top of page

Soft Power, Public Diplomacy and Post-AUKUS Indo-Pacific Security

Naren Chitty

AUKUS is a fait accompli. Many in Australia, UK, and the US believe it will contribute to regional stability. Others have voiced concerns that AUKUS will prompt an arms race and instability. France is angry at what it sees as an abus de confiance. Is there a role here for Australian public diplomacy and what might be the contours of that role in the aftermath of the launch of AUKUS? This question is addressed here following a discussion of the background to this moment.

Charlie Chaplin was not a power theorist. But his views on power are worthy of consideration: “You need power only when you want to do something harmful, otherwise love is enough to get everything done.” This view is only partly true. Power is needed to prevent others from doing one harm since one cannot always bank on protestations of friendship and goodwill – whether from kindred societies or others. Nor can one expect everyone to reciprocate “love” – here defined as attraction-based influence. Power can be hard (traction-based – coercion or induced) or soft (attraction-based). Love becomes soft power when there is intention to influence.

Friendship and partnership are central to Australia’s America moments (1941, 2021). Australian political leaders do not want to be influenced under pressure. There is a difference between being influenced through attraction and influenced through coercion or inducement. The attraction of America deepens when coercion is sensed from other quarters.

Friendships flourish, flounder, fail, flower again. When one insurance policy fails (1941), two may offer greater security (2021). The Australia-US-UK relationship has come full circle in 80 years. It was about boats in the Indo-Pacific then, as it is now. John Curtin, just over a fortnight after Pearl Harbour, spelled out his pragmatic view that Australia needed to look to America for security – regardless of blood links to UK – in his letter to the Melbourne Herald. With the fall of Singapore to the Japanese being imminent, in his “most secret” coded cable (17th January 1942) to the British Prime Minister, Curtin referred to British assurances (1937) that Singapore would be made impregnable. British forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese (a British Great War ally) on 15th February 1942.

The virtual fluttering of red, white, and blue flags on screens (15th September, 2021) sans the French tricolour, at the launch of AUKUS, drew out shirty kangaroos, roosters, and dragons. Small and medium powers’ considerations when entering or strengthening military alliances include questions of sovereignty, friendship, and economics. In a democracy such as Australia, it is natural that a variety of views will arise on where challenges to sovereignty lie – from which states and in which ways. 1914, 1941, and 2021 saw altered security environments in the Indo-Pacific. Notably some powers have switched alliances today. There has also been a rearrangement of relative power.

China advocated soft power in the previous decade, to abate fears associated with its rapid rise. It was partly successful, with several influential Australian figures in business and politics taking the view that China was a forever benevolent power. Others were less convinced, not necessarily because of China; realist calculus comes into play. China has shown its displeasure about Australia, a beneficiary of Chinese trade, continuing to see the US as protector. The ensuing “Scold War” between the two countries has not been helpful. Before the imperatives of geopolitics led to the “Scold War” climate, I advocated a “soft power relationship” for Australia and China. This was because of one side or the other being often miffed by the other’s words, as the two countries’ relative status changed. Public diplomacy, that was one of the channels for soft power, had been infected with blunt power during the Trump years – when diplomatic politeness was replaced by strong words devoid of niceties, aimed at rhetorical one-upmanship – targeting public opinion (or sections thereof) at home.

The search for balance-of-power has disrupted another balance, a cognitive one. The awkward AUKUS public diplomacy emanating from Canberra, Paris and Washington showcases an unhappy dissonance in the triad – one best resolved through traditional diplomacy conducted in camera rather than on camera.

Parties in soft power relationships value dialogue, craft mutually beneficial relationships, eschew coercion and inducement, and cooperate on humanist projects. They are listeners, seeking to understand the other power. They need not be equal in all respects; but do need to treat each other as equals. However, human nature being what it is, natural asymmetries do not help. In the Australia-China relationship, one is a great and the other a middle power (economic and military). One is a developed and the other a developing country. Importantly, both having large territories; only China has a large population. China has 6.3 percent of the world’s land mass and Australia 5.2 percent.

If a soft power relationship is characterized as a kind of friendship, and looked at through a Nietzschean lens, the relationship does not need to be without disagreement. Disagreement and seeking to influence the other party to become stronger and better, is prized by Nietzsche. He saw “higher friendship” as containing elements of laughter, aggravation, and silence. Confucius identified characteristics of three kinds of friends that could harm one (misleading, sneaky, facile); and of three kinds of friends who could be helpful (upright, sincere, informed). It is the same with countries.

People are attracted principally to two aspects of state behaviour – virtue (democratic republican in liberal societies; other forms of humanistic values elsewhere) – and virtuosity, or the brilliance with which acts are prosecuted. It is gratifying to have heard from Joseph S. Nye Jnr, after he read an early draft of this article: “I like your article and agree with it. I particularly like the phrase about attraction resting on a combination of virtue and virtuosity”. A virtuosity-tilted state’s management of its internal affairs, and its soft power resources, may be regarded as reflecting performative virtuosity; but it may lack a measure of virtue deemed essential by the other state, despite both states subscribing to humanistic values more generally. A virtue-tilted state’s management of its internal affairs may be based on democratic-republican virtues; but may not be seen in certain instances to reflect performative virtuosity.

I am realist enough to believe that a state cannot depend entirely on protestations of friendship made by any country. Joseph Nye sees himself as a liberal realist who believes a state should begin with realism and add liberalism where necessary. China cannot depend on permanent friendship with its peers or near peers – the US and USSR/Russia. It has switched affiliations a few times between USSR/Russia and the US. Today China seeks to balance US power by partnering with Russia and others. It finds it necessary to build its military systems, and has the right to do so, as a matter of realist prudence.

The rise of China does prompt new military and other balancing strategies as we see in Five Eyes, the Quad and AUKUS. (There is a little joke doing the rounds in China that Australia is narrowing its circle – from 5 to 4 to 3). Clearly moves made by China to enhance its security have caused insecurity in some others including Australia. The response, a balancing exercise, is viewed with concern in China. Both sides should perhaps consider the advice of John Burton – Australian diplomat, scholar, and foreign secretary under Evatt – that parties should seek to understand and appreciate their mutual insecurities. The key issue is whether AUKUS seeks to offset an imbalance in regional security or whether it introduces an imbalance. There is consensus between the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party that AUKUS is necessary – with the ALP offering some caveats. The task for Australian public diplomacy would therefore be to promote AUKUS as a contributor to regional stability. It is to the advantage of all powers to see that the new regional security architecture increases regional stability rather than stimulates an arms race. There would be merit in the medium term of considering periodic Indo-Pacific mutual security conferences that do not have any rule-making role.

Meanwhile, it would be best to let soft power efforts be driven by public diplomacy on Australian efforts to contribute to regional and human security; and by cultural diplomacy and intercultural relations driven by civil society. Both former prime minister John Howard and former foreign minister Gareth Evans said at a soft power seminar (on civility) in Parliament House in Canberra (2013) that they did not think the Australian government should spend on public diplomacy programs to build soft power. Soft power is best generated, unwittingly, through the virtue and virtuosity of the populace rather than by governments. A return to the niceties of diplomacy would also contribute to soft power. Australian public diplomacy should promote a stable Indo-Pacific region, under the new security architecture, and friendship with all; as well as cooperation to combat “common bads” such as cybercrime, global warming, human trafficking, and terrorism.


Naren Chitty AM is Professor of international communication at MCCALL Macquarie University and Inaugural Director of the Soft Power Analysis & Resource Centre.



bottom of page