The Long War—on the ground

RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet aircrew departing for morning sortie. ‘Big History’ is all the go at the moment. This is a relatively new way of attempting to explain what’s occurring today by searching for deeper trends that are shaping events. Its popularity’s understandable—particularly when we’re confronted by a world that we can’t explain using the old ways.

The rise of ISIL, for example, seems to be a classic instance of an almost elemental force. A century ago, we might have attempted to explain its rise using the ‘great man’ theory. However unlikely a candidate, we might have tried to suggest that al-Baghdadi, ISIL’s leader, possessed unique abilities and charisma. That’s the way some explained the rise of Hitler, although in that case the thesis was challenged—some say demolished—by others as different as the polymath Herbert Spencer and the novelist Leo Tolstoy. Spencer approached the idea from a biological perspective; Tolstoy by harnessing elemental ideas about the nature of people and ‘Mother Russia’. They would have pointed to the economic chaos of the Weimar republic, giving it a central role in interpreting how Hitler came to power. They effectively destroyed the idea that leaders are anything other than the products of their societies.

Nevertheless as individuals we love a story and, as every journalist knows, wrapping events around people allows a narrative structure to take over. It makes for a better story. It’s also the way most of us, unconsciously, perceive the world. Take John Howard, for instance. It’s so easy to attribute the coalition’s longevity in office to his remarkable political skills. After all, he became the second-longest prime minister and undoubtedly does have outstanding abilities. Nevertheless hagiography’s inevitable, and so we brush aside other realities—such as that Howard was lucky to form a government in 1998, even though he lost the popular vote; that six months before the 2001 election he was trailing badly in the polls; and that in 2004 he was fortunate his opponent was Mark Latham. It’s easy to imagine how minor changes might have re-written events. And how much was the 2007 result to do with Kevin Rudd’s genius, and how much simply because of the ‘it’s time’ factor?

Big History, on the other hand, focuses on broader themes, searching for patterns. That’s what makes Peter Leahy’s new ASPI study Another century, another long war so interesting. He erects a framework that allows us to isolate the real issues driving events and place them into perspective. This establishes a context that’ll be critical because it’s the way we understand the world. Importantly, he categorically states that any solution to the current situation ‘must come from within the Muslim world’. Even more importantly, Leahy emphasises that we need to re-conceive ‘victory’. ‘It might only be partial; we might only limit, but not eliminate, terror and radical Islamism and its damage to secular societies. The focus should be on…the commitment of resources over an extended period.’

That isn’t, of course, the sort of thing a journalist wants to hear. Once a problem has been identified we want it solved—at once. So do most people. Anything else seems lazy. When Tony Abbott declared we were getting involved in the struggle to degrade ISIL, news organisations immediately demanded action, preferably things that could be reported with TV cameras. The politicians gave every indication they’d accede to our expectations. Troops were dispatched from Australia and journalists hopped on planes eager to cover the clash. That’s why I’m in the Middle East now.

Except that we’ve been disappointed. That’s because we didn’t understand the nature of this campaign. We got two things wrong. Firstly, we in the media built ISIL up into a terrifying monolith. But that was because journalists didn’t really understand what sort of organisation it is. After all, it had kidnapped and killed any reporter who was captured and the organisation had emerged, seemingly unstoppable, from nowhere. It now turns out that ISIL may be far more fragile than first thought.

It seems, for example, that just a single, carefully-targeted US bomb was enough to effectively blunt the insurgency in the north. Although only a small number of insurgents in Kobane were killed in that specific attack, they included the most fanatical of the fighters, together with a number of their leaders. They had been meeting in a particular building that was targeted with the assistance of US special forces. This one attack seems to have changed the dynamic of the fight. ISIL brought up replacements, but those weren’t nearly as effective and, as a result, the insurgents have been forced to fall back.

Their big tactical advantage, vehicles equipped with heavy machine-guns can no longer move in the open. If they do, they’ll be destroyed from above. ISIL lacks the mobile firepower necessary to dominate the battlefield. In another area west of Bagdad about 500 Iraqi soldiers have been clinging to defensive positions for weeks. Their situation is dire, but the key point is they haven’t collapsed and now they’ve got support from the air.

The military’s actually meeting the demands of the battlefield well. The only thing it’s not doing is pandering to the media and political demands to put Aussie boots on the ground.

No matter how you frame the answer to the bigger problem of the Middle East, you need to begin with a tactical solution. The West is doing this—just not as quickly and decisively as some of us might like.

Nicholas Stuart is embedded with the Australian Forces in the Middle East Area of Operations. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Revising the guidelines for US–Japan defence cooperation: a ‘global’ alliance?

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Takanami sails alongside the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell during a training event between the two ships in March 2014.Recently, the US and Japan released the Interim Report on the Revision of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation (PDF). The revision’s the first since 1997 and occurs in the context of Asia-Pacific power shifts. So countries in the region are watching closely just how much the USJapan alliance is changing, both practically and conceptually. That includes the Australian government, which has long been supportive of a more ‘active’ Japanese security and defence policy at both the regional and global level. It’s a line Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been pushing.

Indeed, the five-page interim report points to the prospect of a USJapan alliance moving beyond a narrow focus on the territorial defence of Japan against major aggression (from China or North Korea, for example). Instead, it’s based on a ‘strategic vision for a more expansive partnership’ and the need to build the alliance as a ‘platform for international cooperation that would continue to make positive contributions to the region and beyond’. It stresses that among other things future bilateral defence cooperation would focus on:

  • ‘seamless, robust, flexible, and effective bilateral responses;
  • the global nature of the U.S.-Japan Alliance; and
  • cooperation with other regional partners’.

Moreover, the report’s interesting for what it doesn’t say: in recognition of the expanding scope of geographical cooperation, the report doesn’t mention ‘situations in areas surrounding Japan’, a phrase that underpinned the 1997 guidelines.

While the 5-page document isn’t specific on details, the report provides some ideas on what these three aforementioned headings might entail. When it comes to ‘seamlessly’ ensuring Japan’s peace and security, it observes that there could be ‘cases where swift and robust responses are required to secure the peace and security of Japan even when an armed attack against Japan is not involved [italics mine]’. In other words, in theory at least, Japan could be asked to provide protection for US forces in hostile environments beyond its immediate neighbourhood; for instance in the area of ship-based ballistic-missile defence.

