Carr and Bishop outline foreign policy priorities

Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his Opposition counterpart Julie Bishop debated their visions in a debate at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

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Both leaders expressed the importance of Australia having healthy relationships with both the United States and China.

While no major policy differences emerged, some disagreement remains about Australia’s seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The debate between Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his Opposition counterpart Julie Bishop was described by the moderator as an optimistic discussion.

While both leaders attempted to outline their policy differences the similarities were more apparent.

Labor and the Coalition have both promised to review consular support services for Australians overseas.

Senator Carr says he’ll be announcing a review in response to concerns about money being wasted on cases of Australians getting themselves into trouble.

“I think they’re sensible reforms. They respond to the concern reflected in your questions that we’ve got too much diplomatic time being taken up looking after Australians who in many cases should be taking responsibility for their own safety.”

Julie Bishop says changes would also be made if she becomes Foreign Minister after the election.

Ms Bishop says the expectations of Australia’s international travellers need to be managed.

“Australians are an adventurous lot. They like to be traveling the world. But then when they get into trouble they want to have Qantas fly them home. And we have to manage those expectations.”

One area of contention was the issue of Australia’s newly-obtained seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Ms Bishop says in government, she would use the seat to vocalise the concerns of the Pacific Islands.

“I would use our position on the United Nations Security Council to pursue our strategic goals which include ensuring that our neighbourhood, and by our neighbourhood in this context I mean the Pacific, is secure and prosperous.”

But Senator Carr says it might upset Pacific neighbours if Australia used its position on the Security Council to raise regional issues that went beyond its mandate.

“The role of the Security Council of course is to work on peace and security. It’s a big step to say you’d take matter out of the Pacific and lodge them in the Security Council. I don’t think our neighbours in the Pacific, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomons, PNG would respond happily to an Australian Foreign Minister saying we’ve got these issues we’re going to lodge them as disputes in the Security Council.”

Ms Bishop and Senator Carr were both asked to outline their views on how Australia should prepare for potential future tensions between China and the United States.

Ms Bishop says she doesn’t believe that Australia will be asked to choose between a growing economic reliance on China, and increasing defence ties with the US.

She says it’s inevitable that there will be tensions between China and the US, but it should not be assumed that this will lead to military conflict.

“This is not the Cold War. This is a completely different scenario, where it’s a multi-polar world, where the United States and China have such economic integration that the likelihood of them engaging militarily is in fact subsiding. The engagement between the US and China on military exercises is increasing. The United States and China have a strategic and economic dialogue, which they both take seriously. There are more people in the United States State Department focused on the China relationship than we’ve probably got in the whole of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”

Senator Carr says it’s a question of how China behaves as it asserts itself as it emerges as the dominant economy in the world.

He says he tends to agree with Ms Bishop that China and the US have a mutual interest in ensuring that their differences do not lead to conflict, and Australia should try to assist this trend.

“I think we’ve got to work with ASEAN (the Association of South-east Asian Nations). We’ve got to work in a spirit of seeking a peaceful resolution of the disputes that exist, the territorial disputes in the South China and East China Sea. Resource sharing is a positive contribution, and Australia is sponsoring work on that. Encouraging the military-to-military co-operation, which reduces the risk of an accidental conflict by local commanders. And of course, continuing to engage China so that those pockets of paranoia or nationalism that exist in the Chinese ‘commentariat’ can be tested and teased out by the Chinese talking in forums like this, getting to understand us and our instincts, as our knowledge of them deepens.”

When asked about Australia’s international reputation, both parties agreed that the country holds a strong position as a middle-power.

Senator Carr says Australia’s profile has been boosted since its election to the UN Security Council.

“Australia is seen as a creative middle bar. In fact the consensus in the forums in the world is that we decidedly punch above our weight, decidedly. I went through it. I mean election to the Security Council is a rough and ready test. It’s not a bad KPI (Key Performance Indicator) of where you stand.”

While agreeing that Australia’s image overseas is positive, Ms Bishop says this position could change.

Ms Bishop says it’s important that Australia continues to engage with its neighbours and to operate within a prosperous regional framework.

“I believe that Australia’s image overseas is positive. I think that we’re considered a constructive middle power. And our image is of course dependent upon our ability to maintain a strong and stable and prosperous economy, (and) it’s dependent upon the quality of our engagement.”

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