Women In International Relations: In Conversation With Sue Boyd (Part Two)

03 Dec 2020
Women In International Relations: In Conversation With Sue Boyd (Part Two)

Twenty years on, 2016, in front of the wall of photos of previous Ambassadors, Australian Embassy Hanoi.

There are many women in the field of international relations that may be considered trailblazers, paving the way for so many modern emerging leaders. Sue Boyd is one such woman, serving our nation during her long and successful career, and now the author of Not Always Diplomatic: An Australian Woman’s Journey through international affairs. This blog is the second of a two-part series highlighting Ms Boyd’s success story through a conversation with our Ryan Gibson.
  1. How did the book come about, and what do you believe readers will take away from the book.
The first trigger was obtaining my Stasi file in 2013. While I had been posted at the Australian Embassy to the German Democratic Republic in Berlin, in East Gemany from 1976-79 I knew that the East German security agency, the Staatssicherheitdienst,  abbreviated to Stasi was keeping me under observation.  They did that for all foreigners.  It was formally forbidden for GDR citizens to have contacts with foreigners, so I knew that the many East Germans with whom I had professional or social contact would have had to report back on me.  For them, it was the price they had to pay for having these contacts. I knew that they knew, and as I was not doing anything which could get anybody into trouble, we were all relaxed about it.  It was a fact of life, and I was careful not to do anything which could compromise these contacts.
After I retired from DFAT I learned that it was possible, following the collapse of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, to obtain any files which Stasi had held on me.  Control of the Stasi archive was within a specially-created German government department and you could apply to read or get a copy of your file.  I applied, using the appropriate application form, through the German consulate in Perth, and in due course was notified that indeed they had located files on me, and they were happy to photocopy and send these to me in Perth, for a very low fee, to cover costs.  This box of 800-odd photocopy pages arrived in 2013, and I spent the next months reading all the documents, which were in German, and taking notes.  My German language skills were for the most part up to the task, though I had to seek advice on some formulations which were beyond me. I decided that the contents were probably interesting enough to warrant publication. I thought they would interest the Australian security services as well as the more general reader.  But in what format, and where?  I explored the possibility of turning the information into an Essay for The Monthly, or for publication elsewhere. A German journalist friend thought they would be useful if published in German in Germany.
While this was going on, I had a lot of contact with international relations students, both at UWA and Murdoch University, and through St Catherines College and The WA Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.  They all asked the same questions. How do you get into DFAT?  What subjects should I study to prepare for a career in international affairs?  What other possibilities are there for someone interested in international affairs?  What was it like being a woman in DFAT?  How would it be for women with families?  For gay women? What does an Embassy actually do?  What is a Third Secretary?  What happens if you disagree with your government’s policy or actions?
I came to the conclusion that all this warranted a book, and the Stasi article could be a chapter.
I was talking about all this for some time, and thinking about how I could manage the writing.  I needed to be in my living room, with all my artworks around me, as I wanted to weave into the book my interest in the arts in each of the countries where I had worked.  I needed a desk and suitable chair, but how would that fit into what was the living room of my house?   My study was a cold room on the south side of the house, whereas the northern living room opened onto my garden, and I liked to be there.  Then, in Sydney, voicing my challenges to my old Vietnamese teacher, Ninh, he introduced me to the perfect chair, a Scandinavian design by Stressless, which had a built in adjustable tray table, perfect to hold a laptop computer.  He had written his whole PhD thesis in this chair!   It was perfect for my needs.  On return to Perth, I went straight into the store, tested out their chairs and found the perfect one to fit into my living room.
At the same time I was approached by Krystal Hartig, who had just finished her masters degree in international relations at Murdoch University, and was working with the Perth USAsia Centre at UWA.
She chided me forcefully about the need to actually sit down and WRITE the book, which she thought was an important enterprise, and offered to be my research assistant.  The last piece was fitting into the puzzle and I immediately knew the time was right to start writing some stuff, so she could begin work helping with the manuscript. I was disciplined about time. I kept most mornings free for writing, was seated at the computer by 10 am, fully showered, dressed, made-up and with jewellery on – ready for the working day.  I wrote until lunch time and sometimes into the afternoon.  I tried to keep all my other commitments into the afternoon – coaching and mentoring clients, coffee with friends, medical appointments, meetings of various organisations, shopping and so on. 