Concerning increased ‘cooperation for regional and global peace and security’, the document notes that ‘areas of cooperation to be described may include, but are not limited to’: peacekeeping operations; international Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief; maritime security; capacity building; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; logistics support; and non-combatant evacuation operations. While the US continues to try to reassure Japan about its security commitments (for instance, the US Navy just announced plans to forward deploy three more ballistic-missile-defence-capable destroyers to Japan over the next three years), Washington also sees the revised guidelines as a chance to move the alliance beyond Tokyo’s preoccupation with the ‘China threat’.

How likely is the emergence of a more ‘global’ USJapan alliance? The good news is that Japanese officials involved in drafting the interim report agreed to the report’s language, probably in anticipation of the Abe government’s expectations. Moreover, Japan has been stepping up its Asia-Pacific defence engagement. For example, it agreed to provide both the Philippines and Vietnam with modern Coast Guard vessels. As well, Japan and India are in talks about the possible sale of Japanese amphibious aircraft. Lastly, there’s still the prospect of a submarine deal with Australia.

But serious obstacles stand in the way of a truly global—or even regionally more active—USJapan alliance. For a start, Japan’s new ‘three conditions for the “use of force” as measures for self-defense’ still impose significant restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces in the exercise of Japan’s right of collective self-defence. If Japan decides to support the US in a regional or global contingency, it’ll probably remain strictly limited to tasks such as logistical support or minesweeping outside the area of actual combat. Moreover, despite much talk about Japan’s ‘remilitarisation’, in reality there’s no such thing. As Brad Glosserman and David Kang have observed:

Japan’s defense policies are evolving to keep pace with a changing regional environment, but the idea that Tokyo will be able to threaten its neighbors is just not credible. There is no will, nor the capability to do so.

As I’ve argued (here and here), Japan’s defence policy remains fundamentally defensive in nature. As Alessio Patalano has shown (paywalled), Japan’s naval modernisation reflects a ‘targeted enhancement’ of capabilities required for the protection of its sea lanes, particularly in the area of anti-submarine warfare and basic expeditionary capabilities to safeguard its many islands. Moreover, security reform in Japan remains a cumbersome process (PDF)—and there are already signs that attempts to flesh out at the legislative level what exactly the JSDF could or couldn’t do in support of the US in a conflict mightn’t come to fruition any time soon. Lastly, the Japanese side’s apparently frustrated that the interim report emphasises the alliance’s global role but makes no mention of China.

We’ll have to see what the final guidelines bring. But in any case, it’s prudent to expect evolutionary, not revolutionary, changes in the USJapan alliance—and in Japan’s defence policy in particular.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Command.

Gough’s remaking of foreign policy

Gough Whitlam 1973Gough Whitlam helped Australia think about finding its security in Asia, not to seek security from Asia.

Not least of Whitlam’s achievements was to make Australia colour-blind, in both word and deed. Harold Holt’s government, in 1966, started a quiet—almost covert—dismantling of the White Australia policy with camouflage language about ‘flexibility’. Whitlam’s government used trumpets and drums to kill the White Australia policy as loudly as possible. To the enduring chagrin of Liberals, Labor has claimed the policy honours, based on Whitlam’s characteristically emphatic and emotionally-charged embrace of non-discriminatory immigration.

As the Vietnam War edged to its bloody end, Whitlam’s thinking didn’t retreat from the region along with Australia’s troops. He wrote in his memoirs that ‘forward defence’ was based on the ‘xenophobic belief that Australia was best defended from Asia’. That ‘defended from Asia’ line reflected several layers of Oz nightmare. Read more

Whitlam’s dismantling of immigration xenophobia was mirrored in his language on defence:

We do not see Southeast Asia as a frontier where we might fight nameless Asian enemies as far to the north of our own shores as possible—in other people’s backyards.

In his policy speech for the 1972 election, Whitlam committed to diplomatic recognition of China, an end to military conscription and the maintenance of the alliance with the US as one of Australia’s ‘two great associations’ (the other was the Commonwealth). Whitlam made four foreign policy commitments ‘commensurate to our power and resources’:

  1. National security—the defence-of-Australia doctrine discussed in the previous post
  2. A secure, united and friendly Papua New Guinea—PNG became independent in 1975
  3. Closer relations with our nearest and largest neighbour, Indonesia
  4. Promoting peace and prosperity in our neighbourhood: ‘We should be the natural leaders of the South Pacific’.

Whitlam set a pattern for Australian commitment to the region and Australian support for regionalism that has been sustained by every subsequent government. No less an authority than John Howard nominates Whitlam as the foundational leader for the Great Asia Project that has united every leader since 1972.

Whitlam’s regionalist wins were minor (Australia as ASEAN’s first dialogue partner) compared to later achievements, especially the Hawke government’s creation of APEC and the Howard government’s seat at the East Asia Summit.

But the language and the orientation Hawke used and Howard utilised drew directly from Whitlam’s effort in his first days in office to create an Asia Pacific forum. That forum idea was quickly killed off by Indonesia, in an early demonstration of the veto ASEAN could wield over regional initiatives from Canberra.

Outlining his Asia forum idea in January, 1973, Whitlam said he didn’t want to change and enlarge ASEAN, but to create a broader regional association for Asia and the Pacific, to develop ‘a truly representative regional community’. That grouping should include all of ASEAN and, in line with ASEAN language, Whitlam said it would ‘insulate the region against ideological interference from the great powers’.

The following month, Whitlam flew to Jakarta ‘to demonstrate the political and economic interest that Australia would now take in the region’. Whitlam later remarked that Suharto was ‘frank’; indeed he was. Indonesia’s President said there weren’t enough common interests within Asia for Whitlam’s forum to be practicable. The Australian record quoted Suharto as doubting the ‘usefulness of a formal conference or organisation. This would only aggravate conflicting interests. ASEAN also needed to be consolidated beforehand’. Suharto said he wouldn’t want India as a member of an Asia Pacific grouping and there’d be questions about Chinese participation. We’ve all come a long way since then, and the journey has reflected Whitlam’s vision, not Suharto’s fears.

