In his Australia Day post Abbott’s relations with China Australia’s first Ambassador to the People’s Republic, Stephen Fitzgerald, begins
‘Can you believe the Abbott government has any idea where it’s headed on relations with China? Whatever you think of China’s politics, you can’t just take sides against China or meddle in the tense and volatile issue of China-Japan relations without there being some consequence for our bilateral relations. But the government doesn’t seem to care. From what you can divine from the little it says publicly, it thinks the Chinese will back down under Australia’s glare, and “get over it”. Like the Indonesians will get over it. But the Indonesians, whose thinking we know more clearly, aren’t going to get over it. Abbott and Morrison are so untutored in foreign relations and diplomacy, or so deaf or both, that they don’t understand something has snapped in Jakarta. It’s not about our policies it’s about the language the Abbott government uses and the lecturing, patronising and racist attitudes they convey. A strong, independent, democratic and regionally influential Indonesia is not going to put up with that any longer and relations are never going back to the way they were before.’
Other academic and journalistic commentators have observed that the Government seems to believe either that relations with Jakarta will return to an even keel within an acceptable period, or that it doesn’t really matter very much. The latter attitude would be of a piece with the Prime Minister’s comment that China trades with us because it is in her interests to do so.
It seems timely in the light of this very public conversation to relate a couple of anecdotes that indicate the role that the presence or absence of goodwill between states can play as they go about their day to day business, some of which can be of towering importance.
In 1989 I accompanied then Prime Minister Bob Hawke on an official visit to Korea, Pakistan, India and Thailand, starting in Seoul. This was the trip on which Hawke successfully proposed, in Seoul, the establishment of a forum for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). I was in Europe immediately prior to the trip and I timed my arrival in Seoul to enable me to meet the Prime Minister and party on their arrival at Kimpo International Airport.
Unfortunately, someone in Canberra had neglected to put in to the Taiwan administration in good time a request for diplomatic clearance for the Prime Minister’s RAAF B-707 to transit Taiwanese airspace. Military aircraft are no more permitted to enter another country’s airspace without permission than naval vessels are permitted to enter their territorial waters.
Urgent clearance was requested, but the Taiwanese did not feel motivated to waive the normal timelines for our convenience, so the Prime Minister’s aircraft had to fly around Taiwanese airspace, and was several hours late into Kimpo. The fact that I was waiting at the airport for the duration is a matter of no consequence; the fact that the Korean Prime Minister was also inconvenienced in this way was embarrassing and of course required us to make explanation.
In 1998, while I was Secretary to the Department of Defence, the anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta reached a level of seriousness at which we felt obliged to make preparations for a Services Assisted Evacuation of Australian nationals. At the time there were about 20,000 Australians resident in Indonesia, of whom about 10,000 were in the greater Jakarta area, and the rest were scattered throughout the archipelago in numbers ranging from substantial communities in commercial centres like Surabaya to tiny numbers working in remote locations on aid projects, as teachers, or for service-oriented NGOs.
As soon as we started we quickly received requests for assistance from friendly countries like the United States, New Zealand, Spain and others who had smaller expatriate populations in country and for whom it made little sense to plan a separate uplift.
Planning an evacuation on this scale across the whole of the Indonesian Archipelago is no trivial matter. It involves identifying the most appropriate airfields to use as pick-up points, the types of aircraft that can be landed there and the gross weight that will be able to take off again. For contingencies such as these it also involves figuring out from where these aircraft can fly in and fly out again without having to refuel.
Before implementation, it also requires the home government to give permission for all of these aircraft to land – and agree to appropriate exit formalities for all of the people they are planning to pick up.
Very early in the process the planners began to worry about the vulnerability of the road from downtown Jakarta to the airport. What if we gather together hundreds of people in central Jakarta and can’t get them to the airport because there are disturbances en route or the road is blocked?
Chief of Navy Vice-Admiral Don Chalmers had a ready alternative up his sleeve. At the time an RAN frigate was exercising with friendly navies to the north of Indonesia, in the South China Sea, and the exercise was drawing to a close. VADM Chalmers suggested that the frigate be directed to remain on station in that approximate location, so that it could proceed promptly to Jakarta if required. He also undertook to ring his Indonesian counterpart, with whom he maintained very good working relations, and tell him what was going on, so that the Indonesians wouldn’t be wondering why an Australian warship was hanging around just outside their territorial waters.
The Indonesian response? Words to the effect, “We quite understand and we would like to assist you with the planning” – a response of immeasurable value.
What these anecdotes indicate is that, on occasions when we need from another country assistance or permission it does not have to give, a lack of goodwill can lead to inconvenience or worse, whereas a positive relationship can lead to more being offered than we have requested.
There will be a price to be paid for our Government insouciantly ignoring the clear messages from Indonesia that it is infuriated by the measures we are taking in pursuit of our “stop the boats at all costs” policy. We had better be very confident that we will not in the foreseeable future need any important favours from Jakarta.
Paul Barratt was Secretary of the Department of Defence, Secretary of the Department of Primary Industries and Energy, and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Trade.