All this worked, and I had the first draft ready, including all Krystal’s input, in eighteen months.
My friend, Maureen Smith was living with the same neurological movement disorder I have – the quite rare Primary Orthostatic Tremor (POT), and this brought us together.  She was a retired head of UWA Extension and had experience in professional editing.   She very kindly carried out the first edit of my manuscript.  I showed this to Terri-ann White, head of UWA Publishing.  She made some serious and scathing suggestions for changes to the manuscript, which were useful, but she did not commit to publishing it.
Nicholas Hasluck, a friend who was much published author, offered to read the manuscript, which he thought was seriously good and worthy of a publisher.  He educated me on the ins and outs of the Australian publishing scene and suggested we try and find a publisher in the eastern states.  He said this was more than a local book.  I found a literary agent in Melbourne, who read the manuscript and agreed to try and find a publisher for me.  She suggested that in order to make it more marketable, in the current “Me Too” environment, I should include my experience as a woman, with all the discrimination that it entailed, and the work done to change the work place accordingly.  It would make the book of interest to the gender studies world, as well as those interested in international relations.   So I rewrote the manuscript accordingly.
But my agent had to report failure in her approaches to publishers.  She said that in the prevailing economic climate, they were only interested in biographies of people who were already famous. “And” she said “I don’t want to be hurtful Sue, but you are not yet sufficiently famous”.  So she suggested I should exploit on my position in Western Australia, and look for a West Australian publisher.   When I approached Terri-Ann, with the considerably amended manuscript from the one she had seen originally she agreed instantly to publish it.   Writing the book took 18 months.  Finding the publisher had taken another 18 months. And then it took a further 12 months to actually bring the book out.
So, my target audience was originally my international relations students, who would find the answers for many of the questions they had posed.  But as the book developed, it seemed to work for a wider audience. Indeed as a study of how a woman made it through a man’s world, it appears to be of interest.  The book includes hitherto unpublished information about some of the important international relations situations I had been involved in, which will be of interest to IR practitioners. We cover Vietnam, East Germany, East Timor, the United Nations, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and the Pacific.  I have a well-developed sense of humour, and that comes out in the book.  Two reviewers, Diane Smith Gounder and Imrana Jalal, said it sometimes made them laugh out loud. I include some useful information on leadership, which I term “The Christopher Robin theory of leadership” as well as evidence of leadership experiences included in the book. 
As well as stories from my international postings, I include stories covering my work in the Department  of Foreign Affairs and Trade at headquarters in Canberra, working closely with Ministers, and also working in the Australian States.
While an undergraduate at UWA, I worked for three years as a journalist for the (now defunct) West Australian newspaper The Daily News and readers report that the book is well written, with an easy flow and is a good read. It is a series of great stories.   The journalist Patrick Cornish, who has read the book says you can see that it was written by a journalist, marked by attention to the smaller details and the context of each story.   In his introduction, Kim Beazley, a former Ambassador in Washington, says that it is a feature of all DFAT officers that they write very well.
A unique feature of the book is the inclusion of images of artworks I collected in each of the countries where I worked, along with the story of the artist and the role played by art exchanges in diplomacy.  I hope readers will come away with an understanding of the role artists and of “soft diplomacy” in the conduct of international relations.
  1. Based on your experience, how do you see the Indo-Pacific evolving over the next five years, and can you discuss some of most important developments likely to take place in the region.
The Indo-Pacific is clearly of priority importance to Australia, and I have been fortunate to have considerable experience in the region.  I was born in India, the third generation of a British family living in that country.  Though my family left when I was six months old, I grew up with stories of my mother and my grandmother’s experiences, the language they used, the relationships between the Indians and the British Raj, many of the stories carried by my maternal grandmother, who lived with us for several years until her death.   My first Head of Mission posting was as High Commissioner in Bangladesh, in itself an interesting country to work in, and I made some progress in speaking and understanding the Bengali language, including the written script. Bangladesh was also of course, close and inherently bound to India, and I used my time also to make exploratory visits to and try to begin to understand the country of my birth.

