Articles by " Graeme Dobell"

The Oz PM’s 10 points for meeting Jokowi

Australia Indonesia PartnershipIn the next few months, Australia’s leader will have four opportunities to spend quality time with Indonesia’s new president.

Prime Minister Abbott can (will/should/must) attend Jokowi’s inauguration in Jakarta in October, following the precedent John Howard established with SBY. Then in November, the new President and the Oz PM can meet at three summits: APEC in Beijing, the East Asia Summit in Burma, and the G20 in Brisbane.

Disregard the jest that the only change from summit to summit is the fancy shirts in the leaders’ photo op—although I admit to describing one APEC mountaintop moment as high diplomacy and low fashion.

In a region short on trust that is groping desperately—gasping even—for a bit of law and order those summits are gold. Read more

Using even the narrowest of bilateral Indonesia-Australia calculations, the succession of summits is a chance for a meeting of minds and a rolling dialogue. The two leaders can start anew after recent ructions. That alone vindicates all Australia’s work on creating and growing APEC, the decade of push and persuasion (and pleading) to get a seat at ASEAN’s version of Asia’s top table, and the work by the Howard and Rudd governments to see the G20 knock off the G7.

Ever eager to help, The Strategist offers a 10-point brief Tony Abbott can use going into those meetings with Jokowi. These verities loom above big policy issues like ‘stop the boats’ or ‘stop the spying’. The points draw on the two previous columns (here and here) and on decades listening to Jamie Mackie.

In particular, the brief reflects a report Jamie wrote in 2007, packing into 150 pages the essence of a lifetime. If you have to think about Australia and Indonesia, download the Mackie magic here.

Any smarts in the following brief, credit Mackie; the dumb stuff is mine.

1. Indonesia and Australia are the two most dissimilar neighbours in the world. We have little in common, except…..

2. We now share something vital and defining—democracy. Democracy is a major change in what we can imagine about each other—or what Australia can understand about Indonesia.

3. The asymmetric or appendix rule: we worry about them a lot more than they worry about us. For Jakarta, Australia is like your appendix—you only think about it when it hurts.

4. Indonesia and Australia agree on the regional and strategic importance of a unified and strong Indonesia. Any military threat to Australia will come ‘from or through’ Indonesia. Our ideal is a strong, prosperous and peaceful Indonesia that serves as our ‘strategic shield.’ We have reworked that language in the deal to end the Edward Snowden blizzard, resuming intelligence and military cooperation and creating a new code of conduct on Australian spying on Indonesia (whereby we tell the President we promise not to tap his phone).

5. You may achieve a strong personal relationship with Jokowi, Prime Minister, but national interest always beats personal chemistry. Our two nations see the world in completely different ways (see Point 1). Of course, trust and some understanding between leaders always helps, especially in a crunch moment when you want to phone the President.

6. Indonesia frames Australia’s view of Southeast Asia and sets the temperature for the ASEAN relationship. Sayeth Mackie: ‘We should endeavour to ensure at all costs that our broader regional and global policies diverge from Indonesia’s as little as possible—and ideally should follow essentially convergent trajectories.’

7. Tone matters—no shouting, no lectures and no domestic politics.

8. The people of these two most dissimilar countries are alike in having a robust and creative sense of humour. Coming from a ‘she’ll-be-right’ culture, an Australian has to love a country that can operate on ‘jam karet’—rubber time. Herewith an old Jakarta joke with the new leader added: Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, was crazy about sex; Suharto was crazy about money; Habibie was just crazy; Gus Dur drove everybody crazy; Megawati was crazy about shopping; SBY’s problem was he never got crazy about anything; now Jokowi will have to work like crazy.

9. Vital as it is, it’s not ‘a special relationship’—the differences are too great at too many levels. But, sayeth the wise Mackie: ‘Conversely, don’t let an excessive stress on deep-seated cultural differences between us mislead us into thinking that mutual understanding of each other is impossible. It is merely hopelessly difficult at times.’

10. Liked that last sentence from the master so much, it goes into the final point. We have done important things with Indonesia and we have to do more in the future, ‘it’s merely hopelessly difficult at times.’ Loved that ‘merely’. Good luck, Prime Minister.​

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Oz and Indonesia

Australia and Indonesia

When Australia thinks strategy, it quickly comes to Indonesia.

So it was when the Howard Government was mulling the 2000 Defence White Paper. The National Security Committee of Cabinet was grilling the defenceniks: ‘If Indonesia can’t invade us, why should we buy all these military toys?’

One official produced a map, pointed to the archipelago and island chain arcing across Australia’s north, and asked: ‘What do you see?’

‘That’s Indonesia.’

‘Yes, sir, today it’s Indonesia. Just think what it’d mean if Indonesia broke up and instead this map showed three new Bangladeshes and a couple of new oil-rich Bruneis.’ Read more

I’ve heard various versions of this yarn, but having asked some who should have been there when it supposedly happened, I get no confirmation. It’s a tale yet to achieve the truth it deserves, illustrating how Indonesia directs Australia’s regional dreams or dominates its nightmares.

The vision of a splintering Indonesia goes to the nightmare side of current Australian imaginings. On Suharto’s fall, the horror was of Indonesia succumbing to centrifugal forces as Yugoslavia did after Tito. Instead of that nightmare, Indonesia conjured up a dream experiment—one of the world’s most ambitious efforts at political devolution and regional autonomy.

The doomsayers in Jakarta see little more than a devolution of corruption, setting a course to splinter the Republic. Joko Widodo’s arrival is an extraordinarily positive answer to that lament. Devolution meant an engineer who created a furniture business could become mayor of Solo in 2005, then step up to be elected Jakarta’s governor in 2012, and next month will be sworn in as Indonesia’s seventh president. Indonesians have elected ‘one of us’ as their leader; that democratic expression of the idea of ‘us’ is a powerful unifying force.

As the previous column noted, add a great caveat to the statement that Indonesia and Australia are neighbours with absolutely nothing in common. We now share something vital and defining—democracy. Add to that a further fundamental point—both agree on the regional and strategic importance of a unified and strong Indonesia. Indeed, the fact of a democratic Indonesia should help Australia accept its relative decline—stress relative—compared to the growing wealth and power of its giant neighbour.

