Monday, April 11, 2011

Australia has to play to its strength: the politics, economics and diplomacy of the Asia-Pacific region

THERE has been much commentary about Kevin Rudd's role in encouraging NATO to intervene in Libya. The truth is Australia was but a vocal bystander.

The countries that counted were the ones that were going to do the job: the US, Britain and France. The French President and the British Prime Minister were particularly robust in their support for the no fly zone and, as one American diplomat told me recently, President Obama was prepared to go along with the plan out of respect for and loyalty to his allies, especially Britain. But Australia wasn't in the mix.

To have an impact on the world stage, Australia has to play to its strength: the politics, economics and diplomacy of the Asia-Pacific region. There is a perception in Europe and to a lesser extent the US that Australians are the people to talk to about Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia.

Through the years, Australia's Asian reputation has grown. The leadership role Australia played in helping Indonesia and Thailand through the Asian economic crisis, the emergence of democracy in Indonesia, the East Timor crisis and Australia's record in the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum and, since 2006, the East Asia Summit have all burnished our regional credentials.

Australian governments need to build on this reputation. When the Bush administration came to office, it sought the advice of the Australian government on how it should manage relations with China. President Bush had no prior interest in Indonesia, but Australia persuaded him to give Indonesia a priority in US foreign policy as both a newly emerged democracy and the largest Muslim nation on earth. He did as we asked, and that helped Australia too; the Indonesians, knowing we were behind America's Indonesia strategy, sought the help of Australia with Washington.

There was no better example of this than in 2006 when the Indonesian government proposed to the Australian government sending a battalion of Indonesian troops to Iraq to assist with stabilisation there. The Indonesians asked us to take it up with president Bush, which I did with the president and John Howard during the APEC meeting in Hanoi. That Bush was unenthusiastic about the idea was a little disappointing, but the fact the Indonesians used our links with Washington to conduct such delicate diplomacy makes a point about how powerful Australia's regional diplomacy can be.

But to maximise Australia's diplomatic leverage it has to be effective in the region. That requires focus and deft diplomacy.

Of course Australia, as a G20 country, is not just a regional power. But its region is its diplomatic heartland. The Australian government must not sally forth elsewhere leaving its home garden unattended. The past two months is a case in point. Australia has been vocal about the need for a no fly zone in Libya.

During this same period, a country of central importance to Australia, Japan, was devastated by earthquakes and a tsunami. Certainly Australian emergency services were deployed to Japan and that was appreciated. But the government was as focused on Libya as we were on Japan. We could have been a champion for Japan in the wake of the earthquake; instead, we were another part of the global response, important but not special.

When it comes to China, Australia has spent the past three years struggling with the relationship. We could have explained the complexity of the Tibet riots in 2008. Instead Australia's prime minister scolded the Chinese government publicly and in Mandarin. This was followed by the Stern Hu saga, and it wasn't long before Australia's relationship with China was looking decidedly tatty.

Then there is Indonesia. Whenever I went to Europe or the US as foreign minister, my interlocutors would ask me about Indonesia. Our involvement there was respected and, in the case of the East Timor intervention in 1999, admired. In nearly 12 years, the Howard government built an intimate relationship with Indonesia to counter terrorism, we set up the Bali process to manage people smuggling, we negotiated the Lombok Treaty to underpin our bilateral security relationship and, together, we established the Asia-Pacific Interfaith Dialogue. Our leading role in responding to the 2004 tsunami literally brought tears to President Yudhoyono's eyes.

Now, to be brutal, the only feature of the bilateral relationship of any significance is the people smuggling issue. This was a big problem during the Howard years, but after a squabble in 2004 we learned to manage the issue. Australia set up the offshore processing centre in Nauru, we engaged in a joint program with Indonesia to disrupt people smugglers and we established the regional Bali process. The problem had been dealt with.

Now it is the sum total of the relationship. The decision to try to open a processing centre in East Timor is not only unpopular in Dili; it's unpopular in Jakarta. The Indonesian government doesn't want the relationship between Australia and East Timor to be destabilised. More importantly, it doesn't want a processing centre just across the border in little, poor East Timor.

If we are slipping from centre stage in Asia, then we should at least be able to hold our ground in the Pacific. Five years ago, Australia was leading a campaign to improve governance in the Pacific. We had the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, we had the Enhanced Co-operation Program in Papua New Guinea and we had deployed teams to improve governance across the Pacific. RAMSI remains in place. But in PNG, the Australian government has bowed to the demands of Prime Minister Michael Somare and toned down the more aggressive aspects of the anti-corruption programs.

As for Fiji, the Australian government has abandoned attempts to restore democracy there. We are in the worst position. We look weak because we can't do anything and Fiji is working in New York to sabotage our Security Council campaign .

Part of the narrative of the Australian Left is that the Labor Party shows more enthusiasm for Asia than the Liberals. Events of the past three years suggest otherwise. There has been almost no new initiative in Asia from the Australian government in four years and that affects our standing in Europe and America.
Edited extract from the latest Asialink Essay. To read it in full:

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