Articles by " Graeme Dobell"

Australia, Fiji and Pacific regionalism

Mechanics and carFiji’s declared starting point for talking to Australia about the future of Pacific regionalism is that Australia should leave the Pacific Islands Forum. Australia’s undeclared position—made clear by its actions—is that the Forum is more important than Fiji, but of course Canberra would rather have both.

Such are the tensions to be expected between the South Pacific’s chief status quo power, Australia, and its active and agitated revisionist power, Fiji. As previously noted, Australia and Fiji have set out to shift from duel to dance. The duel will still influence the dance. And in a bizarre way, the scars of the duel might actually aid the discussion Suva and Canberra have pledged to lead on regional architecture.

In the clash between status quo thesis and revisionist antithesis, any true synthesis would be a fascinating if unlikely result. Suva and Canberra may not expect any agreement on regional architecture, but the effort can go in interesting directions. Australia and Fiji have been hacking at each other so hard for so long, it’ll be hard for them just to go back to old diplomatic bromides. Read more

Still, regionalism lifts the eyes beyond all that bilateral bitterness. The stoush with Suva has stymied much that could or should have happened in the South Pacific over the past eight years. Getting back to ‘normal’ between Suva and Canberra allows the South Pacific to consider what a ‘new normal’ might look like.

The to-and-fro over Fiji returning to the Forum on the condition that Australia leave is an example of the need to tolerate occasional dissonance between Suva’s words and deeds. Staying focused means letting the odd bit of overheated oratory fly by. The fuss and finesse of Fiji-back-in only if Oz-backs-out is instructive.

When Fiji got its letter from the Pacific Islands Forum announcing that Fiji’s suspension from the PIF had been lifted, Suva responded by reportedly setting some conditions on its return. The Fiji Sun, quoted the Foreign Minister, Inoke Kubuabola, as saying: ‘Fiji is not going back to PIF till some changes and reforms are made in the organisation; for example, Australia and New Zealand to move out of PIF.’

Six days later, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, arrived in Suva and issued a joint statement with Fiji’s Foreign Minister—yes, Inoke Kubuabola—announcing ‘a new era of partnership and prosperity.’ Bishop spoke to the ABC’s Dominique Schwartz, to tackle the suggestion that Fiji would refuse to rejoin a PIF that had Oz and Kiwi membership:

Bishop: We talked not only about the Pacific Islands Forum, but other architecture in the region and we’ve agreed to continue to discuss how we can ensure that it best meets the needs of the region in the 21st Century.

Schwartz: Did the Foreign Minister say that he would like to see Australia and New Zealand either leave the Forum or take a backseat before Fiji would consider rejoining?

Bishop: No, he certainly didn’t say that and indicated that that was not his view. He wants to work with Australia and New Zealand.

Schwartz: I only ask because the Foreign Minister has been quoted as voicing those concerns in the past.

Bishop: Well he certainly didn’t voice them today.

The cover for Fiji is the agreement between the two foreign ministers to lead a discussion on ‘regional architecture to ensure it remains relevant to political, economic and social needs’. That’s a useful chat Suva and Canberra can have with the rest of the Forum, other big players like China, the US and the EU, and the plethora of other new partners from distant parts (Russia, UAE, Kuwait, Germany, Spain Israel, Turkey, Cuba….)

Australia loves the Forum. Fiji has its fresh creation, the Pacific Islands Development Forum (no Oz or Kiwi) and has continuing hopes for the Melanesian Spearhead Group (no Oz or Kiwi). So, lots of interesting stuff exists to inform this discussion. The South Pacific trails only ASEAN in its devotion to analysing its own regionalism.

Over at Devpolicy, Matthew Dornan and Tess Newton Cain put the boot into the absurdity of Australia and Fiji foisting another review—‘neither warranted nor appropriate’—on the rest of the South Pacific. They offer a good list of the myriad of recent reviews of regional architecture. To that list, I’d add the thoughts of Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin on the erosion of Oz soft power, the loss of Oz influence over regionalism, and the failings of the Pacific Plan.

On the problems of the Pacific and the shortfalls in the Pacific Plan as ‘master strategy’, see the most significant recent review, led by PNG’s Mekere Morauta, calling for more robust Pacific politics and ‘a bigger, better, deeper process of regionalism’. No problem getting Suva and Canberra to agree on the need to be robust. And following Morauta, this new regionalist effort is dripping with politics.

