Indonesians wonder why we fear China so much, when they don’t?
America, backed by Australian think tanks supporting and supported by the US, has Australia trying to sell stale pizza in Asia.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton were in Jakarta on September 9 touting security co-operation. Dutton justified the pitch on the basis of, “Indonesia and Australia must become anchors of co-operation in the Indo-Pacific region”. He described the region as “increasingly contested” and the Chinese as “coercive and harbouring a zero-sum mentality, aggressive and bellicose”. All of which might have come from an ASPI briefing to whom Prime Minister Scott Morrison is close. It was extraordinary anti-China rhetoric to be dishing up while a guest of the Indonesian Government and no doubt somewhat embarrassing for them. They probably felt the need to apologise along the lines that it the remarks were crude and off the cuff from someone not trained in the arts of diplomacy.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijam, said the remarks were “extremely dangerous and irresponsible”. He said Australia needed to stop hyping up the China threat and seeing China as the enemy Australia will shoot itself in the foot.
After Jakarta, Payne and Dutton will travel to India, South Korea and Washington for the annual AUSMIN talks. China is expected to be a major item on the agenda. Indonesia was aware that Australia came to the meeting wearing its regional US deputy sheriff hat. Indonesia knows how to conduct balanced diplomacy. For years during the Cold War, it played off the US and the Soviet Union, as a non-aligned state. It does not want to get Australia offside but it recognises the growing importance and influence of China in the region and unlike Australia it knows on which side its bread is buttered.
Payne and Dutton met with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Masudi and Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto. Agreements were signed covering counter-terrorism, cyber security and defence. The first two are already covered in other arrangements and nothing of substance was agreed with respect to defence. The two sides agreed that Indonesian troops “may (at some later stage) join Australian troops on training”. Naval co-operation already exists. The visit was a damp squib, no doubt undertaken at the urging of the US.
Co-operation between Indonesia and China is set to grow. It has entered into important Belt and Road initiatives with China, most notably the Global Maritime Fulcrum which aims to build 24 new Indonesian ports and the construction of a high-speed rail between Jakarta and Bandung. The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Masudi and the Minister for State Owned Enterprises, Erik Thohir visited China in August to discuss extending the BRI. Indonesia is aware that Morrison forced Victoria to tear up its BRI.
China has agreed to make Indonesia the hub for distribution of its Covid vaccines in the region. It has entered into a joint venture with Indonesia’s Bio Farma to produce the Sinovac vaccine and has given 160 million doses.
China is Indonesia’s second biggest source of foreign investment after Singapore. China was Indonesia’s biggest export market in 2019 and the largest source of imports. They have signed an agreement to promote the use of their currencies in trade deals, marginalising the US dollar. Indonesia has resisted pressure to increase defence ties with the US. It does not want to be drawn into the US anti-China campaign.
Defence ties with China are strengthening including the purchase of patrol vessels. The Chinese will raise the Indonesian submarine which recently sank in the Java Sea; an undertaking designed to enhance their standing in the Archipelago.
On the same day that Ministers were meeting in Jakarta, former Malaysian Prime Minister, the venerable Mahathir Mohamad, opined that Australia was needlessly risking its security with the stand off with China. He attacked the use of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as a vehicle to confront China. He called it provocative and aggressive. He said Australia was responsible for the problems it had with China.
Mahathir said Australia was perceived in the region as an extension of the United States. ‘Americans think of Americans first. America is forever trying to help people but when the help is extended it’s not in the interests of the country concerned.’
Malaysia, like Singapore, has a sophisticated relationship with China. It has a major BRI project, the East Coast Rail Link. The Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, delivered the same message as Mahathir, to Morrison on a Singapore stop over on his way as an observer to the G7 in Cornwall. But it would seem it was in one ear and out the other.
Nothing has been achieved by Dutton and Payne from their visit to Indonesia. Offering stale Pizza was never going to cut the mustard and abusing China was an insult to Indonesia. It would only serve to bring the two closer together. Everyone in the region laughs at the crude barbarians from the south; we unify in the region in their derision.
For absolutely no advantage we have been used by America. Australia has not gone up in the estimation of the Indonesians, rather it has gone down. They fed us hollow words whilst despising our craven US presentation. Their relationship with China is nuanced and sophisticated. They wonder why we cravenly cling to the US, seeing a lack of self-respect and courage. They wonder why we fear China so much, when they don’t?
Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.