Monday, December 3, 2012

Build a defence bridge to Indonesia for mutual security

STEPHEN Smith has requested a new white paper from the Department of Defence. It is struggling with a tight timeframe, a lack of guidance and a fundamental clash between a dramatically diminished budget and Smith's unchanged capability expectations. 

The wags are saying that we should forget a white paper and lower our expectations to a white pamphlet.

Given the present budget and capability trajectory, endorsed by the government and the opposition, the Australian Defence Force will soon start to lose capability. The danger is it will not be ready for the next conflict.

This is a risk government must shoulder. It is obscene that, through its inaction, government may shift the risk to the future members of the ADF.

There are two options: increase the budget or do less with defence. Given other domestic priorities, an increased defence budget is unlikely. The only alternative is to pull our heads in and do less with defence. It is time to accept that even as a "creative middle power" there is only so much Australia can do to influence the security tensions emerging in the Asia-Pacific region.
Those who fret over China should realise that even with a lot of huffing and puffing there are limits to what Australia can do militarily against China.

An Indonesian friend told me what Indonesia wanted from Australia was a secure southern border. Australia should seek the reciprocal from Indonesia. A secure northern border would be firmly in Australia's national interests. In our xenophobic manner Australia spent nearly a half century conjuring up Indonesia as a threat. Instead of a sea-air gap to our north there is actually a bridge; a land-sea-air-land bridge. Our two countries are inextricably linked. It is time to reinforce the bridge.

It may surprise Australians to know Indonesians don't routinely focus on Australia. They look north and think about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, Japan and the US. They are interested in territorial integrity, the growth of their democracy, the sea lines of communications that crisscross the Indonesian archipelago, combating terrorism, how to expand their economy and provide for their growing population.

Indonesia has moved from dictatorship to democracy; it is balancing Islam and modernisation, has strong growth prospects and is a leader in ASEAN. Australia should enthusiastically support and encourage Indonesia's development and work to deepen co-operation and understanding at all levels.

When Australia goes to Indonesia it should focus on the big issues of the future, rather than present irritants such as asylum-seekers and the cattle trade. Let's pick two to start with: SLOC and terrorism.

The Indian and Pacific oceans merge around Australia. All regional countries depend on the integrity of the SLOC across the Indian and Pacific oceans and the strategically vital straits of the Indonesian archipelago. Unhindered sea passage underpins regional prosperity by supporting the movement of energy, raw materials and manufactured goods.

From a defence viewpoint these straits and others, in the vicinity of Papua New Guinea, are the primary naval approaches to Australia. Australia should contribute to enhancing Indonesia's maritime capabilities so as a security partner it can make a full contribution to the integrity and security of the region's SLOC and its own archipelagic waters. Introducing enhanced capabilities and improved naval and air interoperability between the two countries would be a good start.

Indonesia deserves praise for the way it has tackled the problem of terrorism. Australia has supported its efforts and this unprecedented level of co-operation should be maintained and used as a model for other common interests. Initial priority areas include customs, fisheries, safety at sea and immigration.

There are implications for the ADF. The military to military relationship between Indonesia and Australia is already strong. But there are constraints.

At present the Australian government is asking too much of defence. In an era of budget constraint the government must accept future plans for long-range naval and air expeditionary capabilities cannot be assured. Territorial, resource and security issues in the China Seas should be left to the various claimants.

The focus of the ADF should be on developing strategic and security relationships with Indonesia and looking east and west at the SLOC across the Indian and Pacific oceans. Also important will be capabilities to contribute to emerging global missions such as humanitarian and disaster relief, human security missions and supporting troubled countries during rising tensions and internal distress. A further focus should be on the security and development of our South Pacific neighbours. by: Peter Leahy From: The Australian
Peter Leahy is director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra.

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