Bangladesh President Mohammad Ershad with Australian High Commissioner SB and First Secretary John Denton at the Australian Bicentenary Golf Tournament, Kurmitola Golf Club, Dhaka, 1988

I spent three years in Vietnam, at a key period in its own development and building a multi-faceted close relationship with Australia – business, political, cultural, development cooperation.
I had one year in Hong Kong, immediately after the handover of the British colony, back to China. We had annual meetings of the Australian HOMs and HOPS in China – Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. And in the subcontinent, we had annual meetings of the Australian representatives in New Delhi, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Islamabad and Mumbai. These were good opportunities to focus on the regions and the current and emerging issues. I witnessed one disagreement between our old school High Commissioner in New Delhi, Graham Feakes and the new DFAT Secretary, Stuart Harris. Feakes complained that nowhere on our agenda for the meeting was an item, covering most of what he did, i.e. reporting on India. The Secretary told him that DFAT did not want any more reporting on India. It wanted analysis of what was going on with an emphasis on Australia’s interests and what Australia needed to do. 
Rounding out my career were four years in the Pacific, with responsibility for Fiji, Tuvalu and Nauru as well as the Pacific Islands Forum, which took me to Samoa, Solomon Islands, Hawaii, Vanuatu and Palau. I managed our way through the Speight coup in Fiji, the restoration of constitutional democracy, the Australian Government’s “Pacific Solution” for managing the arrival by boat of asylum and refugee seekers and the establishment of RAMSI, the Regional Response to the troubles in Solomon Islands. Upon retirement, I joined the board of the Pacific Regional Human Rights Organisation (RRRT) and worked there for 10 years, visiting the Pacific many times.

Sue Boyd inspecting Fiji Armed Forces Guard of Honour, Suva, Fiji 1999

In the Pacific, I observed at close quarters the change in Pacific Islander’ attitudes to Australia, their happier relations with New Zealand and the growing influence of China. Australia’s refusal to recognise and show sensitivity to the islanders’ belief in the reality of climate change and its impact on the low-lying states of the Pacific was a serious challenge to the old relationships.
The Pacific Island States Australia has to deal with have now changed. The population is better educated and resists the old colonial attitude which characterised Australia’s relationships in the past. The history of Australia’s relationship with East Timor and particularly the negotiations over the oil reserves in the Timor Sea have soured the view of Australia. As did the conflict over the copper mine in Bougainville. 
Frank Bainimarama, as the Prime Minister of Fiji, characterises the new pacific leader. He was angered by efforts by Australia to demonstrate displeasure at developments in Fiji following the Speight coup, and then Bainimarama’s own coup. Australia cancelled parts of the bilateral aid program. It banned Fijians who had anything to do with the Speight coup from visiting Australia, including bans on sporting teams. Australia’s preventing Fijians from travelling anywhere which involved a transit through Australia was deeply resented. The Australian Government’s “smart sanctions” were designed to encourage Fiji to return to Parliamentary democracy. The very word “smart” was insulting. The implication being that the islanders were less than smart. There was a sense that Fiji was not being recorded respect and understanding. The fact that Australia was first to respond to the community needs following a cyclone made little difference. China was had already started moving in to fill the gap. It provided the new swimming pool complex in Suva for the Pacific Island Games in 2003. It funded and built the new road around the northern perimeter of Viti Levu island, linking Suva and Nadi and providing better access for the less developed northern part of the main Fiji island. Baimarama could thumb his nose at Fiji’s old friends, and turned not only to China, but also to India, for the new diplomatic group of friends. The period was uncomfortable for Australia’s High Commissioners, as Bainimarama was easily slighted and swift to show his contempt for Australia and its diplomatic representatives.
The strong commercial and economic relationship did not outweigh the political discomfort. I paid a short personal visit to Fiji in 2018 to visit our High Commissioner, Margaret Twomey, who had been my deputy during my term as High Commissioner. George Konrote, a prominent Rotuman, had been a close friend of both of us. Shortly before my visit, Konrote was appointed President of Fiji and when Margaret Twomey paid him a courtesy call, she mentioned my imminent arrival. He showed great pleasure at this news, and promised to have us both for lunch at Government House. Soon after my arrival, the formal invitation arrived, but soon after came an apologetic message from Government House saying the lunch could no longer go ahead. 

It was clear that PM Bainimarama did not welcome the symbolism of the lunch, with the current and former High Commissioners of Australia. Shortly after this, I bumped into President Konrote at my hotel, where he was attending an official function. I went up to him and was embraced wholeheartedly by both him and his wife. In the closeness of the embrace he apologised for having to cancel the lunch and confirmed that he had been forced by the Prime Minister and the Attorney General.

