Is something significant happening in our alignment to our region? John Menadue

Aug 9, 2013

It may be early days, but I sense that some significant change might be afoot. So much of our political dialogue historically has been about Australia’s relationship with the UK and then the US. John Howard spoke of Australia being the deputy sheriff for the Americans in our region. Tony Abbott talks about an Anglo sphere – presumably linkages to English-speaking countries.

But so much of the discussion in recent weeks about asylum seekers has involved relationships with our own region. In a few short weeks we have seen some quite significant developments.

PM Rudd met President Yudhoyono and arranged a ministerial meeting on regional cooperation on asylum seekers for August 20.

  • President Yudhoyono rebuked talk about unilateral action by Australian politicians to turn back boats at sea.
  • Indonesia has now agreed that Iranians will no longer get visa-free entry into Indonesia.
  • Malaysia has agreed to limit to 14 days visas issued to persons believed to be in transit through Malaysia to Indonesia for a boat journey to Australia.
  • A regional settlement arrangement has been concluded with PNG. PM O’Neill indicated warm cooperation – although a great deal still remains to be sorted out.
  • PM O’Neill rebuked Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop for suggesting that Australia was handing over to PNG decisions on the spending of ODA money in PNG.

The language was frank and brusque but that is surely     much better than the platitudes that so much feature in diplomatic discourse.

Almost without catching his breath, PM Rudd was in Taren Kowt, Afghanistan, thanking Australian soldiers for their service and saying that it was time they came home. The exit from Afghanistan was announced some time ago, but I thought what was remarkable was that Kevin Rudd’s statement was received without any comment or query. Twelve months ago we were still following the US and its pivoting to Asia.

In the lead up to the general election we would normally expect our political leaders to be tugging their forelocks to the US President rather than being actively engaged with our regional neighbours.

It is early days yet, but it seems that some significant realignment to our region is under way. I wonder if some of our political class and the media are following.

The US will continue to be an important ally but with declining US power and influence it is inevitable that we must develop more effective and close relations with our neighbours. The issue of asylum seekers may prove to be an important catalyst in this process.

Regional cooperation will grow out of dealing with specific issues rather than grand statements of cooperation.

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