Stressing Australia’s belief in a unified Indonesia is a point worth making. It ain’t always been so. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Canberra would have been happy with bits of Indonesia splitting away: because of fears about Indonesia turning to communism; when the CIA was shipping arms to support regional rebellions in Sumatra and Sulawesi; during Konfrontasi when British and Australian soldiers were fighting Indonesian troops; and when the Dutch were trying to hang on to West Papua.

Australia’s leading role in the one successful bit of splitism—the creation of East Timor— doesn’t fit with the mindset of the 1950s and 60s. Right up to the moment that East Timor voted for independence, Australia was sincere—in statement and belief—in calling for East Timor to remain within the Republic. The great irony is that Jakarta’s elite is convinced Australia was always plotting against it in Timor; that conviction misreads the clash between popular sentiment in Oz and Canberra’s judgement of national interest.

Australia’s commitment to a coherent rather than a fractured Indonesia is expressed in one phrase that is pregnant with meaning for Canberra strategists. That’s the statement that any military threat to Australia will come ‘from or through’ Indonesia. The idea has a long history in Australian thinking, dating from that moment of existential fright delivered by Japan in WWII. It’s a powerful idea that can shift in shape and colour. Thus, the 1947 Strategic Appreciation noted:

Having established herself in Indonesia, Russia could attack the mainland of Australia under cover of land based aircraft. Hence, it follows that Australia is vitally interested in this line of approach.

The most famous expression of ‘from or through’ was Paul Dibb’s 1986 Review of Australian Defence:

In defence terms, Indonesia is our most important neighbour. The Indonesian archipelago forms a protective barrier to Australia’s northern approaches. We have a common interest in regional stability, free from interference by potentially hostile external powers. At the same time, we must recognise that, because of its proximity, the archipelago to our north is the area from or through which a military threat to Australia could most easily be posed.

Australia wants an Indonesia strong enough not to be porous or splitable​, but uninterested in using its strength for ​anything nasty.

The Oz dream is to go beyond ‘from or through’ to find ‘a shield to Australia’s north.’ Australia will stand with ASEAN in the fervent wish for Jokowi’s huge success.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Juan Manuel Garcia.

What Indonesia and Australia share

Democracy in action

Indonesia can direct Australia’s regional dreams or dominate its nightmares. Just as Papua New Guinea shapes the way Australia thinks about the South Pacific, Indonesia frames Australia’s view of Southeast Asia.

In those key regional relationships, Australia’s strategists, diplomats and journos get plenty of mileage from the nightmares. Yet often things work out better than feared. The sun breaks through and the politicians can follow the natural inclination of the business types to gaze on the bright side.

Jokowi’s election is a fine moment to turn from the dark side to contemplate the dreams. As Natalie Sambhi argued, a Jokowin is a win for Australia. For all the nightmares Australia has had, this is another moment of great good fortune. Read more

Donald Horne’s Lucky Country moniker holds truths beyond irony: Australia has had no influence on the course of events since Suharto fell, but Indonesia’s political evolution has delivered Australia great benefit—a fine example of luck.

The luck held in this election. Indonesia avoided the offer to turn back to some strange conjuring of a Suharto past adorned with Sukarno nationalist symbolism. Australia would have striven mightily to work with a President Prabowo Subianto, but this former general had only just been removed from Canberra’s visa black list over human rights violations. Embracing Prabowo would mean grimacing and dusting off old Suharto languageabout Australia’s many interests with Indonesia and the vital need to deal with whoever is in power. Thank our lucky stars and Indonesia’s voters for not having to relive that experience, where limiting damage also meant limiting what could be asked or aspired for.

Indonesia’s fascinating election further entrenches one great caveat in the statement that Indonesia and Australia are two neighbours with absolutely nothing in common. We now share something vital and defining—both are democracies.

Sharing democracy is a major change in what Australia and Indonesia can imagine about each other—or what Australia can understand about Indonesia. Such a shared view of how politics and society best operate can balance all the differences between these two most dissimilar of neighbours.

Democracy produces all manner of clamour and discontents, but also offers energy and opportunity that could never be had from the disciplined silences of Suharto’s order. The big political and social belief Australia and Indonesia now share will be useful in dealing with the most secret of topics.

Australia’s abiding, intense intelligence focus on Indonesia got a public showing last year. Indonesian outrage at the revelation that Australian intelligence targeted the phones of President SBY, his wife and inner circle saw Jakarta recall its ambassador from Canberra in November, and put a freeze on military, police and intelligence cooperation.

The storm unleashed by Edward Snowden forced Australia to adopt the stalker’s defence: ‘I love you so much I want to know everything about you.’

Australia’s intelligence obsession expresses something else Oz shares with Indonesia. Both nations agree on Indonesia’s geostrategic importance and Jakarta’s role as a regional leader; thus, as noted, Australia’s desperation ‘to know everything about you.’

In a detailed reading of what the Snowden’s revelations say about the relationship, Richard Tanter argues that power is shifting remorselessly to Indonesia:

The fundamental discovery—painful for the new [Abbott] government—is that, while on some measures, the two countries have grown a little closer in recent years, the fundamental relationship between Indonesia and Australia is an asymmetrical one. Indonesia is far more important to Australia’s security concerns than is Australia to Indonesia’s.

The asymmetric image recalls a Jakarta epigram that the late Jamie Mackie told me he first heard 30 or 40 years ago: ‘Australia is like your appendix, you only think about it when it hurts.’ Given all the problems Indonesia confronts, this is as it should be. There are worse things than having a big and burgeoning neighbour that doesn’t think about you that much. More luck for Oz. The challenge is always to turn up as a friend offering help and a fresh perspective, not the painful southern ache demanding something.

