This month Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spoke at the Menzies Research Centre in London on Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper published three months earlier.
Her theme circled around getting ‘rules-based order’ into Asia, just like Europe where she says nationalism has subsided.
Dr Euan Graham (no relation), Director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, wrote in The Interpreter that the address was ‘probably Bishop’s most important foreign policy speech since her Fullerton lecture in Singapore (to the International Institute for Strategic Studies) last March.’
However, its inconsistencies whizzed past the media obsessed with the Barnaby Joyce affair, bewildering those trying to understand Australia’s political location and Facebook likes.
Unsurprisingly the FM focused on China, ‘a crucial economic power and partner to our region and the world.’
Keep moving, nothing to see here. What is surprising is that our giant neighbour Indonesia didn’t get one mention in Bishop’s 2,400-word delivery. Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam were pinged along with the big powers, but not the world’s third-largest democracy where, unlike the FM’s Europe, nationalism is on the rise.
This was not a clumsy press scrum but an address to an elite audience so would have been forensically checked. To ignore Indonesia is not just a slapdown of the world’s most populous Islamic nation, it also kicks aside the tradition – repeated in the White Paper – of stating that Australia’s relations with the Republic are of top importance.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s 2013 election pledge to focus on Jakarta ahead of Geneva was a revoicing of long-standing bi-partisan policy. Abbott did go to the Merdeka Palace before the Palais des Nations, getting on well with then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
After Abbott was dislodged by Malcolm Turnbull in 2015 the new PM made a brief Jakarta stopover to meet the new President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo; the Indonesian leader’s first official visit Down Under was in 2017.
Not much more; Jokowi, who will seek a further five-year term at a general election next year, knows that getting close to the Ozzies won’t win local votes.
The lingering public dislike stems from our role in the 1999 East Timor referendum. There’s little fermenting hostility though this can change in a flash as touchy Indonesians over-react to real or imagined slurs by culturally clumsy Australians.
Indonesians are proud of helping create the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1967 with four others (Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore) as an anti-communist block; they’re the heavyweight and don’t like criticism.
ASEAN is now ten strong and better known for what it doesn’t do than its successes. Neither a Common Market as in Europe nor an alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, it’s a weird mix of military dictatorships, an authoritarian sultanate, communist states and various forms of democracies. The glue is geography and being ‘Asian’.
We may see ourselves as multi-ethnic, but to Indonesians we are European-white, waving a colonial flag. Forget facts – just having the Queen’s head on our currency is proof enough.
Australia’s approach to ASEAN has been ambivalent, though in Sydney next month ten leaders will gather for a summit on business and security ties – the first time we have hosted the group.
Last year’s White Paper trumpeted the upcoming event ‘(which) will reinforce our Strategic Partnership with ASEAN as we advance shared interests. The Summit will demonstrate our elevated commitment to ASEAN and our enduring ties with the countries of Southeast Asia.’
The FM stayed in tune with her Singapore address, enthusing that: ‘ASEAN should never underestimate the moral force it can exert in the form of collective diplomatic pressure on countries that might think or behave differently.’
Yet in London she went off-key, saying ASEAN ‘is as an example of regional multilateral institutions that do not impose obligations or commitments on … members who are free to negotiate their own arrangements’.
This is a reference to the ASEAN non-interference policy which allows countries like Myanmar to allegedly persecute Muslim Rohingya without fearing sanctions by member states.
According to Graham the FM’s London speech ‘arguably damns ASEAN with faint praise … (which). leaves the distinct impression that, in Canberra’s view, regional multilateral institutions play a marginal role in upholding the rules-based order.’
As a curtain-raiser to the summit Australian Strategic Policy Institute journalism fellow Graeme Dobell has been nudging the idea that Australia and New Zealand should slowly seek to join ASEAN.
Dobell’s ASPI paper Australia as an ASEAN Community partner reasons that ‘as the geostrategic and geo-economic pressures build in Asia, ASEAN, as a middle-power grouping, needs the extra middle-power heft offered by Australia and NZ’.
He acknowledges this would face ‘huge degree-of-difficulty handicaps’ and notes no public enthusiasm in the key countries. A Twitter straw poll showed Indonesia and Australia averse, though Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand are in favour.
So where does all this leave Australia? Still fumbling to find its right coordinates. Bishop claims the Great South Land is in the Indo-Pacific, a term not heard in Indonesia which places its neighbour further away in Oceania.
Many Indonesianists want Australia in Southeast Asia while others see the island continent as part of the Anglosphere and the Commonwealth – a view hardened by Bishop’s London speech.
Perhaps she’ll have a different version for the ASEAN leaders’ conference.
Australian journalist Duncan Graham (www.indonesianow.blogspot.com) writes from Indonesia.