Australia Creates New Mediating Role on International Stage

IF events of 1989 are any indication, Australia is emerging as a significant diplomatic director on the international stage. Indeed, this year has been probably the busiest in 30 years for Australian foreign policy:

Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC): Ten months of shuttle diplomacy culminated in a gathering of senior ministers from 12 nations in Canberra last month. Further meetings planned indicate this coalition of dynamic economies could develop into a powerful trading body.

Antarctic Wilderness Park: Australia and France effectively torpedoed in August a 33-nation agreement reached last year that establishes guidelines for mining in Antarctica. Australia now has a globe-trotting ``environment ambassador'' campaigning to protect the frozen continent.

Cairns Group: Australia chairs this 14-nation group of agricultural exporters advocating free trade. The group, formed in 1986, mediates between the United States and the European Community feuding over liberalizing farm trade policies.

Chemical Weapons: In September, Australia hosted the first-ever meeting of industry executives (representing 95 percent of world chemical production) and negotiators from 68 nations working for a global ban on chemical weapons. The conference was considered a significant factor in boosting prospects for a treaty as soon as next year.

The reasons for Australia's growing prominence are as varied as the initiatives. In part, this year may represent an unusual culmination of events. Australia has no tradition of playing the diplomatic mediator or catalyst.

Coral Bell, senior research fellow in international relations at Australia National University, sees the developments as a ``maturation process.''

``One of the stages of middle-powers is to take on this role. Canada has played a similar international role,'' she notes.

It's not just maturation; it's born of necessity, says Stuart Harris, former head of Australia's foreign affairs department. ``For a small country to be heard, it needs to be diplomatically active.''

Indeed, Australia's population of about 16 million and position at Asia's back door have turned out to be assets when it came to getting APEC up and running.

``Being a middle-size country which is not the US, and not Japan, has its advantages because a number of other countries in the region were fearful of any economic cooperation process being dominated by the big guys,'' says Gareth Evans, Australia's minister of foreign affairs and trade.

In a Monitor interview, Senator Evans said it is equally important that Australia wasn't perceived as pushing any agenda for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

APEC springs from the goal of Prime Minister Bob Hawke's government since 1983 of ``economic enmeshment'' with its prospering northern neighbors. That goal, and the Cairns Group free-trade lobby, is driven by the need to increase exports and reduce Australia's growing foreign debt of more than $90 billion.

Credibility for Australia's chemical weapons conference grew from the Hawke government's commitment to disarmament. Although it has no nuclear weapons, Australia has an ambassador for disarmament in Geneva.

The joint Australia-France Antarctic Wilderness Initiative met with staunch opposition from the United Kingdom, the US, and Japan at an Antarctic Treaty meeting last month in Paris. But Evans says the proposal will benefit from the worldwide surge in support for ``environmental politics.''

``We're going gangbusters,'' he says. ``As the next few months proceed we'll see quite a fundamental change in the dynamics.''

But for now, the high-profile international meetings are likely over. A federal election due by May means domestic politics will take precedence. Still, Evans says that the crucial legwork on all these initiatives will continue.

``We're not just in this for the applause, but for the achievement. And we'll get lots of quiet satisfaction as these things bear fruit in the years to come.''

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