Whitlam’s final-and-forever embedding of a non-discriminatory immigration policy stands as a supreme achievement, domestically and internationally. It was as foundational in its meaning for Australian foreign policy as the opening to China, so well described by Ross Terrill.

Whitlam’s embrace of Indonesia was equally fundamental; Tony Abbott’s presence at the inauguration of Indonesia’s President testifies to the continuing strength of this policy strand. Ironically, Whitlam’s successful embrace of Suharto became his foreign policy nemesis—East Timor.

Whitlam put two points to Suharto in September, 1974. First, East Timor should become part of Indonesia. Second, incorporation ‘should happen in accordance with the properly expressed wishes of the people of Portuguese Timor’. As the head of Foreign Affairs, Alan Renouf, later wrote, Whitlam changed Australia’s position to a two-pronged policy when the two points were irreconcilable. Suharto embraced Whitlam’s first point and ignored the second. It took 25 years to undo the damage to Australia-Indonesia relations and the deadly costs for East Timor.

Whitlam’s East Timor blunder stemmed from his ambitions for Australia in Asia. The Timor stain touches the edge of the Whitlam toga, but it doesn’t gainsay that he was a big man who dreamed big dreams of Australia’s role in its own region. Gough Whitlam did much to launch Australia’s Great Asia Project and much that he dreamed has come to pass.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Carl Guderian.

South Australian defence industry summit

Start lineI was pleased to be invited to speak at the South Australian Government’s Defence Industry Policy Summit (PDF) earlier this week. I was invited in my role as a member of the Defence White Paper Expert Panel, and was asked to help set the scene for the discussion that followed. Here’s what I told the meeting.

Thanks for the opportunity to be here today. My topic is the Defence White Paper process, but I’m not able to say much about that as it’s still very much a work in progress. So let me give you the response I give everyone who asks me how it’s going. ‘It’s everything I expected it to be’.

In terms of this gathering, I’m not sure that the DWP is the most germane document. There are several important pieces of policy work going on in parallel, some of which will have at least as large an impact, particularly the development of a Defence Industry Policy Statement (DIPS), a shipbuilding plan and the First Principles Review of Defence’s organisation. Development of the DIPS is something that I and my Expert Panel colleague Mike Kalms were asked to take on by the Defence Minister here in Adelaide back in June. Read more

As a result of that, we’ve been touring the country to consult with industry groups and making site visits. We’ve heard some clear and consistent messages along the way from industry, and I’ve found some of the visits to be real eye-openers. I’ve been impressed with the industry capability and capacity I’ve seen in various places. That will all help inform the DIPS.

As for the DWP, I think it’s important that the discussion that ensues today takes into account the environment in which work is proceeding. Firstly, the federal government has made it clear that it’s going to continue to make major capability decisions. It has committed something like $20 billion to acquisitions such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the Triton surveillance drones. By doing so it’s avoiding the bottleneck in projects that’s accompanied previous DWPs—sometimes as much as 18 months of deferred decisions, which has a flow-on effect to ADF capability and to industry work-flow.

Second, it’s possible that major decisions will be made about shipbuilding and submarines prior to the DWP release. It’s also possible that they won’t, and I can say with high confidence that no decisions have been made to date. I think it’s fair to say that there are inclinations, but there’s still time for the sort of submission that will come from this meeting to influence the process.

Third, there’s the budget situation. In its first budget the government made good on its promise to increase defence spending. If it sticks to its pledge to reach 2% of GDP by 2023/24, Treasury forecasts suggest that the budget that year will be around $45 billion in today’s terms. That compares to this year’s $29 billion, amounting to an additional $16 billion to invest. That’s a lot of additional capability that can be acquired, and a lot of industry support to be purchased. There should be plenty of opportunity for industry. Not so much in the first few years, as there’s a shortfall from the underfunding of the 2009 DWP that has to be made up, but in the years to come there’ll be lots of new investment.

Finally, but possibly most importantly, there’s a whole-of-government policy environment that has to be taken into account. That’s worth studying for clues about government thinking on industry and innovation. A good place to start is the new Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda (PDF) released last week. It had several policy objectives of relevance here, most notably boosting competitiveness and fostering ‘excellence, not dependence’. It also identified five growth sectors, which represent areas of comparative advantage in the Australian economy. The one of most relevance to defence is ‘advanced manufacturing’,

The Agenda observes that Asian countries are increasingly reducing trade barriers, reducing inefficient public spending, reducing taxes and improving competitiveness. In that environment, Australian industry will have to be innovative, be working at world’s best practice standards, nimble and—in the defence space—provide a capability-edge for the ADF. When putting forward business cases for defence industry investment, they’ll need to be couched in terms of competitive advantage and capability edge, not just ‘net benefit’, however calculated.

Finally, let me swap hats and become an ASPI commentator for a minute. As those of you who read The Strategist—which should be required reading—would know, I was much impressed by the productivity gains I saw in local shipyards recently. The touch labour productivity on the AWD is showing a learning of about 20% between vessels one and two, with a projection of between 10 and 15% from vessels two to three. That’s close to world standard.

Similarly, the Collins availability is much improved, suggesting that the Collins story is more about lack of resources than poor industry performance. Actually, it’s probably a combination of both, but increasing resources has enabled better performance. ASC has some way to go to be world’s best practice standard, but the trend is good.

One final comment. When I read today’s press clippings, I saw the call for a competition for the design and construction of the future submarines. As I’ve said before, that’s the way to do it.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Andi Sidwell.

Cyber wrap

Finally occupied: Staff from Australia’s defence, law enforcement and intelligence agencies that will form the Australian Cyber Security Centre have begun moving into the Ben Chifley Building.It has been a busy week for those on the international cyber circuit. ICANN51 wrapped up in Los Angeles on Thursday and the three week ITU Plenipotentiary (PP-14) in Busan kicked off on Monday. Those events are critical as cooperation, and friction, on international cyber issues grow and the IANA stewardship transition plods ahead. You can follow the PP-14 livestream here or with the hashtag #Plenipot14.

South Korea will be taking full advantage of host-country privileges at PP-14; it has 17 minster-level bilateral meetings planned, and hopes to sign MoU’s to establish ties on software, cyber security, and information infrastructure. The United States will also have its hands full as it implements a full-court press to prevent a UN vote on the future of the Internet, with the end goal of buying more time for a true multi-stakeholder model to develop.