The Snowden storm produced a call from Indonesia for a new accord on intelligence. Getting that is deeply difficult. Australia is having a discussion on intelligence boundaries with Indonesia similar to the conversation the US is having with Germany; the Snowden effect abounds. Espionage is always about potential nightmares, but democracy offers a shared belief that can be the basis for some level of trust. And a new Indonesian president offers Australia a new chance to build.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Breaking news for the Abbott government: Geneva matters

Where's the love for Geneva?

To watch a new government is to see a party’s shibboleths, suspicions, suppositions and superstitions mugged by reality.

Time in opposition is supposed to be when new thinking gets done. Yet often that period of powerlessness is when ideology hardens and ideologues go rigid. Eventually, the chosen ones emerge from the desert as the voters come to their senses. Policies are unleashed. Promises rise up. The unforgiving parliamentary clock starts ticking.

Then, drat and damn, the newly magnificent ones discover the policies and prejudices don’t run around the field as promised on the box. Some won’t start. Some veer wildly off course. Some blow up. Read more

A messy example was the Rudd government’s slaying of offshore-processing of asylum seekers. (The policy trauma that followed meant the resurrected Rudd made resurrecting the offshore system a priority of his brief second coming.)

As muggings of new governments go, that one was nasty and prolonged, leaving scars that linger. Some muggings, however, deliver surprises that pleasantly confound the shibboleths. The Abbott government has just received such a shock.

The government that proudly boasted its foreign policy would be ‘more Jakarta than Geneva’ suddenly finds that Geneva matters; the much derided multilateral system can deliver. Having dismissed Labor’s campaign for a Security Council seat as a waste of time and money, Julie Bishop was at the Council table to eyeball the Russian ambassador as resolution 2166 on the ‘downing’ of MH17 was adopted. The Coalition of the Grieving face a huge task in making it happen on the ground in Ukraine, but the UN resolution Australia helped create was the central, essential legal instrument.

The context for those points is that the Liberal Party, under John Howard and now Tony Abbott, has veered from scepticism about the UN to a rejectionism that becomes a simple Animal Farm chant: ‘Alliance great, bilateral good, multilateral bad.’

The two traditional strands of Australian political opinion on the UN were Evatt Enthusiasm and Menzies Scepticism. Now there’s a third strand—Howard Rejectionism.

During Abbott’s first election campaign as leader in 2010, the policy statement indicated the UN was not a core Australian interest. The most ludicrous Rejectionist moment during that 2010 campaign came during the foreign policy debate at the National Press Club.

Then Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had to protest that the Liberals weren’t actually arguing Australia should withdraw from the UN! This was a jibe at journos that implied exasperation at the UN-phobia of her own side.

Simple slogans matter, so consider the layers in the Abbott promise of a foreign policy that’s more Geneva than Jakarta. It pledges more Asia than Europe and more bilateral than multilateral; it implies praise for Asian regionalism and a downgrading of the UN system.

Damning Geneva is a shorthand caricature of eternal cocktail conferencing, pinstriped diplomatic do-goodery and international interference in Australian affairs (see that other slogan: stop the boats). Abbott is being most unkind about the League of Nations.

Rather than kicking Geneva, a sharper slogan would be a foreign policy ‘more New Delhi than New York’. ‘More New Delhi than New York’ fails not just because it’d play badly in Jakarta and Beijing— it’d sound odd to the Oz electorate.

The UN HQ happens to be in US, so Oz Rejectionists cannot use New York as shorthand for the multilateral system. To be nasty about New York might sound like rejecting the US, not the UN—a horrible mixing of message.

For Rejectionists, the US alliance sits atop the security mountain while the UN system meanders in the valleys. Introducing diplomatic dimensions complicates that picture: the alliance can’t be elevated above key Asian bilaterals, and even Asian regionalism crowds close to the peak. Please don’t introduce trade or economic dimensions because that really challenges beloved suppositions and shibboleths.

Labor doesn’t share the Liberal hang-ups about the UN, finding it easier to stress its Evatt Enthusiasm. During a time long ago when a Mr Mark Latham was Labor leader, his shadow Foreign Minister, a Mr K. Rudd, proposed the three pillars of Labor international policy in this order:

  1. US alliance
  2. Comprehensive engagement with Asia
  3. Engagement with key global and regional institutions, including the UN, the G20 and the East Asia Summit

Latham kept changing the order to push the US to the bottom position. Eventually, Rudd succeeded. The US is back in that top spot in the ALP platform although Rudd’s ‘pillar’-talk has gone.

The Lib and Labor mental maps aren’t that far apart. The difference is that the love Labor lavishes on the UN means its foreign minister would never have to disavow a secret Rejectionist intent to withdraw from the UN.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Hawk.

The Great Asia Bargain fades and falls away

Richard Nixon meets with Mao Zedong in Beijing, February 21, 1972.

In 1972, Nixon and Mao met in Beijing to begin the Great Asia Bargain. Nixon called it the week that changed the world. The Republican and the Revolutionary ushered in a glorious period.

Almost as an aside—a prelude to the geopolitical plotting—they launched an economic engagement that turned China into the phenomenon of the modern age. As the man who took the US dollar off the gold standard, Nixon started a process that will see the yuan become a global currency to equal the greenback. Talk about unintended consequences. And that was just an aside.

Look back at what Mao and Nixon wrought because of what Shinzo Abe’s is now doing. Making Japan a security power—even claiming Japan’s right to be a ‘super power’—marks the demise of an important residual element of the Bargain. Read more

Of course, much else disappeared long ago. The central driver of the Bargain was the primary threat from the Soviet Union. For both leaders, Russia was the number one danger. Kissinger judged that following military clashes along the Soviet–China border, Beijing moved beyond ideology to deal with the US: ‘Their peril had established the absolute primacy of geopolitics. They were in effect freeing one front by a tacit nonaggression treaty with us.’ With that tacit treaty, China was aiming to use ‘one set of barbarians to balance another.’

Today China and the US see each other as their greatest threat, the binary reality rendering the Bargain an artifact of history. Even so, as with the economic deal, security elements of the Bargain have continuing effects, often of major importance. Losing those lingering security deals after four decades tells us how much uncertainty now envelops Asia.

