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Published in CRIKEY.COM.AU 19 October 2011

Diplomatically the stars have aligned for Australia, due to the efforts of the Gillard Government over the past twelve months.

Australia gained a non-permanent seat on the Security Council this morning. The other new non-permanent members are Argentina, Luxembourg, the Republic of Korea and Rwanda. Australia enjoys good relations with all of these countries. They will assume their seats on 1 January 2013. The permanent members of the Council are, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Gaining a seat on the Security Council brings with it a requirement to take a position on issues Australia has hitherto fudged, avoided or hidden behind positions taken by the United States; to name a few; Syria, Palestine, Tibet and disputes over maritime boundaries and territory in the South and East China Seas.

Sovereignty of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea are disputed by China, Vietnam and the Philippines. In a strongly worded statement in August China told the United States not to interfere in the dispute over the Paracel Islands. The Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea are disputed by China and Japan. China and the US are both permanent members of the Security Council. Australia has good relations with all the parties to these disputes.

The possibility might arise for Australia to use her position on the Security Council in conjunction with her strong relations with the disputants to broker negotiations. Australia now has the opportunity to emerge from the United States umbrella and once again become a creative and responsible member of the international community.

With this boost to Australian prestige, will come new responsibilities and as a result a considerably increased workload for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. They must be given the resources to do the job properly and to manage the new tasks and challenges that will arise around the world. Presumably this is why Australia pursued a seat on the Council.

If Australia chooses to sit on its hands or follow the lead of the United States it will be an opportunity lost, not only to shape world events for the better but also position Australia to positively engage with the major players in our region.

In his new book, “The China Choice”, Professor Hugh White argues a case for a negotiated power sharing arrangement in the Pacific between China and the United States. He says the assumption has persisted that America knows what it’s doing with China, and will do what’s best. It goes, he says, hand in hand with the assumption that Australia has no choice but to support American primacy in Asia against the threat of Chinese hegemony. Some of our time on and around the Security Council might be used to challenge this notion and to help in the search for a middle path.

In this regard the outstanding success of the Prime Minister’s visit to India, should help point the way to the path of Australian regional diplomacy in the future. India is an important regional power, it is an important world power, for far too long overlooked by Australia. India is now important and powerful enough to have a permanent seat on the Security Council. It has to be questioned whether Britain still warrants a place.

The changed fortunes of Australia’s relations with India are due in large part to the Australian High Commissioner, Peter Varghese, shortly to take up the position of Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the man he will replace, Dennis Richardson, who has long seen the importance of South Asia and our region to Australia’s future.

Indonesia needs to be accorded equal weight and respect without compromising on some basic human rights concerns such as West Papua. The issue cannot be swept under the table as the price of good relations otherwise it becomes a hostage to fortune in the same way that East Timor did. It can be addressed firmly, but quietly. Boats and Terrorists should not be allowed to define the relationship.

Syria will most likely occupy a lot of our time and effort on the Security Council; the plight of refugees being amongst the issues. The Kofi Annan proposals never really looked practical or feasible under the circumstances. The coming year will be a testing time for all members of the Security Council, the biggest test will be to move Russia from its current position.

Australia is lucky in having a professional diplomat of long standing, Gary Quinlan, as Ambassador to the United Nations. As capable as he is his time will be cut out. The structure and staffing levels of the Mission will now have to be carefully looked at, with a view to placing extra staff at the Mission to handle the increased work load.

If the Opposition should win power at the next election, Australia will still be on the Security Council. Talk of towing refugee boats back to Indonesia would not play well, nor will the type of diplomacy that Abbott, Bishop and Morrison undertook in Indonesia last week.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired Diplomat.