What Are the Key Future Challenges Facing Australian Foreign Policy?

This is the second of two university pieces, this one responding to a question on what future challenges there are in the foreign policy space in Australia. I focussed on the climate crisis, an international issue that Australia could become a global leader in, not just for the obvious environmental reasons, but in support and solidarity with our geographic neighbours in Asia and the Pacific regions. Regional aid, climate refugees, and the urgent transition to a renewables revolution are some of the key challenges we are bound to face – and Australia is not ready.

The future of foreign policy can be exceedingly difficult to predict in a constantly changing world, particularly from the rather unique vantage point of Australia. Australia is a middle-power, a large and mostly solitary landmass caught between the cultural and ideological ties of a white history and the United States, and the geographic reality of being located off the coast of the much larger Asian landmass with China taking a more assertive role in the region. (Abbondanza, 2021; Moreton-Robinson, 2015; Cambridge University Press, 2022; Brophy, 2021). This, combined with a global increase in distrust towards internationalism and a rise in more autocratic and nationalist rhetoric and governance, and the encroaching threats of climate change, potentially gives Australia a lot of options if approached correctly. (Bisley et. al., 2022).

Of most urgency is the climate crisis, with projected effects no longer being a distant and abstract possibility, but a current reality. Within Australia, this most starkly comes into focus with the 2019-20 bushfires (killing and displacing over 3 billion animals) and the exacerbated decline of Australian waterways like the Murray-Darling Basin. (Jetten et. al., 2021; WWF, 2020; Beasley, 2021). Internationally, it includes the rising sea levels, increased intensity and frequency of heatwaves, and the desolation of farmable land in countries like Guatemala. These growing threats have long been contemplated as a compounding security issue, but much of it could (and should) be approached in a more humanitarian and rights-oriented direction. (O’Neill, 2011; Dreher & Voyer, 2015).

South-East Asia and the Pacific region are two areas that will be drastically affected (or in some cases, even entirely submerged) if the appropriate action is not actually taken. (Scott & Salamanca, 2021). However, Pacific Island leaders have reasonably expressed contempt at the notion of leaving their countries behind and being considered “climate refugees”. (McNamara & Gibson, 2009). Since that time, little has changed and the term climate refugee has become more commonplace, and relations between Australia and the Pacific have been strained due to years of climate inaction. (SBS, 2019). There is much Australia could be doing now and may need to do in the future to aid our geographic neighbours.

For starters, climate change is an international crisis that has taken on a much more domestic policy position in Australia, particularly under successive Coalition governments with environmental concerns being replaced with short-term energy industry and economic plans. (McDonald, 2015). While touting low emissions within Australia, further coal, gas and oil projects have been greenlighted, more fossil fuels have been exported elsewhere, and a number of politicians, such as Matt Canavan, have consistently blamed the push for renewable energy and 2050 net zero targets for high electricity prices and blackouts. Australia has played a major role in the energy sector, for good or ill, but could play a greater more positive role in the future. (Downie, 2019).

Australia has referred to itself as an energy superpower for many years but that has mostly been in relation to fossil fuel interests and exports. (Downie, 2019). An alternative to this would be to become a renewable energy superpower, one far cheaper in the long-term and with the added foreign policy benefits that would flow from such a transition. (Garnaut, 2019). For instance, having finally agreed upon a maritime boundary with Timor-Leste in 2018, Australia and Timor-Leste could use revenue from the highly sought-after fossil fuel resources in the Timor Sea to invest in renewable sources of energy and energy storage technologies in both countries. (Phan et. al., 2019). It is, unfortunately and contrary to some media rhetoric, impossible to remove fossil fuels instantly in the current system, particularly in such a poor but resource rich country as Timor-Leste – hence an urgent transition that Australia could take a leading role in.

Another challenge, if projected sea level rises and increased natural disasters are to proceed, will be the handling of climate refugees and providing aid to those whose homes and lives are ruined. Australia’s current refugee policy, mostly focussed on  asylum seekers arriving by boat, would be ill equipped – and entirely unacceptable – to deal with waves of people seeking haven from climate induced disasters. The longstanding and mostly bipartisan approach has been for any attempted arrivals to be intercepted, and any “illegal” arrivals have been denied permanent protection. Climate change, however, is different to war in that the urgency and potential to return is limited.