Back in the US homeland it’s all about thinking small. The US DHS is kicking off week three of its National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, with a focus on cybersecurity for small and medium-sized businesses. Jan Kallberg examines the challenges of disseminating cyber resilience down to the state and local level. The White House is chopping up its cyber policy in the hopes of helping an irritable Congress digest much-needed efforts. And President Obama is looking out for the little guy, issuing an Executive Order to boost consumer-information security. Read more

While most countries might buckle under such a full agenda, the US is—apparently—still finding time to be the ‘world’s largest cyberespionage attacker’. Naturally, such ‘mistaken policies’ must be reversed before China could consider resuming any cyber dialogue or cooperation. The Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi has unequivocally placed the blame on the US for the current freeze in relations after meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in Boston. Minister Jiechi stated that ‘dialogue and cooperation between China and the U.S. in the field of cybersecurity is faced with difficulty due to the wrong actions taken by the American side’.

Despite that animosity, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper points directly at Russia as the main cyber threat to the US. A Russian hacking group, with suspected ties to the Russian government, has been singled out as the likely culprit of attacks on NATO, the Ukrainian government, and other targets. The attacks have seen weaponised PowerPoint documents exploiting a major vulnerability, dubbed Sandworm, in Microsoft operating systems.

Closer to home, staff from the Australian Signals Directorate, CERT Australia, the Defence Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Federal Police have begun moving into the Australian Cyber Security Centre’s digs on the shores of Lake Burley-Griffin. With keys in hand, Major General Stephen Day suggested that the Centre would be functional by November and fully operational by December. While a new home with all the top tech is useful, it’s important to remember that people are the key to strong cyber security. When it comes to hiring, Private Aaron Creighton reminds us that tech prowess is important, but to keep up with developments in technology and execute successful cyber operations, the intangible is passion for network security.

Speaking of hiring, the always excellent Planet Money took a look at the male-female gap in computer science. Check out the podcast to find out why the number of women in computer science flattened and plunged after 1984. It’d make for a good conversation-starter at the launch of the ASPI-Lockheed Martin Women in Defense and Security Network.

And the top Australian cyber news of the week, CSI:Cyber will broadcast in our fair nation. Tune in to the Ten Network to watch Lil-Bow Wow and the gang solve groovy cyber mysteries.

Klée Aiken is an analyst in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Australia–Indonesia bilateral relationship: strategic design or muddling through?

Le Monstre RollercoasterLate last year, as the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia struggled with the revelations of the spying scandal, Colin Brown, an adjunct professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, described the history of the relationship in a carnival metaphor:

For anyone interested in Australia–Indonesia relations, nothing so characterises the phenomenon as a car on a roller-coaster. Any rise is followed inevitably by a fall. The ride is never boring, and in a bizarre kind of way it is quite predictable. But sometimes you might hope for a little more stability, a few more moments of calm.

That image of the roller-coaster is an old one—Brown himself has used it before. Indeed, it’s been around long enough (and been true long enough) to induce a weariness in even the most determined optimist. But in this post I’m hoping to convince readers that, strategically, there’s still much to play for here. Read more

Let’s start by looking at Southeast Asia. The table below, constructed from the publicly-available data in the CIA World Factbook, provides a quick economic snapshot of the ASEAN countries based on 2013 estimates. I’ve appended Australia at the bottom of the list just to give a sense of relative economic size.

If we look at the ASEAN figures first, it’s obvious that ASEAN isn’t a collection of evenly-sized economies. If we focus on the purchasing-power-parity measurement of GDP, we see in ASEAN one large economy (Indonesia), five middle-sized economies (Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam), and four dwarves (Myanmar, Cambodia, Brunei and Laos).

GDP (US$)(PPP) GDP (US$)(Official Exchange Rate) Real growth rate Per capita (US$)(PPP)
Brunei $22.25bn $16.56bn 1.4% $54,800
Cambodia $39.64bn $15.64bn 7% $2,600
Indonesia $1,285bn $867.5bn 5.3% $5,200
Laos $20.78bn $10.1bn 8.3% $3,100
Malaysia $525bn $312.4bn 4.7% $17,500
Myanmar/Burma $111.1bn $59.43bn 6.8% $1,700
Philippines $454.3bn $272.2bn 6.8% $4,700
Singapore $339bn $295.7bn 4.1% $62,400
Thailand $673bn $400.9bn 2.9% $9,900
Vietnam   $358.9bn $170bn 5.3% $4,000
Australia $998.3bn $1,488bn 2.5% $43,000

Compared with the ASEAN countries, Australia’s economy is poised between Indonesia’s and Thailand’s. It’s not really like Thailand’s, though, and we can see that by looking at the GDP estimates based on official exchange rates, where’s Australia’s economy is three-and-a-half times the size of Thailand’s. So the two dominant economies in Southeast Asia are Indonesia’s and ours. Between us, we have the first requirement for a meaningful partnership: shared economic strength.

We also have something else that might empower a strategic partnership—a set of complementarities. Analysts often say the relationship has no ‘ballast’; that it’s all sail and no rudder, regularly blown off course by the winds of public opinion. Turning the issue around, though, we have an opportunity to nurture a set of complementarities with Jakarta: we’re a developed economy with a small population and good contacts in the Western world; they’re a developing economy with a large population and good contacts in the Islamic and non-aligned worlds. Those complementarities could form the basis for a genuine partnership—if will exists in both capitals to pursue one.

A third driver of a strategic partnership is a shared sense of strategic transformation: we both live in a region that’s having strategic significance thrust upon it. That’s important. Previously we’ve had plenty of scope to rehearse our differences at the regional level. But with more great powers wanting to play in Southeast Asia’s space these days, we share an interest in nurturing what the Indonesians would call ‘regional resilience’ and what we might call ‘a Southeast Asian power core’.

So far, I’ve put a positive spin on a future partnership. So why don’t we have one? Three reasons. First, the drivers I’ve pointed to above are all abstract. In the reality of everyday events—like boat people, live cattle exports, spying scandals, and drug trafficking incidents—abstract similarities get lost. Second, the complementarities that I identify arise because we’re so different. As Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant observed in their work Australia’s Foreign Relations, ‘No two neighbours anywhere in the world are as comprehensively unalike as Australia and Indonesia’. And third, there’s the issue of priorities. Neither of us prizes a partnership highly enough to make it work. That might be changing. In 2013 we had a conservative political leader campaigning on the slogan of ‘more Jakarta, less Geneva’—but then again Geneva’s never ranked that highly in Australian strategic policy.

