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Australia's foreign policy clumsiness is losing us the Asia-Pacific

After balking at its first diplomatic test over revelations of spying on Indonesia last year, there was still a reasonable expectation that the new government would quickly find its foreign policy feet. Julie Bishop as foreign minister was intended to present a firm but friendly policy face to the world, while Tony Abbott got on with domestic policy.

It appears now, however, that it’s actually Abbott who enjoys the world stage, while Bishop seems constrained in her ability to act. In a deeply enmeshed world, this arrangement is manifesting as a poor feel for (or a lack of understanding of) the nuances of foreign policy.

Australia is now explicitly viewed as a problem by an increasingly nationalist Indonesia, eyed with suspicion by an assertive China and with anger or tepid acceptance by formerly close regional friends.

Comments by Indonesia’s two presidential candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, made ahead of this year's election, cast Australia as the problem in formerly close bilateral relations. Bishop’s failure to offer a quick apology over Australian spying on Indonesia was an "own goal". The apology eventually came, but it was too little and much too late.

This was exacerbated by Australia’s policy of unilaterally pushing asylum seekers back into Indonesia waters, transgressing Indonesian territorial sovereignty and, more recently, returning asylum seekers in Australian-supplied life boats. Bilateral cooperation put on ice last year will probably stay in the deep freeze until at least 2015.

Even further to the north, Australia’s downgrading of ties with long-standing friend, Thailand, was justified in response to the May military coup. But this led to an angry rebuke by junta leader, general Prayuth Chan-ocha, who will remain as Thailand's head of government for at least 18 months. Australia has, for the time-being, lost not just Indonesia but Thailand’s support in regional forums such as the strategic Asean regional forum, the east Asia summit and others.

More locally, Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea is under renewed pressure, following corruption investigator Sam Koin’s call for Australia to "take a greater interest" in allegations that embattled PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill. Last year O’Neill criticised then-opposition leader Tony Abbott’s "completely untrue" claims over Australian aid to PNG being linked to an asylum seeker processing agreement.

''We are not going to put up with this kind of nonsense,'' he said. ''We are helping resolving an Australian issue.

There is little doubt that PNG is riddled with problems. As PNG’s largest aid provider, Australia has a right to be concerned over good governance. But this interest is increasingly unwelcome.

Earlier this year, Australia moved to normalise relations with Fiji, following the 2006 coup. Unfortunately for us, Fiji has long since dumped Australia as its dominant regional partner. We've been replaced by China’s, which offers "soft power" diplomacy, in the form of loans and investment. Fiji also recently welcomed Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a sign of strengthening relations with Indonesia, as it increases its own influence as a growing regional power.

China is playing a similarly more influential role with Australia’s other Pacific neighbors. The status of the Pacific as Australia's backyard has long since dissipated – Australia’s aid program has been contorted to fit changing domestic politics, our economy can't match growing regional powers and our strategic orientation remains transfixed by the distant spectre of militant Islamism.

Australia’s largest trading partner, China, has tolerated Australia’s diplomatic clumsiness. After Abbott identified Japan as Australia’s "best friend", he responded to China's partially concealed irritation by assiduously courting the growing regional power during his recent Asian trip. These negotiations were, in turn, conducted while Abbott walks the tightrope of a US alliance competing with Chinese trade.

Globally, the Australian government’s enthusiasm for supporting a return to Iraq before the US has defined its own policy position, its questionable approach to climate change and now its failed attempt to overturn the Tasmanian forest world heritage listing, has left Australia further diplomatically isolated.

Foreign policy primarily reflects domestic political concerns and there is little doubt that the Australian government would like to see a seamless link between the two. How likely is that dream? While the government struggles under the critical appraisal of a disenchanted electorate, the international stage looks more like a minefield – in part of its own making – that it seems only marginally equipped to avoid.

East Timor's fragile stability under threat with PM retiring

East Timor's Prime Minister and former resistance leader, Xanana Gusmao, has announced his intention to retire from politics. Two East Timor media sources say Gusmao will retire in 2015, two years before the conclusion of the current Parliament, with another source saying he will leave in 2017.

