaps a stable country under a tyrant is better than the current situation – undoubtedly to any sane person it would be, but who will accept this tyrant again? Is a new strongman the solution? Or perhaps it is better for all if the Alawite community simply secede from the Syrian republic into a new state? Assad and his father before him have perpetuated Alawite dominance over the masses of Sunni Syrians and will never willingly allow natural demographic pressures to shape Syrian politics and such a situation would see his Alawite community forever outnumbered.

Perhaps then a swift partition is better than endless war. The Alawites would have their own state – a land where they can feel empowered, whilst the rest of Syria can get on without them. The issues of disempowerment and discrimination they as the minority fear should their grip of power weaken would become mute. Syria – then free from its sectarian division could proceed to rebuild as a democratic state representing the will of the majority of its peoples.

I am not calling for partition, just opining that it may be better then constant war. Whatever they decide, the sad truth is that the people of Syria will have to reach their own solution. No one is going to step in and save them from the horrors of war; no one takes more than a customary note of war crimes. For their own sake, the people of Syria need to fix or they will continue to bury their future one shrouded child at a time.

Mohsin ZebPhD candidate University College London.

The Kra canal: A dream one step closer to reality?

Ben Moles

Almost a month ago the Nicaraguan Congress, with little fanfare, announced that they had approved a proposal for the construction of a US$40 billion canal that would link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, a rival sea route to the existing Panama canal that if it comes to fruition, will mean the eventual realisation of a nearly 200 year old dream.


Little fuss seems to have been made of this potential ‘game changing’ news either in the press or by analysts which surprises me, considering both the potential game changing nature of it and perhaps to a greater extent the fact that the company chosen to carry out the construction of the project (and whom have been granted a 50 year concession to build the waterway with an option of extending the concession for another 50 years once the canal is operational) is the Chinese Hong Kong based ‘Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Co’- an enterprise owned entirely by Beijing businessman Wang Jing.

Big news in itself, what really interests me in relation to this story is what this could mean for another centuries old canal project dream closer to home, one also linked to a Chinese push to construct it, and the serious game changing implications this would have strategically in the Southeast Asia region.

The Kra canal is a centuries old vision to connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans through and across a narrow stretch of southern Thailand. To some degree mirroring current geopolitics, the last great push for the project came during the 1930’s from the regions’ then rising power Japan. But influence and pressure on Thailand, or Siam as it was at the time, from the dominant regional colonial power Britain- fearing what this would mean for Singapore- and the onset of World War Two and de-colonisation that followed, ensured that the project would remain but a dream.

Concerns regarding the Kra canal have never entirely dissipated and have bubbled away beneath the surface ever since, with fears most prominently and recently highlighted under the George W. Bush administration. In 2005 a paper prepared by Booz Allen Hamilton (the same company contractor and ‘whistleblower’ Edward Snowden was employed by) for US secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld was leaked to the Washington Times, it stated:

China is considering funding construction of a $20 billion canal across the Kra Isthmus that would allow ships to bypass the Strait of Malacca. The canal project would give China port facilities, warehouses and other infrastructure in Thailand aimed at enhancing Chinese influence in the region.”

This paper formed the foundation for the ‘String of Pearls’ theory, the US proposition that China was seeking to strategically strangle India by encircling it with leased naval bases- the theory these days having largely been debunked as a myth, though some like James Holmes maintain the realist position that despite not being a threat now, don’t discount it not being the case in the future- an always impossible position to refute and pertinent to the point that follows.

There are no clear signs at present concerning plans to start constructing the Kra canal, or any new indication that China is pushing ahead or pressuring Thailand into negotiating approval for such a project. But the announcement of the approval for construction of the Nicaragua canal should make us stop and think about what the strategic implications for the region would be if the Kra canal ever was to get the go ahead- because, as the Nicaraguan canal announcement proves, what once seemed but a distant dream can fast become a reality, and potential game changing nightmare for some.