Beyond China–US national self-interest, the Bargain rested on understandings about US interests in Taiwan and Japan and South Korea. The explicit understanding on South Korea also carried implications for what China would do to restrain North Korea—another area where the Bargain failed long ago.

Mao assured Nixon that Taiwan was not an important issue and China could show patience about its return to the motherland. Kissinger quoted Mao: ‘We can do without them [Taiwan] for the time being, and let it come after 100 years.’ For all the push and shove since, that promise holds.

That long view on Taiwan was linked to acceptance of the US alliance with Japan and a particular understanding of how the alliance should work. Kissinger quoted this from Mao: ‘Japan must not feel neglected by the US; Japan was inherently insecure and sensitive. He would see to it that China did not force Tokyo to choose between the US and China. That might polarize; it would surely enhance Japanese insecurity and might give rise to traditional nationalism.’

Kissinger wrote that China came to accept America’s argument that the US alliance with Japan should be viewed ‘as a guarantee of America’s continued interest in the Western Pacific and a rein on Japanese unilateralism.’

The military balance in the Bargain was elegant. The US would keep its troops in Japan to maintain a firm foot on Japan’s neck. China’s former occupier was not to return to any form of assertive nationalism, much less military power.

If Washington was to maintain boundaries on Japan, then Beijing should do the same to North Korea. Allowing North Korea to go nuclear rates as a major breach of Mao’s undertaking not to disturb Japan or South Korea.

All this is context for Japan’s Defence Minister, Itsunori Onodera, arguing Japan is more than just back. Japan, he says, is ‘drastically moving its security policy forward’ because of ‘severe challenges’ to Asia’s security order. Expanding defence cooperation with the US, Australia and Southeast Asia is normal: ‘It is natural for a great power like Japan to play a responsible role for the region based on the significance of the area and the increasingly acute regional security environment.’

That ‘great power’ line led the Wall Street Journal to ponder Japan’s identity confusion and whether it is, indeed, a great power. The fascination in the piece was the link to Amy King’s analysis of Chinese writings, showing that Beijing certainly does not view Japan as a great power; that Great Bargain effect persists in Beijing, even if the US and Japan have ditched it.

Asia has long outgrown the Bargain bequeathed by Mao and Nixon; I was going to say blessed rather than bequeathed, but that confers too much grace on a hard-eyed geopolitical compact. If the Republican and the Revolutionary—a pro and a tyrant—could do the deal, their successors should be as competent and as ambitious in seeking a new power-sharing order in Asia or a new responsibility-sharing order.​

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Muting Australia’s regional voice

Ariane Dawson of Sydney listening to one of the ABC's radio programmes.

Gutting Radio Australia and killing the international TV service is bad, sad and mad.

Bad: Lopping 60% from the ABC’s international service is lousy for the national interest. A strategic asset in Asia and the South Pacific is being muted with little consideration of the regional implications.

Sad: The sadness is for wonderful journalists and broadcasters being fired; at the infanticide of a TV service that had shown achievements to match its potential; and at the savage cuts to Radio Australia, a 75-year-old institution that still serves as the daily newspaper for the South Pacific. Read more

Mad: The madness is the lack of any reason or logic in this tragedy for Australian regional interests. The government visits vengeance on the ABC, acting on the words of John Howard’s consigliere, Graham Morris: ‘The ABC is our enemy talking to our friends.’ The ideological warriors fail to understand that Morris was also paying a backhanded compliment to the ABC’s unique role in the Australian debate and landscape, with Aunty’s deep roots in rural, regional, urban and city lives.

Seeking to restrict the ABC’s domestic influence, the Abbott government has instead harmed Australia’s influence beyond our shores. This first-term Coalition government is repeating the mistake of its predecessor. The first-term Howard government’s effort to ‘get’ the ABC caused the halving of Radio Australia; domestic politics plays out as poor international strategy.

As the 80 journalists and broadcast staff prepare for employment execution, they can take gallows comfort that they were not the intended ABC target, just victims of a gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

The dramatic illustration of the Howard-era mistake was that as Radio Australia turned off its powerful Darwin transmitters, Suharto fell. Suddenly Oz was desperate for ways to talk to the new Indonesia. Building on that irony, much later in the life of the Howard government, Alexander Downer pushed for, and funded, the TV service now being crushed. Downer used to joke that he deserved a statue in the ABC’s Southbank HQ; my return jest was that the statue was commissioned but we couldn’t decide the plinth height.

To underline how the Liberals are trashing their own creations, note the 1939 broadcast on Radio Australia’s foundation by Prime Minister Robert Menzies: ‘The time has come to speak for ourselves.’ As a statement of Australia’s regional interests, it remains as true today as it was then.

I must confess I am an old Radio Australia lag. After five years with a fine newspaper, I joined RA in 1975 and had a marvellous time as a correspondent, in Canberra and overseas, until I retired from RA in 2008. Leaving, I was deeply touched to be given an emeritus title as RA’s associate editor for the Asia Pacific. To my shame, I have done little emeritusing, but it ranks among the great honours of this hack’s adventure.

The way debate runs these days, this history means I can be labelled the most biased of witnesses. Thus, in praising the journalism of the ABC’s international service, I offer my credentials as a graduate of the first, great Murdoch newspaper. I got much of what I know about journalism at the same place as Rupert Murdoch—The Herald, Flinders Street, Melbourne.

My days as a copy boy and later reporter began under the steady gaze of the bust of Sir Keith Murdoch in the foyer. His spirit walked the floors and deeply influenced the understanding of what a great newspaper should be.

Sir Keith’s politics and editorials were always conservative—outside Parliament, he was a key player pushing for Menzies to become PM the first time—but he produced newspapers for the broadest church of Oz. He demanded straight, accurate journalism that could be read and trusted by anyone from socialite to socialist. My understanding of that tradition informs my view of the ABC as a fine and strong expression of Australian journalism.

Look at what Australia will lose by reducing Radio Australia to bare bones. The starvation of the language services hurts our ability to talk to the region in the local voice. The Tok Pisin service to Papua New Guinea will be cut to three people. Three! And this is PNG where radio still matters.