Gusmao, 67, will make way for a new generation of political leadership within his own party, the Timorese Council for National Reconstruction (CNRT). His departure from politics may also signal a more broad generational change in East Timorese politics.

Former prime minister and current Opposition Leader Mari Alkatiri was also expected to retire ahead of the 2017 elections, paving the way for a new generation of leadership to come forward on both sides of politics.

There is, however, concern as to whether the still fragile country will be able to sustain a coalition government under a less charismatic and less widely respected leader. The current governing coalition is comprised of three parties, led by CNRT and dominated by Gusmao.

Gusmao has had health issues in recent times, in particular a back problem that has caused him to seek treatment overseas and that continues to plague him.

No successor to Gusmao has been announced, but a likely candidate is the CNRT's general secretary and Justice Minister, Dionisio Babo Soares. Soares has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University and a degree in constitutional law from Udayana University in Bali.

Another possible successor is Secretary of State for the Council of Ministers and trusted Gusmao adviser Agio Pereira, who spent much of the Indonesian occupation in Australia, where he was a conduit for Gusmao's external relations.

Gusmao rose to power during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Following a series of serious setbacks to the resistance (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin) and as the only surviving member of Fretilin's central committee, in 1981 Gusmao was elected to the leadership of the resistance.

By the mid-1980s, Gusmao reconsidered the appropriateness of Fretilin's hard ideological line, leading in 1987-88 to his decision to leave Fretilin and remove the guerrilla army from control of the party. He then set about establishing a broad pro-independence movement and building international support. It was the 1987-88 division that has continued to mark the key ideological division within East Timorese politics.

Gusmao was captured by Indonesian troops in 1992, but he continued to lead the resistance from prison in Jakarta, being released following East Timor’s vote for independence in 1999.

In terms of post-independence national leadership, Gusmao has held the fragile state together in a way that his predecessor, Mari Alkatiri, could not. The stability that currently marks East Timor’s social and political life can be traced to Gusmao taking the prime ministership in 2007, following its near collapse in 2006.

Following Gusmao’s departure in 2015, there will be a question as to whether East Timor’s still-fragile politics will continue to cohere around two general political blocs, or whether it will fragment into less stable coalitions.

There is also a question of the country's continuing financial viability, which, on current planned spending, is expected to run into financial problems in around 15 years, or sooner if spending stays at current levels.

Gusmao's departure will come at a time when East Timor faces a new set of critical challenges -- reducing economic capacity, a growing population entering the very limited employment market and a potential lack of unifying leadership.

The ties that bind are also the ties that blind

The two trips by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to Indonesia have started to give a distinctive shape to a shift in Australian foreign policy. In keeping with Abbott's assertive political style, Australia is on the diplomatic front foot, promoting his pro-Asia policy agenda.

But the forcefulness of the way in which this agenda is being pushed may leave Australia exposed to uncomfortable outcomes. We generally have good regional relationships, but the interests of our neighbours are not necessarily the same as our own interests.

Abbott's overture to China to reach a free trade agreement within 12 months is ambitious and intended to secure a long-term economic relationship with our largest trading partner. Similarly, Abbott's unambiguous message to Indonesia is that Australia will be an even more loyal friend, with less tolerance for dissent around human rights issues.

Both cases are intended to secure different aspects of Australia's national interest and being the diplomatic initiator signals Australia's positive intentions. But initiating the further development of relationships then requires that gesture be taken up by the counterpart country.

In both cases, Abbott's eagerness gives China and Indonesia greater scope for setting the terms of the relationship. Australia thus becomes the supplicant, with China and Indonesia bestowing the favours.

By placing a 12-month timeline on a free trade agreement with China, Abbott has signalled a willingness to accept previously problematic Chinese conditions. These include investments in Australia by Chinese state-owned enterprises, a lower threshold for scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board, and allowing more Chinese workers into Australia.

China's plan is to secure for itself continuing access to resources over the longer term, and to do so at a good price. Its foreign direct investments, including in Australia, achieve both those goals. Similarly, the greater its direct control over resources, the stronger its bargaining position over those resources that it does not directly control.