To name only a few of the potential implications stemming from the Kra canal getting the ‘green light’: Mainland Southeast Asia and maritime Southeast Asia would be physically divided by the canal symbolically splitting ASEAN members; Thailand’s troubled separatist south would also be divided and may further fuel domestic Thai ethno-religious security issues with potential spill-over effects a worrying concern for neighbouring Malaysia; the shift in maritime traffic from the straits of Malacca would mean certain economic ruin for Singapore and have a massive economic impact on Malaysia and Indonesia, again impacting and straining ASEAN relations; and finally Chinese perceived control or influence over such a pivotal sea lane and transport route (and massive potential choke point) would concern and trouble many in the region- in particular the US.

William J. Ronan, reflecting on the idea of a Kra canal wrote“…the whole project of the Kra canal is one which is capable of suddenly developing from rumour and speculation into a serious attempt to alter the present strategic and economic balance of the Far East.”

And so very well it would. That these concerns by William J. Ronan were voiced in 1936 and the realisation of a Kra canal hasn’t happened yet shouldn’t foster or allow for complacency that it won’t. Real consideration should be given to the fact that although it hasn’t happened yet it still could, and would be a serious regional game changer with wide reaching ramifications if it did.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute. He can be contacted at bwmoles@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bwmoles

Book Review: Understanding China’s International Behaviour.

Ben Moles

On Friday night I attended the Lowy Institute’s ‘New Voices’ cocktail event at the Art Gallery NSW. Having been both a former New Voices attendee (2010) and Intern at the Lowy Institute (2012) it was great to meet both past and current affiliates of New Voices and Lowy and see that both, and International Policy in Australia more broadly, have such strong futures.









The Key note speaker at the event, the recently returned to Australia, China Correspondent for Fairfax John Garnaut (a former New Voices attendee too) delivered a blinding speech summarising his experiences in China, reflections of which can be found here. Of the many issues he discussed the one that particularly found resonance with me was the gargantuan task he faced understanding how foreign policy is made in China. John made reference to the ‘octopus’ that is China’s policy apparatus and how difficult it had been at times to make sense of it all. Experience would eventually enable John to overcome this hurdle; for those seeking a slightly more immediate solution to understanding China’s International behaviour I have another suggestion.

Despite being a few years old now, one of the best reference tools for deciphering China’s international behaviour I found while completing my Maters degree was Evan Medeiros’ 2009 book by that very name ‘China’s International Behaviour’- a book review of which follows and that I wrote as part of my Chinese Security and Foreign Policy module I took back in 2011. I would encourage anybody with an Interest in China and China’s International Relations to read this book, which can now be down loaded for free from RAND here.

China’s International Behaviour: Activism, Opportunism and Diversification. Evan. S. Medeiros. ISBN 978-0-8330-4709-0 Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2009, 224pp.

China’s International behaviour comprehensively and objectively provides a frame work for analysis enabling the reader, from inquisitive enquirer to academic scholar, to understand and scrutinise the content, nature and implementation of China’s international behaviour. Medeiros provides both a framework and  the essential analytical tools necessary for understanding the Chinese specific approach that underpins China’s international behaviour, enabling the reader to examine ‘the end’, a Chinese policy, and trace and understand its origins and its creation process.

Medeiros’ main arguments are: that China’s international behaviour is inextricably interconnected with its need to maintain domestic stability; that China can accept the US as a regional hegemonic power and will not seek to challenge the US for the next two decades, however, will oppose US hegemonic behaviour when it conflicts with China’s defined core national interests. The purpose of this book is to inform US policy makers, evident in its final policy suggestions, that they need be cognisant of these considerations when formulating US-China policy.

Medeiros begins by detailing 3 historic lenses (National Revitalisation, a Victim Mentality and Defensive Security Outlook) through which China views its external environment and that has a significant bearing on how Chinese Foreign Policy is formulated and enacted. These help form a narrative that goes some way to explaining China’s five core national interests (Economic Development, Reassurance, Countering Constraints, Diversifying Access to Resources and Reducing Taiwan’s International Space) and the three guiding principles or China’s strategy for securing these interests (All round Diplomacy, Peace and Development and Harmonious World).