A Suva that can talk to Canberra rather than rail against the regional bully might be surprised at how ready the status quo power is to express dissatisfaction with what the status quo is delivering. Australia shares plenty of the region’s frustrations and it’s ready to yarn about anything, from tinkering to a total engine overhaul. But Oz isn’t going to leave the garage.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user astrid westvang.

The delights of summitry

G20 Leaders' PhotoOn the evidence of APEC, the East Asia Summit and the G20, anyone who decries summitry as a waste of time, talent and money either has a narrow view of the world or is extremely hard to please. To take just one of the players—but what a player—Xi Jinping in the space of a week has deeply delighted Oz and deeply shocked the Abbott government.

The delight was the consummation of a free trade deal a decade in the making. The shock was a climate change agreement with the US in which Canberra was surprised by Xi and blindsided by Obama. What more can you ask from summitry? Thrills, spills, twists and dramatic plot shifts—and this column isn’t even going near Putin.

The successive summits hosted by China, ASEAN and Australia produced a blizzard of images and ideas, driven by power, policy and personality. Tracking power is about the trend lines and how the narratives are sold. Read more

The intense burst of summitry offers all sorts of stories. Come on a quick dance through some bits that matter to Oz. This tour is a communiqué-free frolic. Not to dismiss the formalities—merely that power flows from summitry in lots of ways:

  • The G2 delivers. Obama and Xi changed the terms of one of the great arguments of our time. The Republican Congress hates it, but an incoming Republican president will grab a G2 that can work. And if it’s President Hillary….
  • Visions of Asia’s future have been offered to the Australian Parliament, in the addresses by Japan’s leader in July and this week by China and India. Add the Brisbane speech by the US President and Australia has a front-row seat for big picture explanations and exhortations. Obama’s rebalance recommitment stands beside Xi’s ‘big guy’ imagery. China’s President noted that many people ‘naturally wonder how the big guy will move and act and be concerned that the big guy may push them around, stand in their way, or even take up their place.’ As I heard this, the association that came to mind was the diatribe China’s Foreign Minister directed at ASEAN in Hanoi in 2010: ‘China is a big country. And you are all small countries.’ Xi, wasn’t making threats, but offering an image of peace and prosperity—or a big piece of prosperity. The big guy has a big taste for what Oz is selling.
  • The Free Trade Agreement signed by China and Australia disappointed some Oz farmers (rice, wheat, sugar and cotton) but in other areas delivered more than even optimists had hoped for. The out-of-the-quarry-and-into-services sentiment was expressed by the Australian Services Roundtable’s Ian Birks, who calls it a sensationally good deal: ‘It’s so far beyond what anyone expected that it looks to me to be more than just a trade deal with Australia but a statement by the Chinese government to the world.’ China’s statement to the world ups the ante in the competing Asian trade negotiations/narratives/visions—one led by the US (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the other centred on China (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). What the big guy has given Oz bilaterally is the basis for a multilateral banquet in the RCEP. The alternative to the TPP just got a big boost from the big guy.
  • On the sidelines of the G20, Australia, Japan and the US had their first trilateral leaders’ meeting since Sydney’s 2007 APEC. Tony Abbott had a chat with the big ‘A’ ally and the small ‘a’ ally. Almost as noteworthy was Abbott’s special meeting in Myanmar with the 10 leaders of ASEAN, marking the 40 years of Australia’s dialogue partnership with ASEAN. The big guy was the phantom at both feasts.
  • Modi Magic: Here comes India. The magic Modi delivered at the G20 was the settlement with the US—a food stockpile peace clause—giving a breath of life to the World Trade Organisation, the Doha round and the multilateral system. The summit demand for ‘announceables’ can produce real announcements. And while leaders come for the multilateral, they stay to do bilateral business. Australia tries to talk the talk about India as a major foreign policy priority. But Modi’s mere presence in Canberra—the first visit by an Indian PM in decades—injects a lot of India into Australia’s India policy.