An entirely new framework would be required to accommodate the influx of refugees, and not only would we have international obligations, but we would also have personal obligations as well. What Australia would need is “a Climate Justice approach [that] will amplify the voices of those people who have done least to cause climate change, but who are affected most severely by it.” (Robinson, cited in Dreher and Voyer, 2015). As a high producer of greenhouse emissions (including those generated by energy exports), Australia will need to take greater responsibility for the damage caused by climate change in the long-term. Given the brilliant potential for renewables here, Australia is well suited for the challenge if it takes initiative and acts. (Garnaut, 2019).

The 2022 Australian election brought the Labor Party into a majority, signalling a more hopeful shift in policy from some but raising further questions from others. For example, Labor’s public commitments are to reach net zero by 2050, but reduce emissions only by about 43% by 2030 – higher than the Coalition, but less than even the Business Council’s previous target of 50%. Despite pledges to work with Pacific Island countries and the UN on climate change, many of them still believe Australia has not committed enough to the cause, citing new fossil fuel projects and exports. (Hurst, 2022). In some cases, Labor state governments have not been doing enough either, with Western Australia actually increasing their emissions while focussing solely on select coal projects. (Moodie, 2022).

Foreign policy in Australia will be a careful game in many respects, but when it comes to climate change and energy, the challenges are very clear and very urgent. Our international obligations, our relations with the Pacific and Asian regions – including China – our approach to refugees, and future energy trading is all tied up in how the nation approaches the threat of climate change. If we do not confront these challenges, the ones that follow will be worse.


Abbondanza, G. (2021). Australia the ‘good international citizen’? The limits of a traditional middle power. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 75(2), 178-196.

Beasley, R. (2021). Dead in the Water. Allen & Unwin.

Bisner, N., Eckersley, R., Hameiri, S., Kirk, J., Lawson, G. & Zala, B. (2022). For a progressive realism: Australian foreign policy in the 21st century. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 76(2), 138-160.

Cambridge University Press. (2022). The United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom Announce “AUKUS” Alliance Focused on Indo-Pacific Security. American Journal of Internatinal Law, 116(1), 164-170.

Dreher, T. & Voyer, M. (2015). Climate Refugees or Migrants? Contesting Media Frames on Climate Justice in the Pacific. Environmental Communication, 9(1), 58-76.

Downie, C. (2019). Australia energy diplomacy. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 73(2), 119-125.

Garnaut. R. (2019). Superpower: Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity. Shwartz Publishing.

Hurst, D. (2022, May 23). Australia to stand with Pacific islands on climate crisis and ‘respect’ region, Penny Wong says. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/may/23/australia-to-stand-with-pacific-islands-on-climate-crisis-and-respect-region-penny-wong-says.

Jetten, J., Fielding, K. S., Crimston, C. R., Mols, F. & Haslam, S. A. (2021). Responding to Climate Change Disaster: The Case of the 2019/2020 Bushfires in Australia. European Psychologist, 26(3), 161-171.

McDonald, M. (2015). Australian Foreign Policy under the Abbott Government: Foreign Policy as Domestic Politics? Australian Journal of International Affairs, 69(6), 651-669.

McNamara, K. E. & Gibson, C. (2009). ‘We do not want to leave our land’: Pacific ambassadors at the United Nations resist the category of ‘climate refugees’. Geoforum, 40(3), 475-483.

Moodie, C. (2022, June 16). Coal exit only part of the answer, say professors calling for tougher WA climate change action. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-16/closing-coal-plants-only-part-of-the-answer-say-scientists/101149050.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press.

O’Neill, A. (2011). Conceptualising Future Threats to Australia’s Security. Australian Journal of Political Science, 46(1), 19-34.

Phan, H. D., Davenport, T., & Beckman, R. (2019). The Timor-Leste/Australia Conciliation: A Victory for UNCLOS and Peaceful Settlement of Disputes. World Scientific Publishing Co.

SBS. (2019, August 16). Tonga’s prime minister reduced to tears over climate change inaction. SBS News. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/tongas-prime-minister-reduced-to-tears-over-climate-change-inaction/fe7h4qtb7.

Scott, M. & Salamanca, A. (2021). Climate Change, Disasters, and Internal Displacement in Asia and the Pacific: A Human Rights-Based Approach. Routledge.

WWF. (2020, July 28). New WWF report: 3 billion animals impacted by Australia’s bushfire crisis. https://www.wwf.org.au/news/news/2020/3-billion-animals-impacted-by-australia-bushfire-crisis#gs.3u3zme.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s