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Responding to the harsh realities of a world on edge


Research | Newsroom

Since the election of the Albanese government, Australia has clarified and reinforced its focus on the immediate Indo-Pacific region. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have made good on their ambitions to ensure Australia is active where it counts, in obvious places like Tokyo, Port Moresby, Hanoi, and Jakarta. But also in Kyiv, Phnom Penh and Dili: all places where Australia has much at stake.

The change of diplomatic tempo is made all the more dramatic by the rolling back of restrictions on back-and-forth travel imposed during much of the pandemic. Senior officials, and the rest of us, fell out of the habit of travelling far and wide. And while there are plenty of reasons to embrace the Zoom room, including the environmental benefits, there has perhaps never been a time quite like now for Australians to get back on the road.

For example, in the second half of 2022, a new wave of Australian University students, including from the University of Tasmania, propelled by funding from the New Colombo Plan, the Westpac Asian Exchange program and many other vital initiatives, are also getting themselves back to more normal business: studying and working in institutions across the Indo-Pacific region.

While the diplomacy of our national leaders gets the headlines, we should never forget the many other ways Australia connects and collaborates with the world.

Right now—through millions of international business, research, civil society, and family connections—there are countless energetic efforts by Australians to make a positive difference on the global stage.

That said, the global landscape remains deeply troubling, and it is not entirely clear that Australia and Tasmania are ready for all the difficulties on the horizon.

First, there are China’s ambitions to claim Taiwan with, recently, a dramatic escalation in tensions. The brief visit to the island by United States political leader, Nancy Pelosi, was accompanied by rockets and air raids, the rehearsal of a naval blockade, and some flirtation with a boots-and-all invasion. Fears of conflict are high.

Second, we face all the other potential flashpoints around China, including the jousting with Japan, the disputed claims in the South China Sea, and the push-and-shove along the rugged and often ill-defined border with India.

Third, Australia needs to manage serious opposition from autocrats, and not just in Pyongyang, Tehran, and Damascus. We have all watched events in Ukraine with horror; Russian belligerence raises questions about China’s plans. And let us not forget the catastrophic unravelling of Myanmar since the February 2021 coup. Whatever their flaws, our democratic systems tend to avoid the worst excesses of unchecked violence and dictatorial reprisal.

Fourth, growing risks of economic calamity are testing the Australian system, but we are far from the only place grappling with multiplying shocks. Australia stays rich by selling to China, as do many of our most important partners and allies. Nobody pretends there is an immediate alternative, but strategic and economic policy contradictions will eventually need some type of resolution.

Fifth, we all need to understand the growing strategic competition in Australia’s immediate region. Australia will get outplayed if it isn’t more energetic, more available, and more regularly in the discussions that count.

Landscape view of Hobart city

So, where does Tasmania fit? We already have a range of valuable research, defence, diplomatic and logistical capabilities. The Australian Maritime College in Launceston is an excellent platform for greater Tasmanian connection to this decade’s foreign policy and security challenges. The Hobart-based scientific and Antarctic communities have many unique capabilities and advantages. Our emerging space industry surely also needs to be mentioned; we have some natural advantages to develop over the years ahead, but only if we keep highlighting in Canberra and elsewhere what is possible from a Tasmanian location.

This work is demanding in strategic and policy terms. Other countries, especially China and Russia, are muscling up their Antarctic emphasis, so we may need to look afresh at how we support peaceful and collaborative work in Antarctica. With essential parts of the Antarctic Treaty System based in Hobart, there is much to be said for looking carefully at how Tasmania plays an increasingly active diplomatic role.

We are an attractive place in this era of climate change and so much other instability. At the same time, there is reinvigorated talk that globalisation is slowing or reversing. Indeed, the splintering of what had been reasonably smooth connections, even between ideological antagonists, means there are plenty of reasons to be less than optimistic about the world the next generation of Australians will confront.

We should regularly ask ourselves where Tasmania fits in and how we can draw on the advantages of this island, our institutions and our collaborative culture for the benefit of the world at large.

Nicholas Farrelly is Professor and Head of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania, and sits on the board of DFAT’s Australia-ASEAN Council. He spoke on this theme at Parliament House, Hobart, as part of a Social Sciences Week event.