Australia is facing a new regional challenge as its northern neighbours increasingly join a global trend towards a more fundamentalist form of Islam. While this shift in religious orientation does not present a direct threat to Australia – at least for the time being - it is already complicating Australia’s regional relationships. The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, an absolute monarch and one of the world’s wealthiest men, recently announced his country would adopt strict sharia punishments. These will include whipping, amputation of hands for theft, and stoning to death for illicit sex (such as adultery and homosexuality) and apostasy (abandoning Islam).
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.
It will take some months to play out, but Australia is finally before an international tribunal to determine whether or not it has acted legally over the division of the Timor Sea with Timor-Leste. At stake is the territorial boundary between Australia and Timor-Leste and, therefore, control of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas resources.
Back in 2000, while Timor-Leste was still rebuilding its devastated infrastructure and preparing itself for independence, Australia insisted on retaining the Timor Gap Treaty, which had been so infamously agreed to with Indonesia in 1989. That this treaty was part of Australia’s acquiescence to Indonesia’s brutal 1975 invasion and subsequent occupation of Timor-Leste, in which up to a third of the population died, was especially galling to Timor-Leste.
Timor-Leste did not, at that early stage, even have a government. But Australia was already pushing hard in pursuit of its own narrowly defined national interests. Those interests were territorial and commercial. As it turned out, they were also personal. The person who led Australia’s case at that time was Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
Downer later used Australian spies to bug Timor-Leste’s cabinet office during negotiations, in contravention of Timor-Leste law. Timor-Leste claims that those actions invalidate the subsequent treaty. In his life after politics, through his consulting firm Bespoke Approach, Downer became a paid consultant to Woodside Petroleum. Woodside is Australia’s largest hydrocarbon company and stands to make billions of dollars from the arrangement.
During those negotiations, Downer told the cash-strapped Timor-Leste government that if it did not agree to retain the pre-existing border arrangements, income from the Timor Gap’s oil deposits would be frozen. Without that income, the government of Timor-Leste would collapse and its people would starve.
According to reports at the time, Downer said to then Timor-Leste Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri that this approach was ‘a lesson in politics’. Timor-Leste being effectively blackmailed, Downer signed the first part of the three part agreement on 20 May 2002—the day Timor-Leste was officially declared independent.
The treaty, however, was incomplete and, allocating Timor-Leste just 18 per cent of revenues from the oil field, led to two further agreements. These resulted in the 2006 Treaty on Certain Maritime Agreements in the Timor Sea (CMATS), which sets aside the question of a permanent boundary between the two countries for fifty years, by which time estimated reserves will be depleted.
CMATS effectively re-instituted earlier agreements, in 1971 and 1972, with Indonesia. These agreements allocated a territorial boundary along Australia’s continental shelf, placing it much closer to Indonesia than Australia. This arrangement was based on a 1958 iteration of the Convention of the Law of the Sea.
Even then, Indonesia had objected to the continental shelf defining the boundary. Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja said of that agreement that Indonesia had been ‘taken to the cleaners’. However, the border that had been agreed to remained.
Portugal, the colonial authority in Timor-Leste at that time, had not participated in these border discussions. There thus remained a ‘gap’ in the boundary, corresponding to the Portuguese colonial territory.
Soon after Indonesia’s invasion of Timor-Leste, Australia resumed discussions with it about closing that ‘gap’. By this time, however, the Convention on the Law of the Sea had moved on. By 1982, the already contested ‘continental shelf’ argument was replaced by the convention that maritime boundaries be drawn at a point equidistant from claimant states; the so-called ‘median line’ principle. Addressing both the existing boundary arrangement with Indonesia, as well as ‘median line’ argument, and recognising the potential for oil and gas exploitation, the two countries agreed to the Timor Gap Treaty.
This treaty allocated a smaller part of the ‘gap’ exclusively to Indonesia, a larger portion to be shared between the two countries and a significant southern portion to Australia. The treaty remained unequal in terms of the median line principle, but did not disrupt the previously agreed boundary, while also allocating some of the resources of the ‘gap’ to Indonesia.
Following the finalisation of the Treaty with Indonesia, Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas infamously celebrated by toasting with champagne toast while flying over the Timor Gap. However, development of the gap’s resources had only just begun when Timor-Leste voted for independence in 1999.