Likewise, the Bahasa Indonesia service for Indonesia is falling to just three people (during the Suharto era it was more than 20). Shortwave doesn’t matter in Indonesia now but the exploding social media space is fertile ground for a brand like Radio Australia. A foreign service offering strong, accurate journalism still has a chance in an Indonesian media scene where, as Ross Tapsell writes, ‘the owners of the largest outlets have direct affiliations with political parties and have themselves been presidential candidates’.

In the South Pacific, RA is going to continue producing the equivalent of the region’s morning paper with its Pacific Beat program. A pesky truth of media, however, is that doing journalism requires journalists. Much of what RA will now offer the South Pacific will be sourced from the domestic ABC. All those wonderful FM transmitters Australia has built in the Island capitals will be beaming out stuff about Oz. We’ll be talking to the region, but not with the region.

Given the cash lavished on expanding China’s CCTV as an international service, this is an excellent opening for a rich new player. Consider that as an example of poor strategic thinking: Australia joins New Zealand in gutting its Pacific service and in marches China.

That’s more than bad, sad and mad—it’s plain dumb.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The new relationship of Japan and Australia

Commanding Officer No. 3 Squadron Wing Commander Timothy Alsop shows Director, Defence Planning and Policy Department, Major General Yoshinara Marumo, ASO, from the Japan Air Self-Defence Force throughout the cockpit of an F/A-18 hornet.Japan has quickly risen to become a defence partner for Australia that ranks beside New Zealand and Britain. Thus, Japan sits on the second tier, with the traditional Anglo allies, below the peak where the US presides as the prime, principal and paramount ally.

To see Japan as one of Australia’s closest security partners is to describe a set of changes that have arrived with great speed in only two decades.

When Shinzo Abe told Australia’s Parliament on Tuesday that he wanted to ‘make a truly new basis for our relations’, he was stating a future ambition for Japan, but building on a structure already in place.

The key fact of that structure was in this sentence: ‘There are many things Japan and Australia can do together by each of us joining hands with the United States, an ally for both our nations’. As my previous post noted, Australia and Japan are becoming allies, without a formal when-the-shooting-starts-bilateral-alliance, because of the trilateral that expresses their alliances with the US. Read more

The trilateral is less than 15 years old and ain’t it grown. See this post with an off-the-cuff account by Australia’s longest serving Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, of how he pushed to create the trilateral against Chinese hostility and, initially, dismissive scepticism from Japan. By denying that the trilateral would be the Asian NATO, Downer gave the Chinese a vivid description they still bring up. There are several laws about denials. One is that you should never believe anything until it has been officially denied. Another is Kissinger’s rule that when you deny an intention to do something, you’re also indicating the capability to do that thing if so minded.

Australia and Japan are no longer denying quite as much. Instead, they’re promising all sorts of stuff. Abe has big ambitions for the ‘special relationship’ with Australia. He sees the two countries ‘sharing common values, join hands’ to protect the norms and law of the ‘seas of prosperity that stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian’. (And the skies, too.)

Apply the denial rules and Abe’s ambitions to the words Tony Abbott spoke to the Japanese Prime Minister in Parliament:

Australia welcomes Japan’s recent decision to be a more capable strategic partner in our region. I stress: ours is not a partnership against anyone; it is a partnership for peace, for prosperity and for the rule of law. Our objective is engagement, and we both welcome the greater trust and openness in our region that is exemplified by China’s participation in this year’s RIMPAC naval exercises.

Despite the denials, the Abbott government has followed Japan and reinforced the Abe relationship by inserting a lot more iron in the idiom Canberra uses about China. See this account of Australia’s shift to adopt stronger language reflecting Japan’s perspective.

The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, uses that language with her comments about Australia standing up to China to defend peace, liberal values and rule of law. Australia will be standing up with the US and Japan.

Where once the trilateral that was the foundation for Australian defence thinking had New Zealand as its third leg, now it’s Japan.

Andrew Davies’ column on New Zealand defence capability grinding to a standstill is a reminder of how much defence cooperation is a function of capability.

By contrast, Australia and Japan share F-35s and the new defence agreement for sharing equipment and technology signed last week means Australia’s future submarine can have a large Japanese element. Placing Japan beside Britain and New Zealand as a security partner isn’t to say that Tokyo and Canberra have achieved the intelligence-sharing intimacy of the Anglo club. But a lot is being shared and, again, this is driven by a trilateral dynamic with a Chinese flavour. The way things have shifted in the seven years since the signing of the Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2007 means Tokyo has definitely risen further in the hierarchy of Australia’s defence interests.

Another law worth remembering is that you can be endangered as much as enhanced by what you embrace. See fine discussions of this truth by Andrew Carr and Harry White. For the full jeremiad, though, turn to Malcolm Fraser’s book Dangerous Allies and his view that the alliance with the US is more dangerous to Oz than China can ever be, because Australia faces ‘increased pressure from the US to establish a more formal and all-encompassing defence relationship with Japan; a relationship that would make it much harder, if not impossible, for us to avoid being involved in any conflict between China and Japan’.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.

Japan and Oz—ready, willing and Abe

Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan talks to the audience during the session 'The Reshaping of the World: Vision from Japan' at the Annual Meeting 2014 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, January 22, 2014.Australia is developing the habit of balancing an address to the Parliament by an Asia-Pacific ally with a matching speech by China’s President.

The contentious words in that sentence are ‘balancing’ and ‘ally’, even if the pattern is evident.

In October 2003, US President George W. Bush and China’s President Hu Jintao addressed the Australian Parliament on consecutive days. Both were visiting Oz for the APEC summit in Sydney. Previously, only American presidents had addressed Parliament (Bush Senior, 1992; Bill Clinton, 1996). Read more

Hu’s address could properly be described in a parliamentary monograph as ‘a moment of great ceremonial and symbolic significance’, representing ‘a high point in the Howard Government’s engagement with China’.