Medeiros continues by examining the expanding diplomatic tool kit that China employs to facilitate securing its interests (Economic Diplomacy, China’s Alternative Development Model, Leadership Diplomacy, Multilateral Diplomacy, Strategic Partnerships and Military Diplomacy). He then analyses how these, utilised in conjunction with the key determinate drivers of Chinese International behaviour (domestic stability, the three lenses, China’s five core national interests and three guiding principles), actually manifest into China’s Foreign Policy through analysing and examining China’s relations with regions and other states and international institutions and organisations.

Medeiros concludes by examining the challenges to both China, from the unique way it approaches the formulating of its Foreign Policy, as the subtitle of the book suggests through Activism, Opportunism, and Diversification, and the challenges which await the international community, in particular the US, as China continues its transition and rise. Medeiros observes and spells out for US policy makers that China’s International behaviour is a reflection of cost-benefit calculations which seek to secure Chinese core national interests. Despite these interests being fixed Chinese International behaviour is not, it is fluid, and as China ‘finds its feet’ as a rising regional power it is within this space that the US can assert its greatest influence on the nature of China’s rise.

Throughout, Medeiros presents a logical, methodical and objectively balanced argument, an aspect that can sometimes be found lacking from some of his North American counterparts as they grapple with, or are indifferent to, some of the specific Chinese historical and cultural aspects that help distinguish Chinese international behaviour from that of other ‘Great Powers’. His arguments are persuasive and are backed using relative examples to substantiate his points. On the occasional instance where a more subjective opinion is forwarded alternative arguments are offered to balance the position.

Furthermore, as well as successfully providing and demonstrating a usable and workable framework for examining China’s international behaviour explaining what China is doing and why, Medeiros should be commended for drawing attention to the important signal and message being transmitted from Beijing regarding what China is not doing despite being in a position to do so and why, examples include not pushing a ‘new security concept’ and not seeking a more confrontational US policy. Medeiros’ ultimate success rests in the reader’s ability to take a given Chinese Foreign policy decision or position, that might otherwise to an outsider seem unpredictable or erratic, and determine and understand the myriad of interests that factored into how (the process) and why that decision or position was arrived at.

Medeiros adopts a macrocosmic view of the actual policy making process, choosing to give a generic overview with the mentioning of specific leaders and drawing attention to the transition from ‘single leadership’ to ‘collective leadership,’ whereas a chapter or section solely dedicated to the microcosmic aspects of the Chinese Communist Party’s decision making process would certainly add an extra layer to his analysis and be of value to the reader. Adding to this point could be the inclusion of important International Relations theories and perspectives, a plethora of which exist amongst the growing number of important stakeholders that the collective leadership are increasingly accountable to (a good recent example of such work can be found in: David Shambaugh, ‘Coping with a Conflicted China,’ The Washington Quarterly 34:1, 2011, pp.7-27).

However, these minor absences do not detract in anyway from Medeiros’ worth as essential reading for those looking to understand China’s international behaviour and the important message it sends to US–China policy makers should not be underestimated: Although from the Chinese perspective the US-China relationship may no longer be’ key of keys’ it is still key, and while it remains so the US retain an element of influence over China, and the’ rise of China,’ that it might not uphold to the same extent over the long term future.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security Studies from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney. He can be contacted at bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au or follow him on Twitter @bwmoles

DFAT and touching the void: A case for establishing an Australia Council.

Ben Moles

This opinion piece has previously been published by On Line Opinion, and for her contribution to that piece I wish to thank Alex Oliver for her time and comments. An updated version of the original piece appears below, which includes a number of suggestions from my colleague, Guy Roberts of the University of Melbourne- to whom I also wish to extend my gratitude.

In a piece I’d previously written, which questioned the utility of Australia claiming the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as our own, I acknowledged that Australia simply isn’t doing enough in a regional and global diplomatic/cultural context. This is yet more proof that DFAT is simply over stretched and under resourced (The Lowy Institute’s Alex Oliver has consistently warned that underfunding may invite unexpected peril). Even as the latest Defence white paper looks to plant itself in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ Asian Century, there is no sign that DFAT will have sufficient funding to meet this objective. With every developed nation scrambling to engage the Global ‘South’, there is a real danger that Australia might get left behind. One short-term, cost-effective way to triage the situation is through cultural soft-power. In this sense, building an Australia Council (modified and modelled on the British Council) might well provide an effective platform to project Australian economic and diplomatic interests – even if it is no substitute for an adequately funded DFAT.


Beyond the official Australian diplomatic missions stationed abroad, Austrade currently facilitates trade and investment initiatives, promotes the Australian Education sector, and, in some cases, provides limited consular services. Less well known is DFAT’s International Cultural Council that focuses purely on the promotion of Australian arts and cultural exchanges.

So why an Australia Council? Simply put, Australia needs to increase the breadth and depth of its global footprint; to spread across all nations and seep beyond the capital cities and consulate addresses. DFAT doesn’t have the resources to do this, leaving a void – and an opportunity – in our current foreign policy thinking. An Australia Council (modelled on the British Council) might offer a low cost temporary solution, and provide a foundation for more substantial future investments in soft-power diplomacy; an Australia Council could touch and fill that existing void.

Created in 1934, the British Council’s ongoing activities creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide.” Essentially it is tasked with promoting British culture, language and business around the world. In diplomatic speak it is a ‘quango’, an independent not-for-profit (albeit 1/3 government funded) charity with a 2011/2012 turnover of £739 million.  Unlike some parts of the British Establishment, the Council has effectively embraced the information age, with wide ranging social media engagement and proactive use of IT and youth culture. Joseph Nye would consider the Council a fine example of ‘soft-power’ projection: a means of positively and effectively promoting ‘Brand UK’ around the around.

Of course, the British Council has not been without its critics; creating an Australian Council should indeed consider these issues, as well as acknowledging Australia’s own unique needs. Essentially, examining the British Council gives Australia the opportunity to learn, adapt and create something far more effective and competitive.

For example, the results driven organisational culture that emerged (and largely stymied) Britain’s public sector departments in the mid 2000’s, wherein short-term results and public accountability became paramount, form the core contemporary criticism of the British Council. The problem vis-à-vis the British Council was the expectation that measurable ‘analogue results’ (think of the eye-rolling ‘Key Performance Indicators’) be extracted from a ‘digital age’ cultural agent.  Essentially, the operating environment and soft-power goals of the British Council are unique; the metrics of its success are not, and should not, be immediately measured in binary terms, but by appreciating the Council’s longer-term, and broader-focused impact across multiple areas of cultural, diplomatic and social engagement over time.

Accusations have also been levelled against the British Council that it directly and aggressively competes with the UK’s language training sector; in some areas holding a monopoly that excludes the very industries it claims to represent.  In reply, the Council attempts to justify such behaviour as a result of Government funding cuts and a subsequent need to shore up its finances in order to sustain and promote its broader objectives. While these funding cuts might imply a decline in its overall significance and standing in Whitehall, they have been in line with other austerity measures and should  no means indicate the irrelevance or impotence of the British Council. Transcending the bureaucratic contextualisation of KPIs and inputs/outputs, some commentators recognise the work of the British Council represents “One of the great bargains on the Treasury’s list”.

On the global stage, the British Council is certainly not alone in the soft-power/public diplomacy work. A plethora of nations have recognised the benefits of cultural ‘sexiness’.  Examples include the Goethe-Institut, Alliance-Francaise, and even the comparatively recent Confucius-Institute. In this context, Australia’s Walkabout Pubs don’t quite cut it for global cultural recognition – nor do other examples of Australia’s relaxed contribution to global cultural activities. Jokes aside, the soft-power efforts of other countries is highlighting Australia’s public diplomacy deficiency, further strengthening the case for establishing an Australia Council. Essentially, if others can and are doing it, why aren’t we?

