‘CHOGM chance to push India as counter to China in the Pacific’, was the headline of an opinion piece published in The Australian — one of the most read newspapers in Australia — on 18 April 2018. This headline suggested the duality of the current policy shift within Australia, which is warming up to New Delhi and getting more and more sceptical of Beijing. On the other hand, there is also recent chatter of a possible US-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral counterweight to China, suggesting why China-Australia ties could feel the further strain in the future.
Even though Pakistan does not come into the equation, at least for now, the current policy tilt within Canberra can become a bone of contention for fruitful Australia-Pakistan ties in the future. This is purely because Pakistan’s supposedly strongest ally — China — is somewhat currently despised, whereas its arch-rival India is seen as a potential partner in Australia. Hence, Australia, at some point in future, might turn out to be a difficult balancing act for Pakistan. But amidst shifting geostrategic alliances, Australia is still one of the most important international partners for Pakistan.
As Margaret Adamson — the Australian High Commissioner in Islamabad — recently pointed out at the 70-year celebration of Aus-Pak ties that there exists a close connection between both the countries. This ‘close connection’ is mainly due to several reasons and initiatives.
First, Australia, one of the first countries to recognise Pakistan as an independent state establishing its diplomatic mission in 1948, enjoys strong political, security, development and democratic cooperation with Pakistan. In terms of democratic cooperation, Australia’s interest in a democratic Pakistan was expressed when Bob Carr — the then Minister of Foreign Affairs — published an open letter in The Express Tribune in 2013, soon after Pakistan’s elections and the democratic transition took place. Carr congratulated Pakistani people ‘for defeating terrorism and standing up for democracy’, hence showing why a democratic Pakistan was, and is, important for Australia.
Second, Australia’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to Pakistan stands at $47 million for the year 2017-2018, making it the sixth largest donor to Pakistan.
Third, thousands of Pakistani students visit Australia on student visas every year. Additionally, many Pakistani academics are teaching in Australian universities, hence contributing towards the country’s education sector.
Fourth, a major initiative, in partnership and funding of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), will allow the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) to train around 200,000 Pakistani farmers to adopt better crop production and labour practices while improving the social and economic benefits that flow back to them.
Finally, Australia nominating a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan also shows Canberra’s desire for long-term and sustainable peace and development in the region. And with Australia spending over $8 billion for its civil-military engagement in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s inclusion — and a possible mediation role — in the equation for sustainable peace and resolution of the Afghan conflict also becomes important for Australia.
Both the countries have witnessed an upward trend in bilateral ties since Pervez Musharraf visited Australia in 2005. Soon after, not only were defence and security pacts signed, but Australia regularly provided humanitarian aid for victims of natural and security disasters.
On the security-cooperation front, both the countries launched a Track 1.5 security dialogue in 2010, with experts sharing their mutual experiences on security and conflict. Then in 2011, the second round of these talks was held in Rawalpindi, when the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General David Hurley, co-chaired the dialogue with Pakistan’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Khalid Shameem Wayne. These dialogues also focused on how Australia could help Pakistan in countering violent extremism (CVE) — an area given a lot of focus and financial support in Australia.
These facts and figures not only suggest Australia’s current and future importance to Pakistan but also depict the need for further consolidation of these ties. With China-Australia ties currently feeling some strain, Pakistan needs to ensure that it stays neutral in case tensions between both its partners escalate.
However, just like Pakistan, Australia too is economically integrated with China, and therefore, chances of China-Australia ties completely breaking down — in near or distant future — are somewhat slim. Finally — and most importantly — Pakistan’s foreign policy approach towards Australia must also remain mutually exclusive of Canberra’s ties with New Delhi; as Australia’s political and economic partnership with India far outweighs its partnership with Pakistan.
The writer is a PhD Candidate at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He tweets @faruqyusaf
Published in Daily Times, April 26th 2018.