After his sweeping victory in the mid-September elections, new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott appeared to have the right idea about the country’s foreign policy direction. Among other pledges, he vowed to turn the official focus to the Asia-Pacific and engage with a region that accounts for about 90% of Australia's trade.
But a series of blunders by the new leader, as well as widening fallout from revelations by U.S. security-information leaker Edward Snowden, has opened new fissures in Australia’s relationships with its closest neighbor, Indonesia, and main trade partner, China.
On Nov. 18, Indonesia called its ambassador to Australia back to Jakarta. The move followed disclosures in cables leaked by Snowden that Australia had been eavesdropping electronically on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and inner circle since at least 2009.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the country’s relationship with Australia has changed. "We are also reviewing the relationship between Indonesia and Australia in general, not only in regards ... to information and intelligence exchange, to ensure that it's not just business as usual," the official said.
The issue has compounded fresh problems in a relationship that has slipped from promising to problematic in just two months.
In mid-October, less than a month after his conservative Liberal/National Party coalition won the election, Abbott made Jakarta his first international destination in a visit with his foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, and trade and investment minister, Andrew Robb. It was a calculated and bold show of good, neighborly intentions.
Australia’s relations with Indonesia have long been plagued by controversy over asylum seekers who use the Indonesian archipelago as a launchpad for the dangerous sea journey to Australia. The number of boats leaving Indonesia, as well as such other Asian nations as Sri Lanka, for Australia has soared in recent years, along with mishaps that have seen growing numbers of rickety refugee boats capsize, drowning their occupants.
The developments have prompted many Australians to proclaim a refugee “crisis,” and this became a key issue in the September election. Abbott’s stated policy was to “turn back the boats,” a stance that has since been criticized by Indonesia as a challenge to its sovereignty. As the two nations struggled to negotiate the problem in recent weeks, the spying allegations emerged.
Many observers believe that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia, also its largest aid recipient, can be righted in the medium term. But Abbot's critics say that unnecessary, perhaps unthinking, moves by the prime minister may have done long-term damage to Australia's relationship with China.
Australia now sends 35% of its exports to China, also its biggest source of imports. In recognition of that, Abbott declared just after he won office that he would complete free trade agreement negotiations with China, now in their eighth year, within 12 months. He also said he aimed to finalize similar deals with Japan and South Korea in the same time frame.
Slap in the face
Yet Abbott’s chances of getting the deal with China have diminished, according to Western diplomats in Beijing, who cite a litany of errors. On Oct. 8, for example, while with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Abbot described Japan as Australia's "closest friend in Asia.” The Chinese saw such a ringing endorsement of its much-resented regional neighbor as an insult.
A week later, Foreign Minister Bishop quietly canceled a trip to Beijing scheduled for Oct. 21-23. The visit was meant to be the triumphant fourth leg of her swing through North Asia that started in Tokyo and included stops in Seoul and Hong Kong.
"The visit was put off for a later date as there was not enough time to do China properly,” was the only response her office would offer. But Australian officials privately confirmed that her office was told that the Chinese were suddenly “too busy” to see her.
Another mistake cited by diplomats was Abbott’s rush to confirm a ban on Huawei Technologies from Australia’s troubled National Broadband Network project, an undertaking valued at 38 billion Australian dollars ($34.8 billlion). The ban had been instituted by the previous government in April last year for unnamed “national security” reasons.
Not only is Huawei the world’s largest maker of telecommunications network equipment, it is also China's most successful private company and best known international brand.
Beijing had long been promised a proper review of the decision to exclude Huawei by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he was the opposition spokesman on communications. After Turnbull became minister, he publicly endorsed a review of Huawei’s participation in the project last month, backed by Trade Minister Robb. But other senior members of the new government -- including Abbott himself -- publicly admonished the pair for suggesting a review, sending another negative signal to China.
There were already many contradictions in the decision to exclude Huawei. Australia’s close allies Britain and New Zealand have allowed Huawei’s equipment into their own national broadband projects. And a number of other Australian telecoms companies, including the No. 2 and No. 3 players, SingTel Optus and Vodafone, use Huawei’s equipment in their networks, meaning the Chinese company is already an integral part of Australia’s national telecoms grid.“Nikkei Asian Review” MICHAEL SAINSBURY, Contributing writer