It was against this background, and Timor-Leste’s desperate need to begin earning revenue, that it went into negotiations with Australia. But what Timor-Leste did not know at this time was that Australia had brought the full force of its capabilities to bear in deciding the outcome of the negotiations; Alexander Downer had ordered Australian foreign intelligence officers to bug Timor-Leste’s cabinet room, to gain inside information on Timor-Leste’s negotiating strategy.
Australia was ultimately successful in restricting Timor-Leste’s claims to those associated with the previous Indonesian agreement. The region in question—the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA) —remained jointly operated, with a smaller northern section allocated to Timor-Leste, a larger central area to be divided between the two states, and a large southern area allocated to Australia.
The rest of the boundary remained as agreed with Indonesia. While Australia agreed to relatively generous terms in the allocation of income from the field, this assumed that Australia had a legitimate territorial claim in the first place. But more importantly, it placed the most valuable part of the Timor Sea’s hydrocarbon fields, the Greater Sunrise gas field, largely in Australian territorial waters.
The Greater Sunrise field has been estimated to be worth between $40 and $50 billion, with its revenue to be divided between Australia and Timor-Leste. Woodside Petroleum—the company that has since secured the services of Alexander Downer—has the contract to develop the field. However, a separate dispute between Woodside and Timor-Leste about processing the liquid natural gas from the field has stopped further development to date.
Timor-Leste has insisted that the Greater Sunrise gas be processed on shore in Timor-Leste to help kick-start a petro-chemical industry. This is intended to generate employment and technological transfers to Timor-Leste. With support from Australia, Woodside has so far resisted, preferring an off-shore floating processing site. If Timor-Leste is successful in having the maritime boundary redrawn, it will have the whip hand in deciding where processing will take place. If Woodside continues to resist, Timor-Leste may seek an alternative development partner.
Since the beginning of negotiations, Timor-Leste has been deeply unhappy about the whole issue of the Timor Sea. It has continued to argue for a fairer allocation of income from the Sea’s resources and a more internationally acceptable maritime boundary. Until recently, however, given that a treaty is in place, its legal case has been weak. And then came evidence that Australia spied on Timor-Leste’s cabinet discussions. Timor-Leste argues that this spying means that the treaty negotiations were conducted in bad faith and hence invalidates CMATS.
Australia’s spying on Timor-Leste was confirmed by a former intelligence agent who ran the spying operation on Timor-Leste’s cabinet. Following revelations about Downer’s employment by Woodside, he provided evidence of Australia’s actions to Timor-Leste’s counsel, Canberra-based lawyer Bernard Colleary.
Last year, Timor-Leste took the matter to the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague, asking that CMATS be formally invalidated. In response, the Australian Attorney-General, George Brandis, ordered that Australian domestic intelligence agency ASIO raid Colleary’s office and seize the claimed evidence.
This seizure has since been challenged in the International Court of Justice, and the Australian government has since said it will return those documents that do not present it with a security risk. The problem, of course, is that what represents a ‘security risk’ to Australia could, like its ‘national interest’, be widely interpreted. This is not to mention that Australia has again secured inside knowledge of Timor-Leste’s position and thus advantaged itself in a way that constitutes bad faith.
Australia has not just acted badly in relation to Timor-Leste, it is being seen to have acted badly. The question will be, if Timor-Leste is successful in its claim, whether the court will send the two countries back to negotiations or whether it will rule on a median point maritime boundary.
If it is compelled to return to negotiations, the Timor-Leste government says the median line will be its minimum position. If the court rules on the median line, however, it will not need to negotiate. Either way, the result will push the maritime boundary very much closer to Australia and, in effect, put almost all of the Timor Sea oil and gas resources under Timor-Leste’s jurisdiction.
As a result, beyond controlling the Greater Sunrise gas field and existing oil and gas fields, there is also the question about whether, if a median line boundary is imposed, Australia would be required to repay the billions of dollars it has inappropriately received under CMATS.
And perhaps as importantly, a median line maritime boundary with Timor-Leste will be at significant odds with Australia’s maritime boundaries with Indonesia. While redrawing Australia’s sea boundary with Indonesia is a separate issue, this will also come under reconsideration. Such a redrawing of boundaries would significantly reduce Australia’s maritime reach and expand that of Indonesia, with significant resource and security implications for both countries.
