Political scientist calls for niche diplomacy 

Prof. Patience has called for Australia to adopt 'niche diplomacy' in partnership with Japan to solve some of the political problems of the Asia-Pacific region

Charles Darwin University’s new professor of political science has called for Australia to adopt ‘niche diplomacy’ in partnership with Japan to solve some of the political problems of the Asia-Pacific region.

Professor Allen Patience says Australia liked to think of itself as a ‘middle power’ when it came to diplomatic initiatives. However, its influence in a global sense is less than its governments and many of its citizens imagine. Australian diplomacy would be more successful if we adopted ‘niche’ role in our region.

‘Norway is an example of a country that has succeeded at niche diplomacy,’ says Professor Patience. ‘It is a smaller power that has nevertheless been able to exert influence by concentrating on a particular problem.’

One of its diplomatic successes was in urging the United Nations to begin developing sanctions against the ‘evil regime’ in Burma.

‘Australian governments for the most part acted on the assumption that Australia is a middle power,’ he says. ‘Although we’re part of the Western alliance, our defence capacity, the size of our population, and the structure of our economy, mean that we’re not a middle power. We would be far better off finding our role in “niche diplomacy”.’

This month Professor Patience will put his ideas to the test when he visits Sophia University in Japan for a series of lectures. Sophia University is regarded as a major centre of diplomatic study, especially in regard to Australia-Japan relations.

He says Japan and Australia have a commonality of interests in the Asia-Pacific region, and should combine their diplomatic skills to solve the problems in Papua New Guinea and the islands of the Pacific.

‘The two countries have similar aims in the South Pacific and there is a case for them to lead a highly-coordinated multi-national effort to find a solution to the political unrest in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon’s and Timor.’

Professor Patience says the ‘wholly ridiculous’ current stand-off between Australia and Papua New Guinea was the result of ‘ham-fisted’ diplomacy by both sides in the dispute.

‘Overnight Australia could change PNG resentment by offering Papua New Guineans short-term visas to work on farms and other areas of agricultural labor shortages. But the Prime Minister has said he would not even consider it.’

Professor Patience says that such a gesture would quickly change the hostile attitude of the PNG government, who remain deeply suspicious of what they see as Australian racism.

He has recently returned from nearly three years in Papua New Guinea, where he was professor of political science at the University of Papua New Guinea. During his time in the country Professor Patience wrote a political column in a Port Moresby newspaper that often criticised the role of governments in dealing with the country’s many social and political problems.

‘I would describe PNG as a “ruined state”,’ he says. ‘Corruption is systemic.’

He says since independence in 1975 Australia, as the biggest aid donor, has poured about $16 billion into the country—with the vast majority of that aid having no positive effect on development.

‘What we’ve succeeded in doing over all those years is holding a rather tenuous line against total chaos.

‘Being in New Guinea was a tough experience and a heart-breaking human situation,’ he says. ‘But it also had its rewards’

He says corruption continues to get worse, the economy is flat and going nowhere, and yet the population is growing.