What would the Australia Council do? Similarly to its British counterpart, it would promote Australia across the region, and strengthen host state links and ties with Australia across culture, education and business. Where there is a need, and where Australia is currently absent, the Council could touch and temporarily fill the void. The Australia Council could also act as a facilitator (a node between Australian Embassies/Consulates and the public) and be established as a first point of contact for those locally who have an interest in Australia and visiting Australians with local inquiries, potentially relieving some of the burden from Australia’s already under-strain Embassies and Consulates.

Who would it do it? From a pragmatic, cost-benefit analysis, the cheapest and most enthusiastic ambassadors of the council would be Australian tertiary students and graduates. Generally, they are capable, enthused, and culturally-proactive while possessing relevant skills, keenness to work and a hunger for Resume relevant work experience. Many Australian students already take a gap year before, during or after their study, thus creating a fertile, pre-seeded environment for quick, decentralised, oak-tree-style Australian Council creation. Furthermore, International students/graduates returning home from Australian universities could also provide a potentially rich resource for engagement, as they possess valuable local knowledge and networks and all-important language skills. What better ambassadors for the lucky country, than youthful, open-minded and idealistic young people?

Australia Councils could be run on minimal full-time staff, predominantly consisting of recent graduates to keep costs low, creating and utilising an internship program to satisfy its other specific work requirements and needs. Having been an intern myself, I know many students/graduates would jump at the chance to take part in such a program – perhaps receiving a minimal per diem to cover basic living costs (which factoring many of Australia’s potential target countries, wouldn’t be much) or would even be happy to cover their own costs to get there (DFAT already offers some such internship opportunities under similar conditions) and the charitable status of such an enterprise would mean interns would be volunteering – negating work visa requirements. Perhaps a logical progression would be, over time, the nomination a full time Australia Council employee, at each Australia Council, and create Honorary Consuls of them, enabling them to take on more consular service duties. The key point to remember is independence – although the Australia Councils could be an extension of Australian foreign policy in terms of cultural, diplomatic and economic engagement, it should not be an organ of the state (few things would so effectively kill the entrepreneurial, idealistic volunteerism upon which the scheme would be fuelled than the dead hand of official bureaucracy!).

How would such an enterprise be funded? Similarly to the British Council. The British Council receives less than one third of its funding from British Government grants. The Australian Government would have to do likewise. A mix of revenue from commercial activities and sponsors/benefactors should be the primary focus.

Creating a network of Australia Councils could be a potential win-win situation: As an auxiliary to official engagement, an Australia Council would support and enhance the pursuit of national goals – serving at a second, third or fourth tier of international engagement. The Australian Government would see Brand Australia, and Australia’s diplomatic soft-power ‘reach’ expanded ‘on the cheap’. Council sponsors would get to positively promote themselves through sponsorship association; the host state would have a new outlet for establishing closer links to Australia at no incurred cost to itself; and students/graduates would have an opportunity to gain valuable ‘real life’ beneficial work experience. Doing so would achieve, in the short term, many of the benefits of an actual diplomatic mission to a country, at a fraction of the cost, and in places where (funding considered) Missions would not be likely to exist.

There are, of course, a plethora of such soft-power activities in place, including the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, the social entrepreneurial Language Connection and even the venerable Colombo Plan itself. The Australian Government, having recognised the benefit of such activities in and of themselves, should embrace the opportunities that a broader, global, proactive engagement driven Australia Council could create. The Australia Council would support, not supplant DFAT; it would be a little something directed in the right place, and would certainly be better than the non-engagement that exists in so many critical places of the world. At the very least, the case for establishing an Australia Council exists and warrants further investigation.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security Studies from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney. He can be contacted at bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au or Follow on Twitter @bwmoles