Abbott's recent visit to Jakarta reaffirmed Australia's commitment to Indonesia's territorial integrity. In this he was, perhaps, even more insistent than his predecessors.

In significant part this reflects the deep concern that Indonesia had with the Coalition's policy of returning asylum seeker boats to Indonesia and attendant plans to pay locals for intelligence on boat departures. That signature policy in opposition now looks to be in the process of being quietly abandoned in government, replaced by a slightly stronger version of the existing policy of bilateral co-operation.

But part of Abbott's ''total respect'' for Indonesia's territorial sovereignty and integrity was code for endorsing the status quo in the territory of West Papua. This has played out recently with the return of seven West Papuan asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and the ''voluntary'' departure of three West Papuan protesters from the Australian Consulate-General in Bali.

The seven returned to PNG would likely have qualified for refugee status had they been processed in the usual manner. Despite what could be fairly understood as a plea for asylum, the three are now in hiding from the Indonesian police.

The drivers for Abbott's foreign policy push are not explicit. But they can be divined from his political history. Abbott is a classical free trader, pursuing a policy in which markets are self-regulating and find their own equilibrium. An open door policy towards trade with and investment from China fits perfectly into this framework.

On Indonesia, one can detect a sensibility that reflects the strong pro-Indonesia (and anti-communist) position of his political training ground in the National Civic Council. At the time, this included opposition to East Timor's independence, and West Papua's continued incorporation.

Three decades on, Australia's interests in Indonesia are more complex. Indonesia's economy is growing, soon to overtake Australia's in total size, and it is in both countries' interests to seek and develop economic complementarities.

But Indonesia is potentially also a major strategic and diplomatic partner for Australia. It provides Australia with entree into ASEAN and can help facilitate some of its wider regional interests. How Indonesia views Australia has major implications for Australia's strategic positioning.

The relatively benign relationship that Australia has enjoyed with Indonesia over much of the past decade can be attributed to the reformist, pro-Western preferences of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. However, within a year, Yudhoyono will leave office. Abbott's commitment to Indonesia is unlikely to change, but the successor may be more assertively nationalistic. This could include requiring Australia to even more strongly oppose West Papuan activism, despite the conflict this will engender with more pro-human rights sections of Australian society.

China, too, will ultimately be concerned over its own interests and much less those of Australia. Local discomfort, if of a different type, may have to be accepted in the push and shove of competing understandings over what a more open economic relationship might entail.

The conventional approach to diplomatic relations is to take them slowly, consider their implications deeply and to proceed cautiously. This does not, however, accord with Abbott's political style.

Abbott's international agenda is appearing to be about achieving much quickly. In his rush, however, such enthusiasm for making agreements and pushing policy on the run may miss some of the implications, much less the nuances, embedded in the detail.

Australia needs stronger international linkages, not least with major trading and strategic partners. But it does not need such arrangements at any price. No agreement is better than a bad agreement.

A more cautious and considered approach to international relations will produce results less quickly. But they may be results that Australia is more easily able to live with, with fewer negative consequences, over the longer term.

Abbott's first foreign test: pulling policy fat from diplomatic fire

Tony Abbott's first international test as prime minister is also likely to be his toughest, when he meets with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today. It will be a remarkable feat if he can pull the policy fat from the diplomatic fire.

In the balance lies Australia’s critical relationship with Indonesia. Not only has Abbott’s signature "turn back the boats" policy been comprehensively rejected by the Indonesian government, Indonesia has now fired a real warning shot across Australia’s diplomatic bow.

The "unintentional" release of the notes of the conversation between foreign ministerial counterparts Julie Bishop and Marty Natalegawa late last week was a blunt warning: the issue may blow up further if not resolved quickly.

Abbott’s dismissal of his asylum-seeker boats policy as a "passing irritant" in the wider bilateral relationship with Indonesia will be viewed as arrogant. Arrogance is a quality not much appreciated in Indonesian political society, and especially not from Australian politicians. It is also incorrect to treat it so lightly, given the issue is now central to a complex web of arrangements.