Tweaking those phrases, Shinzo Abe’s Canberra address tomorrow is a moment of symbolic significance, marking an economic high point and a security exclamation mark in the Abbott Government’s embrace of Japan. Abbott’s best mate in Asia is calling. Note this is the first Japanese PM to get to Canberra since 2002—perhaps that explains the need for a ‘new’ special relationship.

Abe will join Abbott for the signing of the Australia-Japan free trade agreement and for a defence cooperation agreement for sharing equipment and technology. The defence deal is a step towards a next-generation Australian submarine with a Japanese diesel-electric drive chain and an American weapons system. Abe and Abbott will be in equal agreement when Abe gives another version of his speech announcing Japan is back as a defence and security player.

This year’s balancing parliamentary address from China will come in November when Xi Jinping visits for the G20 summit. That word ‘balancing’ is useful in denoting the equal honour offered to two important Asian partners, as a reference to the US rebalance, and to discussion of Asia’s balance of power and balancing against the rising power.

Referring to Japan as an ‘ally’ is where the semantics compound. The Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation that John Howard and Shinzo Abe signed in 2007, expressed an important and growing security partnership. The pact does not amount to a formal alliance; it’s not a treaty to be invoked if ships clash and missiles fly. Yet, increasingly, Australia and Japan act as allies, from cyber to submarines to Asia’s future.

A great impetus for this ally-type behaviour is that Japan and Australia are both allies of the same ally. In the trilateral relationship with the US, the Japan–Australia leg is the weakest, but it’s getting more exercise. Here’s the DFAT-speak version:

Australia and Japan now have a strong and broad-ranging partnership. Australia and Japan have taken practical steps to address regional and global strategic challenges of mutual concern. The United States is both Australia’s and Japan’s most important strategic ally, and the three countries progress cooperation on strategic issues through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue.

In his Shangri-La speech on Japan’s role in Asia’s security future, Abe referred to Abbott’s visit to Tokyo in April and gave this alliance-lite description

We clearly articulated to people both at home and abroad our intention to elevate the strategic partnership between Japan and Australia to a new special relationship.

Shinzo Abe will give a speech to Parliament on Japan’s intentions towards Australia that will be stronger in tone and temper than that of any previous Japanese leader. The man who signed the 2007 pact is back to give it a boost. The speech will express Abe’s personality and his past as well as his vision of Japan’s future. 

The headline on this piece plays on the phrase ‘ready, willing and able’. Ponder if Abe will be able. He’s showing willing in the reinterpretation of the Constitution for collective self-defence (warmly welcomed by Australia) and the rewrite of the Japan-America defence guidelines, the first big overhaul in nearly two decades. Will he be able to get Japan to embrace and entrench that new mindset? Invective from China and South Korea might aid Abe, but will Japan truly commit?

The answer will define Abe as either a passing political outlier who couldn’t break the Japanese mould or the model for future leaders. Some of Abe’s habits of mind—especially his understanding of history as expressed by his Yasukuni shrine compulsion—play to the outlier view, even if those same qualities of will and self-belief make him a potential mould-breaker. Abe’s greatest external asset in his push to remodel Japan’s military role isn’t the US—it’s China’s recent belligerence and the moments of madness from China’s protectorate, North Korea. 

Abe’s parliamentary address will be more than a measure of what sort of ally Japan wants to be for Australia. It’ll be a measure that can be set beside—or balanced against—the picture Xi Jinping paints when he takes the same stage in November.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum.

Hillary’s pivot posse and China as Wild West desperado

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton departs Nay Pyi Taw en route to Rangoon, Burma, on December 1, 2011. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Hillary wants you to know what the US is doing in Asia is a ‘pivot’. The previous Secretary of State thinks ‘rebalance’ is bureaucratic blandness, and dismisses its usage as ‘anodyne.’

Part II of the Clinton memoir is headed ‘Across the Pacific’ and the first chapter is ‘Asia: The Pivot’. And pivot it remains throughout. The purpose of the pivot is simple, even if the mechanisms are complex—it’s all about China.

Being present at the creation—indeed, claiming creator’s rights—Clinton writes in plain terms about the purpose and the power of that grand strategy shift. Of her first trip as Secretary—to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and, finally, China—Clinton says: ‘We needed to send a message to Asia and the world that America was back.’ She quotes the secretary-general of ASEAN on US ‘diplomatic absenteeism’ and comments: ‘That was a rather pointed greeting but he was right about our intentions.’ Read more

Citing husband Bill on the need to focus on trendlines and not just headlines, Hillary sees the pivot responding to what the US National Security Council called ‘an historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to East’.

Clinton says US frictions with China are more than disagreements about individual issues—the clash is over ‘very different perceptions of how the world, or at least Asia, should work.’ Her final thought is that in a contest over fundamentals, much could go wrong:

We have no interest in containing China. But we do insist that China play by the rules that bind all nations. In other words, the jury’s still out. China has some hard choices to make, and so do we. We should follow a time-tested strategy. Work for the best outcome, but plan for something less. And stick to our values.

Hillary gives no space to Beijing’s view that ‘play by the rules’ really means ‘play by the US rules’; yet there’s plenty to buttress that interpretation. The economic pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiation, is ‘a strategic initiative that would strengthen the position of the US in Asia’.

Clinton expresses in one sentence the reason why Japan is in the TPP and China is not: ‘The TPP became the signature economic pillar of our strategy in Asia, demonstrating the benefits of a rules-based order and greater cooperation with the US.’ Ah, those rules again.

If the US can beat back the lawyers and lobbyists of Washington to do the compromises with Japan (and Vietnam, Australia, etc) for a TPP this will be rule writing and grand strategy performed in trade costume.

Usually a cautious pro in her image making, Hillary offers one classic American metaphor for the South and East China seas: ‘For the smaller nations, it could feel like the Wild West—a frontier without the rule of law, where the weak were at the mercy of the strong.’

The potential for China to act as Wild West desperado is expressed over the page: ‘Would China use its growing power to dominate an expanding sphere of influence, or would the region reaffirm international norms that bind even the strongest nation?’

