The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, December 08, 2017


I wrote this after the White Paper had been published and sent a draft to Indonesia Institute President Ross Taylor on 24 November.  While it was being rejected or ignored by  the AFR, New Mandala, Inside Story and The Interpreter Professor Tim Lindsey came out with his excellent analysis which I first saw on 4 December.

In many ways it's curiously similar to mine below, but this is coincidence, not plagiarism.

No white space for Indonesia                     

It's the great Australian foreign policy quandary:  Should the vast Southern Hemisphere continent continue to rely on Trump’s America for help - or seek closer relationships with neighbour nations?

Asking this question in the past would have been heretical but world alliances are fluid.  National interests trump international deals whatever else is said or written.

Australia’s newly-released Foreign Policy White Paper doesn’t demolish the old Anglosphere foundations though some words point to fractures. Like Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s foreword: ‘We must be sovereign, not reliant’.

Rousing stuff - but catch breath for hard facts: Australia has 25 million people, Indonesia ten times more; China has 1.38 billion and India 1.32 billion.  In this ring of might roaring like a mouse without a nuclear arsenal cheers nationalists but does nothing practical. Australia has always been reliant; first on the UK, then the US.

But that was BT (Before Trump).
Despite this seismic shift there’s no wobble in Australia’s bi-partisan approach.  Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Senator Penny Wong said Australia had to work with the US as it is now, not as it might once have been, or as some of its naysayers claim it’s going to become.
The ANZUS pact which binds Australia, New Zealand and the US was written 66 years ago as the Cold War was sizzling and the Korean war seeding today’s Kim Jong-un crisis.  

Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic was then only two years old - now it’s a well-muscled adult.

Contrary to popular belief ANZUS does not lock America into launching F-35 Lightnings to the defence of its distant buddy (Canberra is 16,000 kilometres from Washington).

Clauses Three and Four say the Parties will consult together should there be a threat and the signatories would ‘act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes’ and report to the UN.

The White Paper’s worthy objectives cover regional prosperity, respect for states’ rights and human rights, more business and less protectionism, security, freedom and resilience.

Overall the compilation by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) with input from 60 experts and 9,200 public submissions has drawn few major quibbles. Some claim this overview shows reality is biting:

‘Navigating the decade ahead will be hard, because as China’s power grows, our region is changing in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history.’  

Worryingly down-played is Indonesia which gets only 38 mentions, way behind China (112) India (70) and Japan (52).  Many references are bundled with countries like South Korea, India - even Nigeria - or are in data lists.

The usual mantra is recited: ‘Indonesia is a dynamic, democratic, diverse and growing G20 member with the world’s largest Muslim population. Indonesia’s success is of fundamental importance to Australia.’  

Mr Turnbull’s foreword says: ‘We are stronger when sharing the burden of leadership with trusted partners and friends. Is our neighbour in this category?  

Indonesia is also deeply concerned about the rise of China and not just because of its economic clout and strategic influence. Some fear that along with capital to build the archipelago’s infrastructure comes Communism; the bogeyman is a virile force in Indonesian politics. Where would we fit should strife erupt?

There are pluses.  Anti-terrorism police co-operation seems to be going well. Aid projects, scholarships, exchange programmes and soft-power culture shows are fine but few.  The big money and political energy is going into border protection.

Australia’s ‘largest maritime operation in peacetime history’ is underway not in the disputed South China Sea, but in the narrow Arafura Sea between us and them.  

This steel boom is to contain the migration ambitions of 14,000 asylum seekers squatting in Indonesia. A $3.5 billion contract for 12 more patrol boats has just been announced.

This military response to a social problem involving unarmed civilians marks a failure to engage with Indonesia and ASEAN to develop a more humane policy.

The White Paper canvasses refugee and Islamic terrorism in a global context.  The decade-old ‘Quad Alliance’ idea recently revived by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson isn’t mentioned.

Japan, India, the US and Australia are in the Quad as democracies.  Indonesia has been one this century - though not a ‘developed democracy’ as defined by the World Bank. But nor is India on the list.

The Jakarta Embassy says it’s ‘the largest ever constructed by an Australian Government and reflects the depth of the relationship. If the White Paper is a guide the mateship is shallow.   

The ginormous importance of Indonesia in economic and security terms are standards in the lexicon of business boosters.  Rarely raised is why few Australian companies invest; they fear corruption and rules not fairly applied.

Free Trade Agreement (FTA) discussions should wrap-up this year. If a ‘high quality’ (Mr Turnbull’s words) deal is done this will be a breakthrough as protectionist Indonesia is pursuing food sovereignity. Observers are not hopeful.

Where are the policies to put wheels under the words should the FTA stall as it has in the past? Unfortunately not in the ‘first comprehensive review of Australia’s international engagement for 14 years.’

If Indonesia is really so important the next White Paper needs to put the people next door front and centre of foreign policy.  Unwise to wait to 2031; by then the neighbours might have found friends we don’t like.



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