September 8, 2022

A new office of Southeast Asia: what lessons can be taken from the Office of the Pacific?

Labor has committed to refocusing on Southeast Asia, in response to the previous Government’s alleged neglect in favour of the Pacific. With another whole-of-Government office under construction, there’s a unique opportunity to examine its ready-made pilot – DFAT’s Office of the Pacific.

So this week, we asked the experts what lessons can be learned from the Pacific experiment.

Joanne Wallis
Professor of International Security, University of Adelaide

Over the last few decades, a frequent complaint has been that Australia’s Pacific policy was characterised by unclear, inconsistent, and competing interests and intentions. So, the creation of the Office of the Pacific (OTP) in 2019 was a welcome bureaucratic solution that could potentially bring a truly whole-of-Government approach to bear on Australia’s approach to the region.

Although based in DFAT, the OTP features staff from the range of Australian Government agencies that play a role in designing and implementing Australia’s Pacific policy. This has improved inter-agency awareness and coordination.

Although well-led, the OTP has been hamstrung by the inherent contradictions in several of the policies it has been tasked to implement. The most obvious contradiction was between the last government’s claim to want to step-up and promote the prosperity and security of the Pacific Islands, while simultaneously failing to take substantive action to tackle the ‘single greatest’ security and development threat the region faces: climate change.

The perceived need to ‘do something’ to improve Australia’s relationships in the Pacific also means that, over the last five years, a lot of new resources have been directed at Pacific policy. But whether these resources have been well-targeted, complemented each other, and achieved their intended results, is unclear. From its location in a DFAT weakened by the last government, whether the OTP has had the reach and capacity to fully coordinate all these initiatives is also unclear.

An Office of Southeast Asia would be a welcome development. But the policies such an office is tasked with implementing need to be clear and coherent, and supported by serious resources to facilitate their coordination to ensure that they deliver for Australia and the region.

Joanne is a voice of conscience on all things Pacific development and security for many of us in the sector. She’s the chief investigator of several key projects in the Pacific, and also an expert on peacebuilding. At the Lab, we enjoy Joanne’s cut-through approach and staunch commitment to putting regional perspectives squarely on Australia’s foreign policy agenda.

Richard Moore
Strategic Adviser, Development Intelligence Lab

For three years the OTP has been sold as a tangible expression of the Pacific Step-up. It's about closer consultation, enhanced whole-of-Government coordination and improved cooperation.  

So how's it gone? The short answer is, 'Who knows?’ The Office for Development Effectiveness is dead and there haven't been any published reviews – let alone an independent assessment of OTP – so we're flying blind. While the Australian storyline has been that it’s a powerful innovation in relations, it's what our neighbours think that matters – and we haven't asked.

The other obvious point to make is that Southeast Asia isn’t the Pacific. What works there isn't necessarily right for Southeast Asia. A new Office of Southeast Asia will only improve Australia's engagement with the region if it’s more than window dressing. Will it have a lot more resources? A new game plan?  Deeper expertise, world class skills and systems? Will it be able to engage deeply and constructively with countries that are going to be much more powerful in shaping the future on their complex development agendas, not ours? It will have to do all of this if it's to make a difference in a very crowded and contested space.  

Increasingly, the Southeast Asian development agenda needs to be beyond aid. We need a knowledge model, not a money model – but we're not geared for that. Therefore, the big question is whether the new Government will follow through and equip the Office of Southeast Asia with the tools and technology to renovate our relations.  

Watch this space.

Richard features prominently in Australian development reform debate. Now working as a Manila-based consultant, Richard’s knowledge of the Australian aid program and Southeast Asia is unparalleled. At the Lab, we learn a lot from Richard’s experience, and love his quick wit, ambition and pragmatism. He is a relentless source of ideas.

Melissa Conley Tyler
Program Lead, Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue

The Office of Southeast Asia was part of the ALP election platform to deepen engagement with a key region for Australia’s future. Southeast Asia has been one of Australia’s highest foreign policy priorities since at least the 1940s, but it has been difficult to achieve the sustained attention it deserves. Just like the Office of the Pacific was established to support the Pacific Step-up, the new office signals seriousness and focus.

Its whole-of-Government coordination role suggests a recognition that Australia needs to become more strategically coherent in planning, structures and culture. Because Australia is not a dominant actor in Southeast Asia, it needs to identify the best avenues to maximise its influence and shape trends in the region. Australia needs to clarify its objectives and align its policies, strategies, people and budgets to use resources wisely.

DFAT has been given the coordinating role, suggesting the Government is acting on its commitment to build its capability and restore foreign policy to a more central part of Australian statecraft. Minister Wong recently told the department: “We have to work together to ensure we lift our capability so that we are the portfolio that leads on Australia’s international engagement and are able best to contribute to that whole-of-Government direction.”

The Office of the Pacific has become entrenched after only three years, showing that greater coordination across government has become uncontroversial. The Office of Southeast Asia will be another opportunity for DFAT to demonstrate its role in bringing together all tools of statecraft to achieve Australia’s foreign policy objectives.

Melissa’s leadership of modern think tanks like AP4D and AIIA is second-to-none, and she is always fostering new collaborations to tackle complex foreign policy challenges. Melissa is incredibly generous with her time and at the Lab, we enjoy her deep expertise and that she is always up for a good laugh.

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