The challenge for Australia is to work through the Pacific Islands Forum and bilaterally to build the new relationship of mutual respect. Australia can no longer be the gently bullying but loving elder brother. It is a matter of limiting the extension of Chinese influence while providing a mature and solidly based multi-faceted partnership with the Pacific Island nations. The development assistance program is a useful tool. (“Aid” is an outmoded term).
Maritime activities in the region are providing opportunities for Chinese influence, competing with Australia. East Timor acquired two Chinese Shanghai-class patrol boats in 2008 to protect its ocean fishery. In October 2019 a Chinese warship with Rear Admiral Yu Wenbin from the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army visited Dili and accepted Dili’s request for China to train Timorese naval officers. In August the same year Scott Morrison had visited East Timor to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of East Timor’s vote for Independence from Indonesia. He announced that Australia would provide a package of maritime support measures for an upgrade of the county’s port at Hera, east of Dili. This will also be the port for two Guardian-class patrol boats gifted to East Timor under Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program, with delivery expected in 2023. The boats are being built at the Austal Facility in WA. Similar Patrol Boats had earlier been provided to most Pacific Island states, accompanied by Australian Naval training staff. Morrison’s visit to East Timor, just 720 kms from Darwin, was the first for 12 years. It was clearly an attempt to repair the relations damaged by a bugging scandal and the handling of the sea boundary negotiations. Some see Dili’s efforts to strengthen relations with China as a balance to what some in the Timorese government see as undue influence and pressure from the West, including Australia. East Timor has established a 2000 strong Timor-Leste Defence force, known by its Portuguese language acronym F-FDTL. It draws its inspiration from the Australian “Sparrow Force” which conducted guerrilla warfare against the Japanese during WWII. It includes 200 women. There is scope here for joint training exercises with Australia,
In Dili China has financed the construction of important buildings including the Presidential Palace, the Foreign and Defence Ministries and the Defence Force Headquarters. It also financed the construction of the Timorese Embassy in Beijing. One of China’s objectives has been to convince East Timor not to allow diplomatic representation by Taiwan. This has been successful. Taiwan keeps up constant pressure in each the Pacific islands to support it, rather than mainland China, in the UN and elsewhere. Financial assistance is part of the persuasion package. Some states have flip flopped in their attitudes over recent years.
We can expect an increase in Mainland Chinese military, political and economic presence in the region, where a small gesture can have a great impact.
Looking forward, I see a growing and greater sophistication in the way the Pacific Islands leadership deals with international partners. I see improving economic circumstances, improved health conditions, noting the successful and sophisticated way Pacific Island Countries have dealt with the Covid 19 Pandemic. There will be continued pressure for freer labour movement, and the current shortage of agricultural workers in Australia, due to Covid 19, should open the doors for an expansion of the seasonal worker program from Pacific Islands, and important contribution to the islands’ economies.
The Australian Government has increased its agencies focussing on the South Pacific – the challenge is to come to the task with the right frame of mind and build Pacific island literacy among Australian politicians. The excellent and well funded New Colombo Plan is designed to develop an Asia literate workforce among Australia’s emerging leaders, and it includes a Pacific Island capacity. We should hope to see more soft diplomacy initiatives in our region, to accompany good commercial and economic linkages.
Beyond the Pacific Islands, Australia continues to explore ways in which the relationship with India can grow – how meat can be put on the bones. This is a hardy perennial – India is a difficult market to penetrate. It is also a complex political situation where it is hard to know what is going on, what Australia’s interests are, and how we move to maximise the mutual benefits. There used to be Australian universities where this was studied, but these areas of academic expertise were untended and dwindled. There is room for renewed interest and investment in this area.
China continues to be an important trading and political partner for Australia. Times are currently difficult and call for great skill on Australia’s part to ride out the storms and continue to build partnerships for mutual advantage. China cannot be ignored but must be treated with respect. It is proud of its history and historical power relationships. Australia needs to work skilfully to ensure a mutually useful relationship. China will remain a highly significant trading partner for Australia.


Ryan Gibson
Ryan Gibson
Media and Communications Coordinator
Ryan works as the Media and Communications Coordinator at the Perth USAsia Centre, responsible for the Centre’s external profile. He holds a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Strategic Communication from the University of Western Australia.
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