Richard Woolcott. Australia’s role is in our region.

Dec 24, 2015

There is no doubt that Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to Indonesia and his and Lucy’s contacts with President Jakowi and his wife have very substantially improved the situation between Indonesia and Australia that existed before Malcolm’s visit.

The most recent and important meeting was between the Indonesian Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence with our Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence.  This meeting of the “two plus two”, as it is called and the press conference which followed underlined how the situation between Australia and Indonesia has changed and substantially improved.  This does not mean however that there are no on-going differences.  It was clear from the responses to the questions at the press conference that Indonesia, which is not a claimant state, is very careful not to adopt a negative attitude towards China’s activities in the South China Sea.  Both the Indonesian Foreign Minister and Defence Minister made it plain that all countries in the region shared an important interest in a stable peaceful approach to claims.

Both the Indonesian Ministers for Defence and Foreign Affairs made it clear that they wanted Australia to maintain firmly the position that West Papua was a part of Indonesia.  The Australian Ministers in response to these comments indicated that Australia acknowledged West Papua as a part of Indonesia.  This does not entirely rule out Indonesian fears that we may over time change our position as we did in respect of East Timor.  But  East Timor had never been a part of the Dutch East Indies, as was the case with West Papua.

My considered view is Australia needs to refocus on the important interests in our own Region – South East Asia, North Asia and the South West Pacific in what is now generally called the Asian Century.  Former Indonesian Ambassador to Australian Sabam Saigian and currently the Editor in Chief of the Jakarta Post wrote earlier this year the blunt commentary that “Australia is still stuck in the 20th Century mode.  It is a Monarchy with a Head of State in London and its security arrangements are largely Cold War relics…..Australia is out of sync with the emerging geo-political environment of Asia today”.

I do consider we need to establish an updated and more balanced approach to the vital relationship between the United States and China.  There is a danger that adversarial attitudes towards China could become a self fulfilling prophecy.  The present debate on China mainly assumes that Australia has no choice but to support American primacy in Asia against the perceived rising Chinese hegemony, something which Xi Jinping has always denied.  Former Prime Ministers Hawke, Keating and the late Malcolm Fraser as well as most former Ambassadors to China and a number of academics can be expected to resist American” hegemony“ although they accept a cooperative and constructive United States role in Asia.  In my view Australia should not take sides on China Japan disputes or on rival territorial claims.  Our focus should be on unimpeded passage through international waters and trade routes.  Provocative actions by all claimants should be avoided.  Malcolm Turnbull was in his very recent visit to Japan cautious in this respect and very firm in opposing the resumption of whaling by Japan.

Turning to the Middle East we should acknowledge that while there were reasons for joining the US led invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, fourteen years later with forty Australians killed, over five hundred billion dollars spent and more than thirteen thousand Afghan civilians killed on objectives once deemed to be indispensible such as national building and effective counter insurgency have been downgraded or abandoned because there are  no longer adequate resources, time or even a clear US will to achieve them.  Polls suggest that the US public  opposes US ground forces being involved in further conflicts in the Middle East.

Australia needs a fundamental change in our national psyche focused more on Asia than on our well established links with the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand (the “anglosphere”), and Europe.    We need a much more sustained conversation with our neighboring countries in Asia and the South West Pacific.

Essentially terrorism has to be dealt with in each country, although discussion on dealing with it internationally can be useful and there was evidence  of new discussions between the AFP and the Indonesian police ,, although the Indonesian Foreign Minister did say that Indonesia wanted to check some of the information which they had received from the AFP.

In the long term no bi-lateral relationship will be more important to Australia than that of Indonesia.  The stability, unity and economic growth of a predominantly (81%) moderate Muslim nation of two hundred and fifty million people stretching across our north and trade routes a distance from Broome to Christchurch in New Zealand is vital to Australia.

There is some discussion in New York at present about an Australian interest in the Secretary Generalship of the United Nations, at present held by Ban Ki-Moon.  This will come up in the middle of next year.  It would normally be for the Eastern European group to nominate a candidate but there is some doubt that they will be able to agree on a candidate.  Although he publicly says he is not a candidate, it is quite widely regarded that Kevin Rudd is interested in the position and is privately working on securing it.

We are to some extent locked into participation in the Middle East through our cooperation with the present Iraq Government and our role in support of British air activity. The essential fact however is that Australia cannot influence the outcome of the kaleidoscope  of changing activities between extremist Shiites,  Sunnis and Kurds and a range of countries with different objectives including Saudi Arabia,  Iran, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Israel, China and the Yeman.  Because our role is symbolic in that it will not lead to a solution in the foreseeable future, it would be desirable for Australia to withdraw from the enormously complex situation in the Middle East and focus our attention on our region of the world when we can do so.

Tony Abbott on a number of occasions said that the first duty of a PM was to increase the safety of the Australian people.In fact his approach has made the Australian people LESS safe.

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