Clinton nominates 2010 as the ‘tipping point’ when Washington started to round up the posse for ‘American leadership in Asia and in the pushback against Chinese overreach.’ I stress that ‘posse’ is my word. If Clinton sees the Wild West and her jury is still out, what hack could resist conjuring Hillary heading the pivot posse?

Explaining the creation of the pivot, Clinton outlines three options discussed in thinking about the new Asia approach:

  1. Focus on China ‘on the theory that if we could get our China policy right, the rest of our work in Asia would be much easier’.
  2. Alternatively, strengthen US treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Australia ‘providing a counterbalance to China’s growing power’. Clinton says ‘Australia became a key ally in our Asian strategy’ under both the Rudd and Gillard governments.
  3. Elevate and harmonise the ‘alphabet soup of regional multilateral organisations’. While Asia could not expect ‘anything as coherent as the European Union’, the multilateral bodies ‘could provide a venue for every nation and point of view to be heard and offer opportunities for nations to work together on shared challenges, resolve their disagreements, establish rules and standards of behaviour, reward responsible countries with legitimacy and respect, and help hold accountable those who violated the rules.’

As usual when a nation confronts big, differing, even conflicting options, Clinton decided ‘to meld all three approaches’. The thing that melds the options into the pivot is China—and (under option 3) how to ‘hold accountable those who violate the rules’? The pivot posse faces a big job.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.

Asia, not Atlantic, for Hillary

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger film, "Conversations on Diplomacy, Moderated by Charlie Rose," at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on 20 April 2011.A part of being a foreign-affairs tragic is believing any memoir by a modern US Secretary of State is interesting, no matter how flawed the book or the Secretary.

This tragic ranks the autobiographies of Acheson and Kissinger as golden, while Alexander Haig represents the more leaden category.

Even Haig, though, is fascinating, not least for his shocked lament that elite Washington players leak continuously to the press and—gasp!—are constant plotters. Coming from a Kissinger apprentice in Richard Nixon’s court, this is gorgeous, showing that even a leaden Secretary of State auto-effort is illuminating. Read more

In this field, Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices rates a comfortable silver; Hillary will never be shocked about the darkness or perfidy of Washington. As she remarks after trespassing on Treasury’s domain, ‘turf [is], of course, … a precious Washington commodity’. The way Clinton defines important turf beyond Washington gives her memoir a shape and taste distinctly different from many of her predecessors’ books. This is a 21st century memoir, largely free of Cold War baggage.

For Asia, Hillary’s silver-medal effort is gold. Hillary departs from the entrenched Atlanticism of the usual Secretary of State memoir. As in much else, Acheson set the standard. And as the 20th century Metternich, Kissinger’s frame is inherently European, despite all the wordage he devoted to China and the Vietnam War.

Clinton’s account plunges into Asia. The Asia flavour can be highlighted by comparing Hillary’s effort to that of Madeleine Albright, the most Clintonist of Bill Clinton’s Secretary of States. Albright’s memoir also rates in the silver category, sitting roughly beside Hillary. The difference is that Albright writes in the Atlanticist tradition so wonderfully exemplified by Acheson in Present at the Creation

Clinton nods to that history, even detailing her first meeting with Acheson—’the embodiment of an imposing, old-school diplomat’—at Wellesley in 1969, the night before Ms Hillary Rodham first introduced herself to America with a tradition-busting graduation speech.

Clinton invoked Acheson as she took up her job at Foggy Bottom: ‘After I became Secretary of State, I often thought of the grey-haired elder statesman I met that night at Wellesley. Beneath his formal exterior, he was a highly imaginative diplomat, breaking protocol when he thought it was best for his country and his President’.

Clinton’s break with Atlanticist protocol comes across even in the structure of the book. Part One contains two sharp chapters on reconciling with Obama (Team of Rivals) and taking the Secretary’s job, built around the idea of enhancing US ‘smart power’. Part Two heads straight across the Pacific to the great conundrum of China and the excitement of Burma’s turn to the light.

Part Three covers War and Peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Part Four is the catch all, with one chapter each for Europe, Russia, Latin America and Africa. Part Five outlines the chaos of the Middle East under the heading, ‘Upheaval’. Part Six turns to the next presidential election, covering jobs, the economy and the future.

The way Clinton abandons the Atlanticist tradition of Secretary of State memoirs is camouflaged by the caution that touches every page. Clinton doesn’t write as well as Acheson or Kissinger, nor even offer the summing-up judgements of Albright. Of course, she can’t. She’s a consummate professional politician, ever conscious of the history she’s yet to make.  

The Asia flavour in the opening parts of Hillary’s memoir are the last thing America is going to notice. Her account of US foreign policy must serve multiple political purposes, raising the defences against Republican deceit and damnation, while emphasising Hillary’s Democratic credentials. Not the least complicated dance involves Clinton’s constant emphasis on how close she grew to Obama, while touching on slight differences that might become extremely useful in the next presidential campaign. Behold the memoir of a politician who wants to be many things in two years time—Obama’s heir, the second Clinton president and the US’ first woman president. 

Washington’s understanding of the world must be on the move if such a cautious book can so break with Secretary of State tradition. But Washington shifts slowly. On the evidence of Clinton’s memoir, if she were still Secretary of State, the President wouldn’t have given a major foreign policy speech at West Point that failed to mention the pivot.

And Hillary is quite emphatic about calling it a pivot and describing what it means for Asia and for China. More on Hillary and the pivot in the next column.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.

What is China’s strategy?

President Barack Obama and President Benigno S. Aquino III inspect the honor guard during an arrival ceremony at the Malacañang Palace in Manila, Philippines, 28 April 2014. One of the responses China has produced or helped validate with its actions is to strengthen the US-Philippines alliance.A simple question about what China has been doing to its neighbours keeps recurring: How is that smart?

The question came up in dozens of conversations at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific roundtable in Kuala Lumpur. The puzzle of China’s behaviour has shaped the previous columns on Shinzo Abe’s ‘we’re back in Asia security’ speech, the differing security doctrines coming from China and the United States, the Australian Defence Minister’s musings on Asia’s potentially catastrophic situation, the loss of regional confidence, and the impact of all this on the nascent Asian security system that has served China so well.

