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Ending the diplomatic neglect

Nick Bryant | 03:06 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011

I have heard it said, by Sir Michael Parkinson I think, that an Australian is a Yorkshire man with a suntan. This may explain why William Hague looked so much at home during his trip this week to Sydney and Brisbane. Not since 1994, when Douglas Hurd was responsible for foreign policy, has a British foreign secretary paid a visit down under. And, as William Hague openly admitted, its comes in recognition of Australia's enhanced standing in the region and the world at this, the start of the Asia-Pacific century. From a diplomatic perspective, Britain has neglected Australia. This two-day visit was intended as a corrective.

In another example of the new-found premium that Britain attaches to its relationship with Australia, bilateral talks between the two nations - given the awkward acronym, AUKMIN - will take place annually. Australia has what are called in diplomatic jargon "2+2" relations with only three other countries: America, Japan and more recently Indonesia.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague at a barbecue with flood victims in Brisbane on 19 January 19 2011

This has the feel of a pivotal moment. Certainly, it is interesting to contrast the diplomatic relations of Britain and Australia between this century and last.

For the first 40 years of federation, British foreign policy was essentially Australian foreign policy. When Australia's second prime minister, Alfred Deakin, wanted to complain about the French deportation of convicts to New Caledonia, for example, the message was conveyed by the British ambassador in Paris. When Deakin wanted America's Great White Fleet to visit Australia, again the official invitation was sent via Whitehall to Washington. As Donald Horne pointed out in The Lucky Country: "Even when these colonies federated it was believed that Australia was still not a true nation. Economically, strategically and culturally Australia was defined as part of the British Empire."

Remarkably, it was not until 1944, when Australia signed a security treaty with New Zealand, that the country forged its own, independent foreign policy. Similarly, it was not until World War II that Australia established full, independent diplomatic relations with America, with the opening of an Australian embassy in Washington.

Now, of course, the balance of power has shifted rather dramatically. Asia is the world's great economic powerhouse, and Australia is providing much of the fuel for the engine room, in the form of coking coal and iron ore. Economically, geographically and strategically, the country is very well placed to greatly enhance its regional influence - or to "punch well above its weight," in the much-favoured diplomatic argot - over the coming decades. Of course, one of Kevin Rudd's big ideas as prime minister was to attempt to institutionalize this influence through the creation of an Asia-Pacific community modeled on the European Union. Even though Julia Gillard has downgraded this as a national priority - and signalled that she is not much interested in foreign affairs - moves are already afoot to create what Richard Wolcott, the former diplomat tasked by Rudd with promoting the idea, calls a "small-c" community.

Worried about not wielding great influence in the most populous and economically active part of the world, Britain is being forced to play catch-up. That is one of the reasons why the new coalition government is placing new emphasis on the Commonwealth, this loose historical alliance of 54 nations. In a speech at Sydney's Lowy Institute, Hague noted: "We are consciously shifting Britain's diplomatic weight to the east and to the south." He argued that "new sources of opportunity and prosperity" required Britain "to look east as never before".

Ever the diplomat, Hague tried not to mention our cricketing heroics during his short stay. But what if there was a diplomatic version of the Ashes. By mid-century, which country would be holding aloft that terracotta urn?


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