June 23, 2022

Using the aid program for geostrategic competition: good, bad or indifferent?

Perhaps the most divisive issue in the development community over the last five years has been whether Australia can and should use the aid dollar to counter China’s influence. Arguments range from a fait accomplis, ‘but of course’ to a morally repugnant, ‘hell no’. Those that lie between these two perspectives are concerned with the pragmatic challenges, opportunities and nuance of how this works.

With a review of Australia’s international development strategy on the horizon, the time is ripe to re-examine the hierarchy of purposes that our development program advances.

Hugh White
Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies, Australian National University

It is totally predictable that as China looms in ‘our backyard’, Canberra talks about more aid. But it’s a bad idea: linking aid with geostrategy leads to bad aid or failed geostrategy or both.

Why? Because the kind of ‘aid’ that delivers strategic influence does not deliver development outcomes. And if it comes to a contest to provide the most ‘aid’ of the kind that might deliver strategic influence, China will be hard to beat.

Building strategic influence means capturing powerful elites, because strategic decisions – like who gets to build military bases – are made by such people. You capture those elites by serving their interests, and their interests are not necessarily aligned with good development outcomes. Often just the opposite. We’ll soon find ourselves building bridges and airports that don’t make development sense, because the project that most appeals to the politician is not always the one that does the most for their constituents. 

And before we know it, to call a spade by its correct name, we are resorting to bribery. Then the question is, can we beat China at that game? I doubt it. They have deeper pockets than us, and fewer scruples. And they are, I think, just as determined to intrude into our sphere of influence as we are to keep them out of it. So it will be much harder to keep the place we claim in the Southwest Pacific than simply opening the aid chequebook. It will take real, deep, social engagement. And maybe, more fundamentally, we need to rethink our geostrategic objectives.

At the Lab, we’re convinced great solutions come from unusual collaborations. Hugh White is a great example of a defence strategist whose analysis is often relevant to the peace, development and humanitarian community and we always value his expertise. We like Hugh most for his Schwartz Media articles (and podcast appearances) and also for shaping our understanding of the challenges and opportunities of development amidst geostrategic competition.

Thenu Herath
Chief Executive Officer, Oaktree

In an ideal world, the motivation behind Australia’s aid program should be about one thing: aid. An altruistic aid program is a natural extension of being true global citizens who value the lives of other people, without expecting anything in return. Such an approach echoes one of the earliest lessons we are taught when we are young: helping others is simply the right thing to do.

Of course, this moral lesson is often viewed as moot in a world dominated by realpolitik. As we face increasing instability and regional threats in the Indo-Pacific, geostrategic competition will increase regardless of whether aid plays a part. For example, we have seen the continued increase of our defence budget over the last few years while the aid budget is cut.

If, pragmatically, using aid for geostrategic competition would give the program more resources, and thereby more impact, there is a strong argument for at least slightly letting go of our altruism. For people like my family who are currently living through the brunt of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, the means do not matter as much as the end outcome of much needed support.

However, in using the aid program in this manner, it is important to remember that our neighbours know when we use them as mere pieces in our geostrategic games. It is the more altruistic approach, one that empowers people in the region to champion development on their own terms, that ultimately will win Australia the most influence. If implemented in the right way, this could be a win for our national interest and our morality.

Thenu is a powerhouse. Named in the 2022 list of Young Women to Watch in International Affairs, she impresses anyone she meets with her honest, articulate and thought-provoking conversation. At the Lab, we enjoy Thenu’s mission to elevate youth-led development, as well as her kindness and warmth, and always look forward to her visits to the capital city.

Tim Watkin
Head of Government Relations and Communications, Australian Council for International Development

There are plenty of positives when it comes to harnessing our aid program for geostrategic goals – however the core of our message is: focus on integrity, and double down on our main game. 

The goals of development are alleviating poverty and tackling inequality and injustice. We know that if we help achieve this, the benefits include a more peaceful, stable and cooperative region. That is a geopolitical dividend – and it certainly is one worth aiming for. 

But we must focus on the integrity of the development project and ensure that it is not bent into quid pro quo deals between political elites, or opaque quick fixes that do not actually serve people and communities. 

It is only through long-term, inclusive and effective development partnerships that we are able to unite Australians and people beyond our shores. Through such cooperation, nations understand one another and realise mutual benefits and interests. It opens the way for closer ties and other types of cooperation like trade and labour mobility. 

Deployed effectively and with integrity, development cooperation is morally right and strategically smart – and something we absolutely should harness as part of a broader geostrategic program – but remembering that it only works when a desire for human development is what lies at the heart.

Tim is one of Canberra’s most talented government relations professionals. He first cut his teeth on all things parliamentary policy making in Holyrood. With an intellect that rivals most academics and a great British accent to match, he has been an ACFID mainstay for near-on six years now. At the Lab, we have Tim on speed dial. He’s great to test ideas and his careful understanding of nuance and complexity is what the development sector often needs.

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