At primary risk is Indonesia’s existing co-operation with Australia against the people-smuggling trade. This then segues into other areas of security co-operation, including on terrorism and wider security issues.

The awkwardness of Abbott's visit has been underscored by the inept intervention by former foreign minister Alexander Downer on Thursday. Downer's status as a former Coalition foreign minister means his "pious rhetoric" comment against Indonesia will be read in Jakarta as informing the Australian perspective.

Asylum-seeker boats leaving Indonesia are a private and, at most, criminal matter. If they do breach Australian sovereignty, it is not a consequence of Indonesian state policy.

By contrast, Australia’s "Operation Sovereign Borders" of sending boats in international waters back to Indonesia is official state policy. On this, Downer blundered and Indonesia holds the high diplomatic ground.

Abbott distancing himself from Downer’s statement will be seen as just as unconvincing as Natalegawa’s claim of the "unintentional release" of notes of his conversation with Bishop. The distinction on issues of sovereignty and official policy can be expected to be brought to Abbott’s attention .

Australia has recently enjoyed a positive relationship with Indonesia, overwhelmingly because of the benign political character of President Yudhoyono. But Natalegawa’s release of the Bishop conversation notes reflects a growing impatience with Australia. If Abbott persists, bilateral relations could quickly collapse to the lows of 1999, when Australia intervened in East Timor.

Indonesia has always been important to Australia, but is increasingly so. Its economy, growing at over 6% a year, is due to overtake Australia’s by 2017, while it is Australia's 13th biggest trading partner (and growing).

Importantly, Indonesia is Australia's pivot into ASEAN, including the security-focused ASEAN Regional Forum, as well as a key partner in APEC and wider regional relations. Add to that key sea lanes and air routes, and you have a relationship that Australia cannot afford to get wrong. All of this will be on the table when Abbott and Yudhoyono meet.

The question will be, then, whether Abbott throws overboard his "turning back the boats" policy in favour of greater regional co-operation. The alternative might instead be looking at throwing overboard a large part of the bilateral relationship with our closest neighbour.

Incoming government crashes into Indonesian diplomacy

To suggest that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has been marked by periods of instability would be less accurate to say the otherwise unstable relationship has been marked by brief periods of stability. After a few years of good relations, it again appears that Australia is headed into difficulties with its near neighbour.

Always highly sensitive around issues of sovereignty, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has rejected the newly elected Abbott government’s policy of paying villagers for information about people smugglers. He has also rejected the Coalition's otherwise poorly conceived policy of buying potential people-smuggler boats.

Indonesia had already strongly signalled its opposition to the Coalition government’s policy of "turning back the boats" ("where safe to do so"). Its view is that, once boats are in international waters, they are not Indonesia’s responsibility, nor does it have the capacity to assist boats that might get into difficulties.

These new difficulties in the relationship result directly from a significant change in Australia’s foreign policy being announced as an election promise without first having been negotiated with the principle affected party. As the incoming Coalition government is quickly learning, there is a big difference between populist pre-election promises and post-election international realism.

Similarly, comments by senior Nationals member Barnaby Joyce that he will oppose the sale of Australian agricultural land to Indonesia to raise cattle for the Indonesian market will cause long-lasting offence in Indonesia. Indonesians will rightly point out that Australia has significant investment in mining and other industries in Indonesia, but hypocritically does not wish that investment right to be reciprocal.

Australia has enjoyed several years of generally untroubled relations with Indonesia. The relationship is officially described, on both sides, as the best it has ever been. That is probably correct.

However, a very large part of that positive relationship has been a result of the benign and pro-Western leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This has been assisted by the previous two governments’ more nuanced diplomacy towards Indonesia.

Under the surface, however, many of the longer-standing tensions and suspicions about Australia’s intentions and attitudes have remained among many senior Indonesians politicians. These suspicions, they believe, are now rapidly being confirmed.

The incoming government’s "bull in a china shop" approach to regional diplomacy was always going to test Indonesia’s patience. For senior Indonesians, and indeed many others, how one is seen to act is as important as the act itself.