Finally, two observations that can go in either the personality or policy categories. First, salute Andrew Robb as the standout can-do minister of the Abbott government. Australia’s Trade Minister performed as promised. In 12 months, he completed bilateral negotiations with South Korea, Japan and China—the three nations that take more than half of Australia’s exports. This column mocked the announcement of that deadline to achieve the three deals as a naive new government skipping into a minefield. Andrew Robb delivered; this columnist eats crow.

The other observation is that China is drilling down into Australia so deeply it has developed a Tasmania policy. Yes, after thrilling Canberra, Xi Jinping headed to the Apple Isle. The big guy gets around.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Twitter user TonyAbbottMHR.

Australia and Fiji go from duel to dance

Q: How do porcupines make love?

A: Carefully.

The joke sets up the Australia’s ‘new era of partnership and prosperity’ with Fiji. The goal is to avoid being impaled on the points while pursuing the pleasure. Fiji and Australia already have a lot of wounds to ignore as they embrace, carefully shifting from duel to dance. The dance will have elements of the old duel, with less overt slash and stab. But after eight years of nothing but duel, it’s back to ‘normal’ to explore what’s possible. Forget past pain to seek future gain. The new era of harmony, though, will be reached porcupine-fashion.

The embrace is cautious because the two nations have duelled for so long. Even as swords lower, the duel defines the starting point. The embrace of ‘normal’ is an attempt to think beyond the scars, yet the underlying reality of the duel persists. Much can be changed, and for the better. The new normal offers chances and the re-opening of channels that have been shut by both sides. Read more

The dance beyond the duel is about rebuilding the relationship. The dialogue—and any understanding—matters for the South Pacific, not least for the discussion Suva and Canberra are to lead on the regional architecture. The regionalism conversation between the status quo and the revisionist power will be fascinating, whatever fruit it bears.

Having spent two years waiting for an entry visa from Fiji, Australia’s High Commissioner, Margaret Twomey, finally gets to dance. The wait says something about the diverse weapons deployed in the duel—from mind games to multilateral minuets. Australia announced in December, 2012, that Twomey would go to Suva, restoring diplomatic relations to the highest level.

Despite giving formal agrément to Twomey’s appointment, Fiji’s regime refused to let her fill the post, to punish Australia for lack of respect. As with the quick peace-prosperity-and-partnership visit to Suva by the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, Twomey’s short flight from Oz to Fiji means the end of a long road; no Damascene conversions by either side, but with all sanctions lifted a new journey waits.

Twomey knows Fiji well from her previous time as Deputy High Commissioner during the 2000 coup, when Frank Bainimarama began the long march to his New Order. Having created his version of Suharto’s Golkar Party, Bainimarama rules as elected Prime Minister. Australia has accepted, as formally as it needs to, Frank’s New Order (and I’ve stopped calling him Supremo).

With democracy restored by his own hand, Bainimarama can’t get too paranoid if Australian diplomats talk to all levels of Fijian society. In the Supremo era, diplomatic activity by the Oz High Commission in the hills above Suva (Australia’s finest embassy building in the South Pacific) was seen as plotting to overthrow the New Order. Tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions followed. Furious Frank Funks are still likely, but ‘normal’ surely means all parts of Fijian society can enjoy their normal rights.

Australia had a lot of experience dealing with Suharto’s New Order and can apply those lessons. One obvious rule is to watch what the leader says, but attach real weight to what he does. Canberra is attempting a dialogue directed at actions and outcomes, while knowing there’s a good chance of gaps between declarations and deeds. Canberra is used to kicks from Suva (see Furious Frank Funks); they won’t hurt much if good things are also happening.

Another set of rules concern power and the courtiers. The role of Fiji’s Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, is already worth a book. Aiyaz has wrapped himself so closely around the throne it’s hard to say where the ruler ends and the Attorney-General starts. When Fiji’s Parliament sits, one form of spectator sport is to track whether Aiyaz is scribbling more notes of advice and instruction to the Prime Minister or the Speaker.

Restoring military relations will offer a useful space clear of Aiyaz and close to Frank. The New Order handbook says military-to-military is a vital regime window that helps set the relationship temperature. Having enjoyed the dubious delights of military education and training in China, Fiji’s officer corps is apparently looking forward to the professional and personal pleasures of the Australian Defence Force. At the ADF Weston Creek college, Sitiveni Rabuka and Bainimarama are both on the class honour roll—for achieving staff rank, not successful coups.