So where does that leave us? It means we’ll have a stronger strategic partnership in the future, but it’s as likely to grow from a policy of muddling through as it is from a policy of strategic design. If we want to push a particular design of a partnership, we’re going to have to put heavyweight political muscle behind it. On occasion, the Abbott government does signal that it’s prepared to do that. Still, others have been here before. Paul Keating made a serious effort to improve a relationship he saw as ‘a thin foreign policy crust covering a disappointingly hollow core’. The important difference this time round is Asian transformation: if that doesn’t drive us to work more closely together, I suspect nothing will. It’s do-or-die time for the Australian–Indonesian strategic partnership.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Alexis Gravel.

Gough’s remaking of Defence policy

Phuoc Tuy Province, Vietnam. 10 October 1966. Gough Whitlam, then Deputy Leader of the Federal Opposition, has a laugh during a talk with Private Wayne Weldon of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.Gough Whitlam was a physical giant with an intellect to match. His flaws were pretty sizeable, too, and the pygmies who beset him were often from his own party. His self-mocking humour was immensely appealing, and could only be carried off by someone with giant status: ‘I’ve never said I’m immortal. I do believe in correct language. I’m eternal; I’m not immortal’.

The Strategist is the right place to appreciate the bigness of the man’s ambitions—and significant achievements in foreign and defence policy. This post will consider Defence.

During his three years in government, from 1972 to 1975, in the agony of the final days of the Vietnam War, Whitlam delivered Australia two immensely valuable strategic benefits that are still central today. He held on to the US alliance and he helped give birth to an understanding that Australia could defend itself. The two thoughts aren’t truly opposed and Whitlam’s achievement was to embrace them both in ways that made it possible for them to become the heart of Australian defence policy, strongly supported by both sides of politics. Read more

Whitlam’s coming to power was the moment when Australia could’ve turned away from the US alliance. In the dark days of Opposition, Jim Cairns went close to beating Whitlam in a close-run caucus leadership ballot. The vote was all about an acid question aimed at their giant leader—‘Whose party is it, his or ours?’ Luckily, Labor decided it was Whitlam’s party.

A Cairns leadership—or merely a post-Whitlam leadership—could’ve seen Labor go down the road David Lange took New Zealand. The bitterness and disillusion of Vietnam would’ve been the context and the cause would’ve been ALP opposition to US bases in Australia. Nixon’s intense displeasure at the critical comments about Vietnam coming from the new Australian government would’ve meant there was no mood of compromise in Washington.

Whitlam preserved the core structure of ANZUS and fought off the efforts of the ALP Left to close the US intelligence and communications bases. Hanging on to the alliance was an important call, and Whitlam made it. Part of the trick was the rhetoric about a new and more confident Australia that shifted beyond a subservient dependence on the US. After Nixon’s ‘Guam doctrine’ moment in 1969—allies would have ‘primary responsibility’ for their own defence—Australia had started to grapple with the implications of the demise of ‘forward defence’ in Southeast Asia and what a Defence-of-Australia policy might look like.

Under Whitlam, the Arthur Tange revolution was launched upon the Defence Department, amalgamating five departments and giving birth to the term ‘Australian Defence Force’. The conceptual changes that swept through Canberra meant that it was the Fraser government in 1976 that brought down an accurate rendering of the new defence policy Tange had created for Whitlam.

After the bitter political division over Vietnam, conscription and the alliance, the Whitlam Labor and Fraser Liberal governments enshrined a bipartisan defence consensus that has lasted more than 40 years. Australia could create an independent capability for its own defence and action in its own region that reinforced rather than weakened the US alliance.

To see Whitlam’s role in that achievement, see that first Australian Defence White Paper in 1976 (PDF) as a joint Whitlam-Fraser achievement, delivered by Fraser but built by Whitlam. At its core were Whitlam’s thoughts about the need for Australia’s ‘new role’ and the stress on the need for Australia to be self-reliant:

We no longer base our policy on the expectation that Australia’s Navy or Army or Air Force will be sent abroad as part of some other nation’s force, supported by it. We do not rule out an Australian contribution to operations elsewhere if the requirement arose … But we believe that any operations are much more likely to be in our own neighbourhood than in some distant or forward theatre, and that our Armed Services will be conducting joint operations together as the Australian Defence Force.

The battle over what those thoughts mean for the ADF still rages in Canberra, but Whitlam’s role in putting them at the heart of Australian policy (and quickly moving on from the trauma of Vietnam) is unarguable.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Reflections on Whitlam

Gough Whitlam by Clifton Pugh

In memory of Gough Whitlam (1916–2014) and his contribution to Australian foreign policy, we republish here a brief excerpt from Ross Terrill’s ASPI Strategy paper, Facing the dragon, on Whitlam’s 1971 visit to China:

Zhou Enlai welcomed Whitlam to the East Chamber of the Great Hall of the People, with its leaping murals and crimson carpets. Present also were Chinese Foreign Minister Ji Pengfei and Trade Minister Bai Xiangguo. Zhou, a slight, handsome man with a theatrical manner, was all in grey except for a red ‘Serve the People’ badge, black socks inside his sandals, and black hair flecking the grey.

Whitlam gave Zhou a good account of Australia’s foreign policy, but showed little understanding of the impact of the split between Beijing and Moscow on Chinese and American thinking. The premier spent minutes criticising former US secretary of state John Foster Dulles for his policies of ‘encircling China’. He reached for his tea mug, sipped, and went on, ‘Today, Dulles has a successor in our northern neighbour’. Whitlam said ‘You mean Japan?’ Zhou was curt in response: ‘Japan is to the east of us—I said to the north’.

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No doubt it was hard for a leader on the Australian left to accept that Mao’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might think of the Soviet Union as an enemy. In the exchanges about Dulles, the encircling of China and the Vietnam War, Whitlam unwisely volunteered that ‘The American people will never allow an American president to again send troops to another country’. Of course, they’ve done so numerous times since 1971, often without Chinese opposition.