Consider the responses China has produced or helped validate: Read more

  1. Japan’s asserting its right to a bigger security role in Asia in ways not heard in 70 years—and this is being warmly welcomed by Australia and Southeast Asia. In a few weeks, Shinzo Abe will come to address the Australian Parliament just as President Obama did in November 2011. That was Obama’s pivot speech, announcing that as president he’d ‘made a deliberate and strategic decision—as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends’. Abe will use the same stage—Australia’s House of Representatives—to offer his own version of that strategic decision.
  2. The US President went to Japan in April and stated that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the US security treaty with Japan. China has pushed so hard over some barren islands occupied by goats that it has produced a specific promise from Obama that the US is ready to go to war with China to ensure that the goats remain Japanese.
  3. Traditional fence-sitters such as Malaysia and Vietnam are doing exactly what theory says they must do—balance against China by nestling closer to the US. America now proclaims  ‘comprehensive partnerships’ with Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam’s Defence Minister is happily ruminating about the American Navy coming back to use Cam Ranh Bay.
  4. The rusty US alliance with the Philippines has a fresh coat of paint and Manila is desperate to add muscle to the rebalance. ​
  5. For Asia, the US rebalance is central and vital. No explanation is needed for why it matters and why it must be made to work. The only question is about the level of US commitment. Some mordant comfort is taken from the fact that all US military planning now assumes China as the default enemy. Asia is rushing to give new love to the US hub-and-spokes alliance system, with some supporting partnerships added.

How is it in any way smart for China to have done anything to produce such outcomes? As observed by a bearded Canadian strategist who has been cruising Asia for decades: ‘The principal architect of the success of the US rebalance is Beijing.’

When you talk to Chinese officials, officers and strategists, the standard line is that China is the victim. China isn’t the actor, it’s being acted on. China’s only responding to the provocation of others. China’s being pushed around and has to push back. It’s a strange rendering of the way things look to the number two economy in the world and Asia’s pre-eminent power. China’s reaching for its prerogatives as a great power and feeding the fires of its own nationalism while adopting the tone of a put-upon teenager.

One of the best descriptions of this dynamic was given by Rodolfo Severino, the former Philippines diplomat and secretary-general of ASEAN. Now head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Severino told me:

Although secretly the US is welcome here, publicly one cannot say that because that would be unfashionable. That’s where I think the Chinese are making a mistake. They think that the Philippines and Vietnam are under the thumb of the Americans and it’s not so. By doing what they are doing they are giving the US another reason to be around. So I think it’s a mistake, but one cannot assume that the Chinese have access to the best minds. Although they are very smart but sometimes they don’t think things through.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the White House.

China’s peaceful rise into pieces

16th ASEAN-China summit, Brunei Darussalam, 9 October 2013 China has gone from peaceful rise to rising by pieces, as it smashes the nascent regional security order. Not much peace in prospect as China forcefully asserts its ownership over pieces of the East China and South China Seas.

The irony is that the Asian order China’s ramming is one that has been a soft system, demanding little of Beijing and subject to Beijing’s effective veto. Beijing’s going from veto to vandal in an Asia system that has evolved in a China-friendly way for two decades. Driven by ASEAN, it has been a new order created by Asians for Asia. Mark that as another irony, with President Xi Jinping a fortnight ago arguing that ‘it’s for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia’. Unfortunately for the rest of Asia, Beijing’s actions mean those words are being interpreted to mean, ‘it’s for China to run the affairs of Asia’.

China’s assertiveness is bad news for the multilateral Asian order constructed using ASEAN building blocks—the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting. Read more

The ASEAN Regional Forum, for instance, founded in 1994, now confronts the reality that two decades of confidence-building have produced precious little confidence. Remember that the ARF was always supposed to be a three-stage process:

  1. Confidence building
  2. Preventive diplomacy
  3. Conflict-resolution mechanisms.

Forget about stages two and three. Stage one is crumbling.

The commentaries, official and unofficial, are in sad agreement. The motif of 2014 for Asia is ‘mistrust’, according to a geopolitical overview by Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The National Security Strategy issued by Japan in December lamented that the regional security framework hadn’t been institutionalised, and charged China with trying to ‘change the status quo by coercion in the maritime and aerial domains including the East China Sea and the South China Sea, [in ways] which are incompatible with the existing order of international law’. It’s the frame Shinzo Abe employed for his ‘we’re back’ speech on Japan again taking a security role in Asia.

The 2014 Regional Security Outlook published by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, judges that after 25 years of effort, East Asia’s fight for a security community has to be rated, at best, as a draw. ‘In short,’ Ron Huisken writes, ‘we are not winning’. He describes the US and China slipping towards ‘mutually accepted adversity and antagonism’, as China finds it ‘hard to sustain its preferred image of a new model major power devoid of hegemonic aspirations and committed to stability and reassurance’.

The Regional Security Assessment released at the Shangri-La dialogue by the International Institute for Strategic Studies commented that the prospects for an institutionally based Asian security order ‘may be fading’ and ‘look much bleaker’ than they did five years ago. The evidence points to competition, not cooperation:

…much uncertainty hangs over the continued sustainability of the US-led order … it appears clear that rising China—although demanding greater regional influence commensurate with its growing power—is still neither willing to assume the leadership responsibilities traditionally expected of a hegemonic power nor able to replace the US as the region’s dominant power.

After more than two decades, Asia’s effort at security machinery or architecture—built by the middle powers but, until now, supported by the great powers—is confronting its limitations. If the first stage of this community is building confidence, then the stage is buckling; diplomatic socialisation, ASEAN norms and constant dialogue aren’t delivering.

The weak security system built by Asia has paid great homage to China’s prerogatives and granted Beijing an effective veto over progress and direction. The nascent system has been one of China’s many assets in its rise to the head of the region. Now that system is being damaged as China flexes its muscles over territory and national pride. Beijing seems little worried by brushing aside Asia’s multilateral security community.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of InfoFoto.