Australia is therefore trying desperately to hold off Timor-Leste’s claim, and may yet resort to further pressurising tactics. Australian aid to Timor-Leste could come into question although, with access to greater oil and gas revenues, such aid would become redundant.
In pursuit of its narrowly defined national interest, Australia has all but officially alienated a small regional country that has wanted nothing more than to be a friend. As a friend, however, it has wanted to be treated as an equal. If Timor-Leste is successful in The Hague, it will be made equal to Australia under international law. There won’t, however, be much left of the official friendship.
Australia and Indonesia have worked hard over the past decade to build a strong bilateral relationship, seen as valuable by Indonesia and as critically important by Australia. That relationship is now in tatters.
The Australian government has been at pains to explain to Indonesia that recent naval incursions into Indonesian territorial waters, intended to stop asylum seeker boats, were unintentional. From Indonesia’s perspective, it matters little whether the incursions were intentional or just the logical if unintended consequence of a much disliked Australian government policy.
Similarly, Australia’s policy of giving asylum seekers lifeboats to return to Indonesia adds a further layer of complication to Australian policy. From Indonesia’s perspective, the flow of asylum seekers is not official Indonesian policy, but the Australian navy putting asylum seekers bound for Australia in Australian lifeboats bond for Indonesia is official Australian policy.
This policy is seen by Indonesia as diplomatically clumsy as it is objectionable. Indonesia has said, repeatedly, that it wants Australia to abandon its policy of turning back asylum seeker boats. Putting asylum seekers in lifeboats only heightens those objections.
Indonesia has now launched its own naval patrols, not to stop asylum seekers leaving Indonesia but to stop Australian naval incursions. Australian naval vessels will no doubt be extra cautious about future transgressions into Indonesian territorial waters and, beyond that, there are a series of warnings to go through before confrontation.
At best, however, the bilateral relationship is continuing to deteriorate. At worst, mistakes can happen.
The Australian navy may continue to turn (or tow) asylum seeker boats back to near Indonesian territorial waters. But it will not be able to compel asylum seeker boats to remain within them.
When the monsoonal season ends and the "sailing season" resumes, around April, the flow of asylum seeker boats is again likely to increase. The problem faced by the Australian Navy will, therefore, become more rather than less complicated.
The first question is, then, whether Australia’s defence approach to an immigration issue is sustainable. The second and larger question is whether Australia can continue to alienate, seeming indefinitely, its most important strategic relationship.
If Australia is serious about finding a long-term solution to the asylum seeker issue, it needs to work closely with Indonesia and other regional neighbors to put in place agreed and workable policies. Such policies go beyond the simple, if failed, "policing"" that existed until late last year.
Indonesia, probably Malaysia and possibly Thailand and Singapore need to have in place stricter immigration policies, to screen "onward bound" travellers. There also needs to be regional co-operation around the quicker and internationally recognised processing of those asylum seekers who do end up in the region.
Such a policy would limit the flow of asylum seekers, would meet Australia’s international obligations and would not alienate critically important relationships. However, this would require the type of trust and co-operation that Australia’s existing approach to asylum seekers has effectively ended.
The Australian government’s approach to asylum seekers worked well as a pre-election slogan, but lacked a properly developed plan. As a result, Australia has dug itself into a policy hole.
If Australia now wishes to extricate itself from this situation it must start by following the first rule of holes: when you are in one, stop digging.
From his output, ASPI’s Anthony Bergin likes nothing if not to test ideas in relation to Australia’s strategic positioning. His recent proposition that Australia is not so much a ‘middle power’ but a ‘pivotal power’ is a case in point . http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/is-australia-a-pivotal-power/
Bergin’s argument is that the common strategic descriptor for Australia as a ‘middle power’ does not accurately reflect its military size or capability, the size of its economy or its strategic reach. In each of these he is correct.