If Zhou was tough on the Soviet Union, he was almost as tough on Japan. He feared that the Nixon Doctrine, asking for self-reliance on the part of US allies in Asia, would turn Japan into America’s ‘vanguard in East Asia’. He called it ‘the spirit of using Asians to fight Asians’ or, coining a new term, ‘using Austral-Asians to fight Asians’.

One of his strongest criticisms of Moscow, indeed, was its failure to oppose ‘Japanese militarism’. He feared that Japan would develop nuclear weapons. ‘Look at our so-called ally’, Zhou said to Whitlam of the Soviet Union. ‘They are in warm relations with the Sato government of Japan and also engaged in warm discussions on so-called ‘nuclear disarmament’ with the Nixon government, while China, their ally, is threatened by both of these.’

‘Is your own ally so very reliable?’ the Chinese premier challenged Whitlam. ‘They have succeeded in dragging you onto the Vietnam battlefield. How is that defensive? That is aggression.’ To his credit, Whitlam defended ANZUS. Later, Whitlam told me that he was surprised Zhou hadn’t attacked the American intelligence facilities in Australia. In fact, the omission was a sign that Mao was no longer as worried about the US as about the Soviet Union. However, the Chinese Foreign Minister did raise with Whitlam China’s unease that Australia had troops stationed in Singapore and Malaysia.

When the Labor leader expressed acceptance of the ‘One China’ principle that Beijing asked of foreign partners, the premier said crisply, ‘So far this is only words. When you return to Australia and become prime minister you will be able to carry out actions’.

And this reflection:

In December 1972, Prime Minister Whitlam, taking streamlined steps generally impossible in Washington, within a month of taking office reached agreement with Beijing on diplomatic relations, cut relations with Taiwan, and appointed the first Australian ambassador to the PRC. There were critics of the haste. Hugh Dunn (later the only Australian diplomat to be ambassador in both Taiwan and Beijing) was told by Chinese ambassador Huang Zhen, who negotiated with Australian ambassador Alan Renouf in Paris, that ‘Australia’s was the easiest’ of all negotiations over recognition he had handled. Observed Dunn, ‘The Chinese knew we wished to reach agreement quickly … one should never negotiate against a unilaterally self-imposed deadline’. Still, most Australians felt the step was overdue.

Ross Terrill is an associate of Harvard’s Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies. Image courtesy of Flickr user Bobby Graham.

No to backburner, yes to a two-track strategy

Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, addresses the general debate of the sixty-ninth session of the General Assembly. President Rouhani  indicated in his speech that Iran would co-operate on 'very important regional issues, such as combating violence and extremism', while demanding concessions in the P5+1 nuclear talks.Iran’s securing nuclear weapons would destabilise a region already suffering from mass upheaval, in addition to having dire security implications for the rest of the world. Multilateral efforts to deter the sadistic actions of ISIS, a crucial priority, seem to have distracted from international efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program. As identified in the recent post by Andrew Nikolic, a nuclear Iran remains a broader strategic priority and potentially worse threat.

Those multilateral efforts have been further complicated by Iran’s promise to fight ISIS, with President Rouhani indicating to the UN General Assembly last month that Iran would co-operate on ‘very important regional issues, such as combating violence and extremism’, while demanding concessions in the P5+1 nuclear talks. With reports over the past months of Iran sending Guards in to wage a conflict already being fought by the US, ‘both sides will have an interest in not allowing a confrontation or increased tension over the nuclear issue to interfere with the campaign against ISIS’, as noted by Gary Samore, former White House Co-ordinator for Arms Control. Read more

Ostensible co-operation between the US and Iran on a common threat changes the dynamics of the talks. Complicating the situation even further are different messages coming from each power, with Susan Rice insisting the US held some ‘informal consultations’ with Iran about regional issues, while Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has claimed that the US approached Iran to seek assistance in combating ISIS.

There are limited prospects for the P5+1 achieving a sustainable outcome from their negotiations with Tehran while world powers are simultaneously distracted by the need to combat an urgent and highly-visible threat. The supposed alignment of objectives between the US and Iran has seemingly eroded both the sense of urgency about an effective agreement and ability to achieve one. As noted by Clifford D. May in the Washington Times:

The Islamic State’s flamboyant barbarism has been consuming the oxygen, making it easy to forget that Iran has long been, according to the US State Department, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.

The ISIS threat, while theoretically facilitating short-term co-operation between the US and Iran, in the longer-term may well strengthen Iran’s resolve to further its long-standing nuclear ambitions. As former US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey pointed out (paywalled):

It (ISIS) can destabilise neighbouring states, including Jordan and even Saudi Arabia, drawing on networks of sympathisers in these countries. This could lead to an even greater threat to regional stability… and encourage Iran and other states to seek (and possibly use) nuclear weapons.

Further, AIJAC Executive Director Colin Rubenstein writing in The Australian recently commented:

A significant concern is that the critical efforts to stop an Iranian bomb will be sidelined—or, worse still, Iran and its proxies will be empowered as a result… There is reportedly little progress on the two key issues essential for any nuclear deal… greatly reducing the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges… and stopping construction of the Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor, which will produce easily-weaponised plutonium.

The focus on ISIS is important not only for the fate of nuclear proliferation in Iran but, as Nikolic identified, relevant to other states, including North Korea. The Six-Party Talks are still in a hiatus, despite China and Russia suggesting they could soon resume.

With the talks in Vienna facing a November deadline, it remains a strategic imperative that the international focus on ISIS not distract from ensuring Iran can neither secure nuclear weapons, nor produce them on demand. The only solution is for the West to pursue a two-track strategy: combating ISIS in a way that doesn’t undermine the effectiveness of the P5+1 talks, whilst ensuring that the negotiations don’t allow Iran’s actions against ISIS to distract from the necessity of a viable outcome.

Glen Falkenstein is a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. Image courtesy of the United Nations.

FPDA—not fade away

Echidna on the RunThree years ago the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) celebrated its 40th birthday, an anniversary that sparked a flutter of international curiosity about this most eclectic of regional security frameworks. By way of animal analogy, the FPDA is an echidna among defence accords: shy, long-lived, unassuming—somewhat odd-looking. Since 2011, it has arguably reverted to type, humbly re-occupying its niche as a sub-treaty legacy agreement, on a separate track to the region’s fast-evolving security architecture. As noted by Tim Huxley in 2012, the FPDA’s ‘anachronistic’ image has tended to obscure its advantages as a unique, evolving tool in Australia’s defence diplomacy. Subsequent developments have borne out that potential, although the FPDA—in its unspectacular way—struggles to compete for attention within a menagerie of competing, ‘alpha’ strategic priorities.