But more importantly, any new tensions in the relationship will likely spill into Indonesia’s forthcoming electoral period. Yudhoyono steps down at the end of his second term next year, and his successor is much less likely to be as understanding or accommodating of Australia’s interests.

Indeed, there remains a good possibility that Indonesia’s next president will run a distinctly "nationalist" agenda, which will almost by definition be combative towards Australia. As Indonesia’s economy continues to grow strongly and its strategic value only develops in importance, how Australia engages will become increasingly critical.

Australia has long acknowledged that its future lies in closer engagement with Asia, confirmed yet again by the Asia century white paper. Good relations with Indonesia are central to that engagement. Australia’s new government would do well to remember that, and to act accordingly.

Carr v Bishop: business or diplomacy the foreign policy choice

If Australian foreign policy has generally been marked by bipartisanship and, frankly, an element of disinterest by voters, the Lowy Institute debate between Foreign Minister Bob Carr and opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Julie Bishop last night (Monday 5 August) changed all that. There was a clear divide between the two that could, potentially, resonate with voters on September 7.

Bishop carved out a new Coalition policy position that foreign affairs would henceforth be about trying to secure Australia's economic interests. All else fell away by comparison. "Foreign policy will be trade policy," Bishop said, "and trade policy will be foreign policy."

Is Hillary really going?

It may be that the process is so unruffled that many people won’t notice, but the woman who has presided over a major shift in US foreign policy – Hillary Clinton – has left her job. Not only has she left her position as US Secretary of State, she has also left with a stunning personal approval rating of 69 per cent.

Such a remarkable personal approval rating begs what will be her next career move. Having had one tilt at the US presidency and been beaten by the incumbent, Ms Clinton says she is no longer interested in that job. That, however, may be a ploy to have her drafted into the candidacy, seemingly acceding to the demands of the thronging crowd.

Kevin Rudd's plan for Syria: moral high ground or political grand-standing

When Kevin Rudd started his run in foreign affairs, when Labor was still in opposition and Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman was Laurie Brereton, he did so by being a back-bencher all over the media on international issues. Rudd’s new statement on Syria, war crimes and support of the anti-Assad forces recalls his pre-power prognostications, as well as raising a big question about how the international community should engage on Syria.

Rudd’s plan is to support Syria’s rebels to speed up the overthrow of the Assad regime. His grounds for wanting to do so are that the Assad regime has been committing crimes against humanity. This, Rudd says, invokes the morally imperative doctrine of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P).

Opportunities and challenges ahead for Australia-Indonesia relations

At a time of unprecedented good bilateral relations with Indonesia, Australia is now looking to its future. Indonesia’s shift towards a more open democratic framework has allowed the previously troubled relationship to stabilise, but its future remains uncertain, especially over the medium to longer term.
The renewed focus on relations with Indonesia reflects its continuing critical value to Australian foreign policy. It is Australia’s largest near neighbour, the world’s largest Muslim country, a major regional diplomatic actor, the key transit point for Australian trade, travel and irregular migration and, again, a growing economic partner.
Australia policy thinkers are therefore looking at options for the longer term relationship. Among those considerations is increasing bilateral strategic engagement. More than any other aspect of the relationship, this is likely to generate controversy both within Australia and in Indonesia.

Australia’s foreign policy debacles

When the Rudd Labor Government was elected two years ago, there were high hopes that it would leave behind the more negative foreign policies of its predecessor Howard Coalition Government. What we have, though, is a foreign policy shambles, overwhelmingly as a result of the Rudd Government allowing itself to be trapped by the Howard Government’s legacy.

Australia’s policy on asylum seekers is framed by the Howard Government’s ‘dog whistle’ politics, which effectively bought off the Hansonite right and confused much of the middle ground over the distinction between legitimate refugees and illegal immigrants – the overwhelming majority of the latter arriving by plane.

Yet the Coalition has been successful in again wedging the Labor Party. In response, the government claims to be ‘tough on border protection’ but ‘humane on asylum seekers’. What it is, however, is confused.

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