However, the term ‘pivotal power’ is complex. One understanding has it meaning more than just being relatively strategically strong. Indeed, Oxford Analytica defines it not as a quantitative assessment of strategic power but as being a geographic arbiter.http://www.oxan.com/analysis/dailybrief/pivotalpowers/default.aspx
Australia relative to Turkey, as Bergin notes, classifies them both as middle powers. But Turkey’s role with its neighbours, particularly Syria, Iraq and Israel, also mark it as a key regional actor and it is, thus, also considered to be a pivotal power. Closer to home, Indonesia occupies an arbitrating role in the ASEAN regions as well as in relations with Timor-Leste and Australia.
By comparison, Australia is a regional strategic power in the Southwest Pacific, but perhaps less so than it has been. In part this is due to the increasing sense of independence of some of the Pacific island states. In part it is also due to the more active soft power role being played by China in the region, which in turn buttresses this sense of independence – at least from Australia.
Timor-Leste, though geographically close to Australia and a major recipient of Australian aid and, at times, military assistance, has carved an increasingly independent path. If one can define Timor-Leste’s foreign policy, it is one of having a number of strong friends, so that it remains cosseted by some should relations with one turn sour.
Australia’s status in Timor-Leste has diminished, while that of Indonesia has increased. Timor-Leste’s police now train with Indonesian police, and there is an agreement that their armed forces also train together. Australia provides training to, but it does not train with, Timor-Leste’s defence force.
Australia’s strategic status is, on balance, perhaps slightly stronger, or perceived as such, than it has been, given its active participation in recent multilateral conflicts and as a preferred site for training by regional military officers. In another sense, in a strategic environment always in a state of flux, the precise status of any state will remain variable and, more to the point, interpretable.
But if Australia was to suddenly disappear from the strategic stage, the question is the extent to which it might matter. Bergin may be correct and Australia is indeed a pivotal state, if in its own peculiar way.
Australia's relationship with East Timor is at risk as the deadline looms on a hotly disputed and lucrative liquid natural gas project -- with no resolution in sight.
West Australian-based Woodside Petroleum has until February 23 to reach an agreement with the government of East Timor over the site of processing LNG or else the arrangement between the two is likely to be stopped. This would then trigger the cancellation of Australia’s sea boundary agreements with East Timor.
At this late stage it's unlikely Woodside will change its long-held position and accede to East Timor's demand that the LNG be processed on East Timor’s south coast. Woodside's preferred option is a floating processing platform at the Greater Sunrise LNG field in the Timor Sea.
As Spain’s Operacion Puerto trial neared the end of its second week, the Australian Crime Commission has released a report that exposes what it calls widespread doping in many Australian sports along with links to organized crime involved in the supply of doping products and match fixing. This report follows up the USADA Armstrong case and further exposes the lie peddled in the Anglo American world that doping in sport is something that only happens somewhere else, for example in European countries like Spain or in sports like cycling.
Australia enters 2013 reconsidering its place in a strategically shifting world. Issues close to home have stabilised and, increasingly, considerations further from Australia are being written off as a lost cause.
Australia’s peace-keeping commitment to East Timor has ended, with that country now charting an independent and, for the medium future at least, stable course. East Timor’s relations with its giant and once problematic neighbour, Indonesia, are now so positive that it has been mooted that East Timor’s defence forces might start training with Indonesia’s army.
Australia’s peace-keeping commitment to the Solomon Islands will also end this year, bringing to a close engagement in what was once referred to as the ‘arc of instability’.
From a sleepy backwater, the South Pacific has been catapulted into the diplomatic limelight, with the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in the Cook Islands playing host not just to Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, but to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and a large delegation from China. All of a sudden, the Pacific island states – a mere scattering of specks in a vast blue ocean – are at centre stage.
When Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, part of its justification was that the then ruling Fretilin intended to allow the country to become a regional base for China. Fretilin had recently assumed power, having defeated the conservative UDT’s attempted coup in August of that year. But Fretilin’s victory was viewed in Indonesia as establishing a communist base in the middle of its archipelago at a time when the Cold War was running hot and communism in the region seemed in the ascendency. At that time, Indonesia was vehemently anti-communist, having destroyed its own communist party less than a decade before and broken off diplomatic relations with China as part of the purge. The idea of China having a base, or at least a friendly country, in its midst was intolerable to Indonesia’s generals. Whether or not Fretilin intended to establish close relations with China is a moot point.