Dubbed the ‘quiet achiever’ by Carl Thayer, the FPDA’s low profile belies a brisk tempo of multinational air, naval, land and command-post exercises held regularly under its auspices among Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Boilerplate-text aside, Australia’s 2013 White Paper was surprisingly effusive on the Five Power arrangements, noting that membership ‘provides Australia with a strategically important presence in Southeast Asia that augments bilateral and other multilateral engagement’. Despite this there’s little public awareness of what the FPDA is for, or the prominent role that Australia plays within it: for instance the fact that a two-star Australian Air Vice-Marshal commands the peninsula-wide Integrated Area Defence System (IADS) from the Malaysian air base at Butterworth—more than a quarter century after the last RAAF squadron was withdrawn from there. Read more

Indonesia’s still the most important external factor bearing upon the FPDA. Although not officially acknowledged, the FPDA was created in the shadow of Confrontation as the successor to the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement, to provide a non-binding level of deterrence to Malaysia and Singapore against the return of Indonesian demagoguery (the arrangement obliges parties simply to consult in case of external attack on the Peninsula). As Canberra has embraced Indonesia’s post-Soeharto democratisation, and pursued a bilateral compact with Jakarta as its strategic priority in Southeast Asia, so the FPDA has lost some of its lustre for Australia. Singapore and Malaysia view their larger neighbour with continuing caution and are less sanguine about the prospects for defence engagement. That explains the continuing strong support for the FPDA in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, even as their own improving relationship has rendered the arrangements less important as a conduit for managing cross-Causeway tensions.

Improving strategic relations with Indonesia is likely to remain Australia’s most important security objective in Southeast Asia, for obvious reasons. However, Jakarta’s abrupt, prolonged freeze on security cooperation, in retaliation for the Snowden revelations, has brought home the vicissitudes in the bilateral relationship—and the dangers of overloading the Indonesian basket when it comes to Australia’s defence engagement in Southeast Asia. By contrast, the FPDA has continued to accumulate quiet achievements. If Canberra doesn’t share quite the same perceptions of Indonesia as its Southeast Asian partners, its difficulties with Jakarta over the past year nonetheless underscore the value of FPDA dependability—and the risks of over-reliance upon a single partner within the region.

Unlike the echidna, the FPDA has at least adjusted its gait to move with the times, re-badging IADS from integrated air defence to area defence as far back as 2001. Exercise and interoperability themes have since been broadened from conventional defence to HADR and maritime security. FPDA was not publicly invoked during the search for MH 370, but the disaster has focused an operational spotlight on the need for integrated air surveillance and SAR coordination across Southeast Asia and beyond. The apparent failure to track the airliner as it passed north of Butterworth was not IADS’ finest hour. But the continuing multinational search operation has unquestionably benefited from the institutionalised trust built up between Malaysia and its fellow FPDA members. With Singapore recently unveiling a new Regional Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Coordination Centre, HADR collaboration within FPDA is probably set to expand further.

With an eye to more strategic concerns, while the geographical purview of FPDA is limited to the Malay Peninsula and its maritime approaches, naval and air exercises are held in the southerly reaches of the South China Sea. Extending those to East Malaysia on an ad hoc basis would send an important, non-provocative signal of the Five Powers’ commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight.

Although the perception that the UK no longer pulls its military weight within FPDA is a common source of complaint, the de facto senior external partner status that confers on Australia is a net plus. The FPDA is unique as a multilateral defence framework in the western Pacific, and one of the few fora where Australia’s present and America absent. Diplomatically, that’s surely advantageous for a country that struggles to shake off the ‘deputy-sheriff’ moniker in Southeast Asia. From a military point of view, the major limitation on the FPDA going forward may in fact be Malaysia’s laggard level of defence capability. As a consequence, Singapore and Australia may be led to exercise bilaterally on a more regular basis. The FPDA’s flexible enough to accommodate that, though it’ll require careful diplomatic management.

With the White Paper pending, Australia could start by giving fresh consideration to the FPDA, not as a legacy throwback to forward defence or a deviation from partnership with Indonesia, but as a flexible, proven platform to serve its security interests in Southeast Asia.

Euan Graham is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user Jason Wong

Is Australia’s influence over Papua New Guinea declining?

Peter O'Neill Papua New GuineaAustralian Defence white papers have long identified the strategic import of ‘a secure South Pacific and Timor-Leste’. As renowned strategic thinker T.B. Millar once reflected, Papua New Guinea is an ‘an exposed and vulnerable front door’, as if it was in ‘hostile hands’ it would ‘make attacks on our east coast much easier—Port Moresby, after all, is closer to Sydney than Darwin is’.

Australia is Papua New Guinea’s largest aid and military donor (primarily via the Defence Cooperation Program and the Pacific Patrol Boat program), and trade  and investment  partner. Australia also effectively gave PNG a security guarantee under the 1987 Joint Declaration of Principles, as reaffirmed in the 2000 Defence White Paper (PDF). Consequently, Australia has been able to exercise considerable influence over Papua New Guinea for much of the period since its independence.

This situation is changing. Papua New Guinea now has new opportunities which are eroding Australia’s influence. Read more

First, changes to the broader Asia-Pacific power structure have generated geopolitical opportunities. The ‘rise’ of China has motivated the United States to ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific. While there is only a minimal risk that China and the United States will engage in zero-sum competition for military influence, both powers have engaged more extensively with Papua New Guinea in the diplomatic, aid and economic realms. Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia, Iran, Cuba, Russia and the United Arab Emirates are also becoming involved as aid donors and diplomatic partners. As Papua New Guinea has more choice of external partners, it no longer necessarily needs to identify itself as falling within an uncontested Australia and New Zealand sphere of influence.

Second, that increased choice has opened up regional opportunities. Since 1971, the dominant regional political institution has been the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), comprising all independent regional states, along with Australia and New Zealand. Empowered by their greater choice of partners and encouraged by an emboldened Fiji, Papua New Guinea and other regional states are creating, or strengthening, alternative regional and sub-regional institutions and organisations such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group and Pacific Islands Development Forum that exclude Australia, New Zealand and other traditional partners.

