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No stepping backwards


By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, May 10, 2013


We chose Kangaroo for the coat of arms of Australia because it symbolizes forward movement only, a caretaker at the Healesville Sanctuary outside Melbourne told us with a discernible sense of pride while walking past a group of female kangaroos. The coat of arms of Australia (formally known as Commonwealth Coat of Arms) is the official symbol of the country. It depicts a red kangaroo along with the emu. Both are quite unique to Australia, and neither of them can take a step backwards.

This means, said the enthusiastic lady, Australia, too, will never hop back and keep moving forwards - a sense of pride that most Australians exude for the big economic strides that this country with a culturally diverse population of roughly 23 million has taken in the last few decades. Australia is not just about Kangaroo, Emu or cricket; it is one of the largest capitalist economies in the world with a GDP of over US$1.57 trillion, total wealth valued at 6.4 trillion dollars, and 13th largest national economy by nominal GDP (all 2011 estimates). Australia is the 19th-largest importer and 19th-largest exporter, an economy dominated by its services sector, comprising 68% of the GDP. Australia is also home to some of the largest (commodity) companies in the world, including but not limited to, BHP Billiton, National Australia Bank, Commonwealth Bank, Rio Tinto Group, ANZ, Westpac, Telstra, Macquarie Bank, Woolworths and AMP - which also are the 10 largest companies in Australia.

This also makes Australia a global geo-political player through the membership of commercial and security organizations such as NATO, APEC, G-20, WTO, and ASEAN. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that Australia ensures its engagement with important regions by committing over five billion Australian dollars in foreign aid to developing countries and wants to jack it up to 9 billion in the next few years. That would be roughly 0.5 percent of its GDP. Indonesia, with over 550 million dollars, is Australia's biggest aid recipient, followed by Papua New Guinea (about 500 million), followed by Afghanistan, which gets about 250 million annually.

The over 1,500 troops in Uruzgan as part of the US-led ISAF troops in Afghanistan, also underscore the Australian commitment to Afghanistan as well as to the western strategic partners.

"Foreign policy is never a subject of big public debate, and the engagement in Afghanistan enjoys a bipartisan consensus," said Julie Bishop, the shadow foreign minister, during a meeting with visiting Pakistani and Afghan writers.

Australia is craving for commercial and political alliances under the pride of a nation that wants to be noticed globally, and anxious to correctly position itself in an age of increasing geo-commercial interests.

It's a country conscious of internal obligations to its diverse population as well as to the external responsibilities that befall a big power and an ever-expanding economy in a world driven and defined by trade and terrorism.

During much of the last 20 years, Australia tended to look at South Asia as an "add-on to China," but now, officials and politicians concede, South Asia - with over 1.5 billion inhabitants - carries its own value as an economic partner and potential market for Australian expertise and hardware. Most Australian leaders on both sides of the political divide are conscious that growing global competition necessitates that Australia position itself as best as it can. That is why there is an increasing focus on China, India and Pakistan.

Australia is an ethnically diverse country. One in four Australians is born overseas. The country has accepted nearly 800,000 refugees since World War 2, and ranks second in refugee settlement issues.

Once accepted, citizens get a plenty of opportunities and can rise to any levels. Three Afghan-born Australians, for instance, recently joined the ministry of foreign affairs. It is the result of the Australian policy-making centers' acknowledgement of cultural diversity and the need for integration of all those who choose to turn Australian into their homeland.

One reason for this engagement, it appears, is the presence of the big Afghan community in Australia. Besides, there is a conscious effort to match the other nations' contribution to Afghanistan, said experts at Sydney's Lowy Institute, a prestigious think tank. The issue of Afghan immigrants surfacing every now and then keeps the media, the legal community and the human rights commission quite busy.

Pakistan is also seen and debated about in the context of Afghanistan. But it catches attention also because Australians are looking increasingly towards the south and west Asia for long-term political and commercial engagement.

Pakistan-Australia relations are largely driven by contemporary political and economic realities, especially the trans-national threats emanating from the countries of origin of drugs and religious terrorism. They are also informed by the need to engage with the diaspora and their country of origin. As of 2013, Pakistan gets about 90 million Australian dollars in annual development assistance, up from 26 million in 2002, and 60 million in 2005.

The two countries have held intensive discussions on counter-terrorism during Pakistan's presidency of the UN Security Council in January. Both now believe in the need to move away from hard counterterrorism to a softer approach targeting the youth the vulnerable.

Australia's counterterrorism dialogue also includes a special focus on Indonesia, a Muslim majority nation practically next doors, where the Australians focus not only institutional capacity-building but also on rehabilitation of all those arrested in the last ten years.

Cooperation with Pakistan is also picking up in forensics training, defense cooperation, agriculture, and security studies, with a special focus on education - with 50 scholarships per year in health, nutrition, agriculture, rural development, security and governance, especially to students from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. At the moment, 30,000 Pakistan students are studying at various Australian institutions, most of them privately.

As part of military-to-military cooperation, senior Australian officers also regularly visit the Staff College in Quetta.

While Canberra supports capacity building, democratization, and rule of law in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, it also expects transparency and accountability in the recipient countries. "We expect effective aid management and best practices in all spheres of life because after all it is our tax-payer's money that we extend in development aid," said an official of the department of foreign affairs and trade (DFAT) in Canberra.

Australian politicians and officials also appear more empathetic to what Pakistan has gone through in the last decade. "We have conveyed on multiple levels the Australian acknowledgement of Pakistan's suffering and losses as a result of its involvement in the questionable war on terror, and also admit that the world has not acknowledged this aspect enough," said an official at the attorney general's office.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk