Australia’s influence in the world has long been defined by its relationships with the UK and US but in recent years the nation has begun to look closer to home, playing a greater role throughout Asia. Though the relationship with China has undoubtedly been bolstered by the export of minerals, Australia’s new Asian relationships are not just about trade: the country’s schools now attract the best students from China, Thailand and Malaysia; Indonesia has become widely recognised as Australia’s most important partner; and even the Socceroos (Australia’s national team) are now part of the Asian Football Confederation.
In recent years Australia has taken a more active role on the world stage, hosting the g20 and taking a seat on the UN Security Council. Yet on some occasions it has shown a lack of confidence: waiting for the UK to join the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank before doing so itself. Other times it has lacked direction. Churning through five prime ministers in the last five years does not project a strong and consistent message to Washington or Beijing.
A period of stable leadership and steady economic growth could help Australia settle into its seat at the top table. It’s down to Malcolm Turnbull and his government to make sure the country is sitting comfortably.
A generous cut of China’s red meat comes from Australia and hungry Chinese consumers will continue to feed demand for beef from a reliable foreign provider. In 2015 Australia entered a free-trade agreement with China, the largest economy to do so.
Staff from the overseas branch of Australia’s public broadcaster spent two years in Burma training its national broadcaster, MRTV, ahead of last November’s democratic elections. The next chapter in MRTV’s transformation from state mouthpiece to fair public news service: covering Burma’s presidential selection process, due in March. (See issue 82 for our report on MRTV.)
Australia takes pride in being the only ally to have fought alongside the US in every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries. This practice extends to freedom-of-the-seas patrols in the South China Sea. The Australian military routinely conducts operations in these waters, preferring to sail under the radar when challenging China’s territorial claims.
Australia is schooling Asia’s next generation of leaders. One notable alumnus is Thailand’s crown prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who graduated from Canberra’s prestigious Royal Military College at Duntroon.
India is the latest customer to seek enrichment from Australia’s record uranium stocks: Australian mines will supply India’s civil nuclear power plants as Delhi seeks cleaner electricity. At present Australia exports all its uranium but is investigating the possibility of starting a domestic nuclear power programme.
Australia’s answer to the Brics is Mikta, a grouping of middle powers that includes Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey. Malcolm Turnbull made Jakarta one of his first visits as PM to begin rebuilding Australia’s relationship with Indonesia.
One hundred young Australians are embarking on a year-long regional walkabout as part of an initiative to develop ties with Asia Pacific; one of the class-of-2016’s largest cohorts is working in Japanese institutions. The Colombo plan began in 1950 as a regional organisation to strengthen economic and social development.
Radio Australia has been broadcasting since 1939. It is available across Asia Pacific in multiple languages, from English and French to Bahasa and Burmese.
Malcolm Turnbull described Australian-New Zealand relations as a “love affair” when he first visited Wellington. Efforts to create a single common market are bringing the countries closer together but there is no question about who gets to pick their side of the bed: Australia is New Zealand’s largest source of foreign direct investment.
Australia’s largest slice of overseas aid goes to former colony Papua New Guinea. The Australia-Pacific Technical College delivers education and training in the nation’s capital, Port Moresby.
When the Solomon Islands fell into civil war, Australia brokered a peace deal and deployed peacekeepers as part of 2003’s Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands (Ramsi). Today Ramsi is training the police force, funded almost entirely by Australia.
Australia is a founding member of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretaria, a 16-nation talking shop tasked with increasing regional trade. Canberra has called to upgrade the forum to a Pacific Union modelled on the EU but its outsized economic influence has already prompted Fiji to start a rival organisation.
Australia lays claim to more than 40 per cent of the Antarctic – more than any other nation. It maintains three permanently manned stations on the continent, where it has been conducting scientific research for about 70 years. Hobart in Tasmania is the jump-off point for increasing numbers of tourists and oil majors, flocking to see what lies above and below the ice.
Australia spends more than any western country on military imports, procuring the majority of its equipment from the US, but defence spending is not all one way. Australian shipbuilder Austal is contracted to deliver a minimum of 20 ships for the US navy from its facility on Blakeley Island in Mobile, Alabama. The USS Omaha is the first of three ships to be delivered this year.
Last November a busy Malcolm Turnbull attended the Commonwealth meeting in Malta, the East Asia Summit in Malaysia, the G20 in Turkey and Apec in the Philippines. Canberra proposed the idea of Apec in 1989, hosting the first meeting that same year. This year’s Apec gathering will require a 21-hour flight to Lima.
A new five-pound note entering general circulation in 2016 will be the Bank of England’s first polymer banknote, two decades after Australia switched to plastic currency. The technology was developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which this year celebrates its centenary.
Australia has long captured the attention of European children with shows such as Skippy and The Wiggles. But now it’s the adults who are buying into grittier Australian shows. Season four of Prisoner-reboot Wentworth is currently being shot in Australia. It has been sold to more than 80 countries, inspiring remakes in Germany and the Netherlands.
Canberra plans to open five new overseas missions in what foreign minister Julie Bishop calls the “single largest expansion of Australia’s diplomatic network in 40 years”. A new embassy in Qatar will step up its presence in the Middle East.
Three quarters of military personnel serving overseas are based in the Middle East and Africa; the largest group is fighting Isis.
Australia’s army saw its first foreign action in Egypt during the First World War; today more than 2,000 members of the Australian Defence Force are serving overseas. Most are deployed to the Middle East but 25 are back in Egypt supervising the Israeli border.