Papua New Guinea is also a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and is seeking full membership of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which it currently has observer status. Papua New Guinea, along with Fiji and Vanuatu, has also joined the Non-Aligned Movement. Fiji has encouraged South Pacific states to form an alternative caucus grouping at the United Nations, the ‘Pacific Small Island Developing States’ (PSIDS) group, which has effectively replaced the PIF in this role.

Papua New Guinea’s growing confidence has been enhanced by its economic opportunities. Its Southern Highlands are home to the massive Exxon-Mobil LNG project, which it is predicted will generate total revenue for the government of about US$31bn to 2040.  It also receives revenue from several other natural resource projects, including the $1.5bn Ramu nickel mine, in which Chinese companies have invested, and has the potential for deep-sea mining.

As a result of its opportunities, Papua New Guinea is less likely to be susceptible to Australian influence in the future.

The most notable recent example of Australia’s declining influence are the circumstances surrounding the arrangements to process and resettle asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea. These arrangements have their antecedents in the 2001 ‘Pacific Solution’, which introduced processing of asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru (it ended in 2008). In exchange, Australia made no additional development assistance payments to Papua New Guinea.

In contrast, under the 2013 arrangements, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill demanded—and received—a total re-alignment of Australia’s aid program to support his government’s priorities. Australia has agreed to provide an extra $420m of development assistance, on top of the projected $507.2m in assistance budgeted for Papua New Guinea in 2013–14.

Moreover, when the arrangement was agreed, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd indicated his understanding that most refugees would be resettled in Papua New Guinea. This belief was shared by Tony Abbott. In March 2014, O’Neill contradicted both Rudd and Abbott by announcing that Papua New Guinea will only resettle ‘some’ people whose claims are recognised. While O’Neill recanted that statement in April 2014, the fact that he felt empowered to openly contradict two Australian prime ministers suggests a growing degree of confidence in Papua New Guinea’s attitude to Australia.

Australia may find itself with less influence over its relationship with Papua New Guinea in the future, which will have important strategic implications. Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear that the Australian government has come to this realisation.

Joanne Wallis is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, where she also convenes the Asia-Pacific Security program. The journal article on which this post is based was recently published in Security Challenges and is available here. Image courtesy of Flickr user Global Panorama.

Australia–Indonesia relations under Jokowi

GarudaThe first thing that Joko Widodo will think about when he wakes up today, the day of his inauguration as president, won’t be Indonesia’s relationship with Australia. Nor, for that matter, with the other countries represented at his inauguration. By contrast, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott prepares for his day in Jakarta, he’ll be especially conscious of the importance of a good first contact with the new president.

Abbott’s gesture of attending the inauguration, as his predecessors John Howard and Kevin Rudd did in 2004 and 2009, will make its own statement, while any exchange they might have during the day’s crowded agenda will necessarily be focused on delivering some key impressions, and if possible some key messages. It’s good that, thanks to effective work by Australian ministers and officials, and a certain degree of indulgence by outgoing President Yudhoyono, the two leaders don’t have immediate contentious issues to bring to their first encounter (as Rudd brought the Oceanic Viking asylum-seekers issue to his Inauguration Day encounter with Yudhoyono). Read more

Too often, there has been a tendency on both sides to view the relationship through the lens of challenges in the relationship, and that can overshadow some enduring positive trends and attitudes. Those are worth reiterating, but a preliminary cautionary note is called for.

In recent months, comments on prospects for Jokowi’s handling of foreign relations have, rightly, pointed to his lack of experience in the international environment. More recently, in a range of contacts between Jokowi and foreign visitors and diplomats, he hasn’t shown any great level of interest in international issues, except to the extent that those might affect things with which he’s familiar, such as Indonesia’s investment and business environment. Given that he’ll have an understandable preoccupation with getting his domestic political arrangements in order, the prospect seems to be for a new president who’ll take some time to develop his own approach to foreign dealings. And a real factor will be that his command of English isn’t yet such as to make him comfortable in meetings, like those in ASEAN, which are conducted in English. Putting those considerations together, there must be a question whether he will attend all the various summits (APEC, G20, East Asia Summit/ASEAN) scheduled in the near future.

It’s probably true to say that the new president has less experience or knowledge of Australia than any of his predecessors. He would have at the most only the sketchiest view of the extent of Australia–Indonesia relations, nor would he have more than the beginning of an idea for how the relationship might be approached in future. He may not announce his cabinet and other appointments for some days, and many of those will have particular significance for Australia, including foreign affairs, trade, defence, agriculture, mining, police, customs and immigration. He has announced his intention to appoint technocrats rather than politicians to some of the key areas and that will bring some collective memory of dealings with Australia into the new administration.

Some of those memories will be positive. These include effective cooperation between the two countries in counterterrorism; their joint promotion of regional initiatives in areas like disaster preparedness, counterterrorism and sustainable fisheries; long-standing defence and development relationships; and extensive assistance to Indonesian agencies dealing with issues including transport safety and security, immigration and finance. But on the other hand, there’ll be memories of issues, including relatively recent issues, where the two countries have had highly-visible fallings-out, notably on boats and spying allegations.

For its part, the Australian government will have clear ideas about where it’ll want to develop the relationship with Indonesia, both for the long term and in the immediate future. Those will include some familiar security and development agendas; and working to expand the currently undercooked trade, investment and people-to-people relationships. The government’s well aware of the nationalistic and protectionist sentiments which have been evident across the political spectrum in Indonesia during the election campaign and since; and of the potential for such sentiments to affect Australian commercial interests in areas like agricultural exports and mining, as well as the negotiation of the mooted Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

For the next few months at least, Australia will be dealing with a president, and an administration, working their way into the job and not primarily focused on external relations. On past experience, we may see a tendency to activism from Australia in the form of ministerial contacts with the new government. That may also be a testing period if issues arise that press nationalistic buttons on the Indonesian side, and a resurgence of the boats issue would be perhaps the most worrying of any such prospect, given the Australian government’s political imperatives.

Bill Farmer is a former Australian Ambassador to Indonesia. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user hadi.