In an unusual twist to New Order habits, Australia may be more comfortable re-engaging Fiji’s military than Fiji’s police. That’s because the police answer to Aiyaz. The new dance with Suva has lots of complicated steps.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Dru.

Getting to yes for China’s Infrastructure Bank

Yes - ¥€$Australia, South Korea and Indonesia used their status to play coy on joining China’s new development bank. Canberra, Seoul and Jakarta felt they could stand back and await further blandishment while 20 Asian nations joined China to sign up for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank on October 24. But all the usual summitry scripts suggest the movement from coy ‘perhaps’ to ‘oh, yes’ starts today at Beijing’s APEC summit.

Indonesia is hinting it’ll be the first of the reluctant three to agree. It’d be quite a snub not to, given that President Xi Jinping announced the AIIB’s creation at Indonesia’s APEC talkfest last year. Getting to yes is a great way for Jokowi to start off with Xi.

The summit script says that Xi can then start to conjure personal chemistry to woo Australia’s PM and Korea’s President. Working together, Canberra and Seoul have demanded clarity and concessions from Beijing on governance, spending decisions, board structure and voting rights. Read more

Expect China to give ground to turn the coy two into converts (leaving Japan and the US as the two saying no). It’s a big ask, though, for Beijing to agree to less than half the voting rights in its own bank; an Asia asking China to play responsible stakeholder can’t quibble when Beijing stakes $50 billion. Stakeholder, indeed.

The theatrics and summit tempo call for Australia to be close to yes when Xi comes to address Federal Parliament on November 17, following Brisbane’s G20 summit. The Canberra script reads: stakeholder sunshine everywhere.

The danger is that Australia won’t get enough substance from China. Or that Beijing will get South Korea through the door alone. If Canberra goes from coyness to coldness, it’ll stand on no with Tokyo and Washington. AIIB membership means putting billions into the pot. Yet ultimately it’s not the money that’s the real judgment call. The judgment is over what sort of stakeholder Australia can be.

If Australia refuses to join China’s bank, it’ll ignore the John Howard precedent, fail the Howard test, and offer dangerous proof of Dr Mahathir’s fundamental prejudice. Precedent and prejudice in a moment.

First, see one of Oz’s geo-economic gurus and great APECer, Peter Drysdale, who calls the AIIB a ‘strategic choice point’ when Canberra shouldn’t be following Washington’s ‘negative’ and ‘churlish’ lead. On the geopolitics, see another great APECer, Paul Keating, who thinks ‘The government’s decision to decline founding membership of the Chinese-proposed Asian infrastructure bank is the worst policy decision the government has taken since assuming office’. The worst! Given the budget problems that afflicted the Abbott government in its first year, that certainly says something about the AIIB stakes.

In the next few weeks, the Prime Minister has the chance to snatch back that founding membership prize. Consider what Howard and Mahathir tell Abbott about the choice. The views of the former Malaysian leader trade at a huge discount in Canberra. Dr M was the Blizzard of Oz, raining on our Asia aspirations. That’s why it’s damning that the Abbott government could do something that proves so neatly Mahathir’s big prejudice.

Mahathir’s primary view was that on big, crunch issues Australia would always choose the US over Asia; when push came to shove, Oz was always willing to be Yanked. Saying no to the AIIB looks like a disastrous case of the Yanks. Mahathir and Keating would be in rare agreement.

Anything that proves Mahathir’s fundamental prejudice is bad for Oz, although calling Dr M in evidence doesn’t win many arguments around here. That’s why this column is leaning on John Howard who does get plenty of current reverence.

The Howard precedent is the way his government rejected the Washington consensus and US policy positions during the Asian financial meltdown of 1997-98. Australia joined Japan as the only individual countries to give special financial help to Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea. Howard argues that the psychological value of this Oz action was more important than the cash. And he takes pride in the way Australia attacked both the US government and the IMF over ‘harsh’ medicine prescribed by the Washington consensus, especially that applied to Indonesia.

The Howard precedent says Washington doesn’t always get the workings of Asian finance right, and Australia walks its own path. Add to that Howard’s dry, realist line about an ever-more powerful Beijing being entitled to its ‘prerogatives’. The Howard test is the one he proclaimed hundreds of times—Australia had the smarts and the ability to work both sides, to achieve the strongest and most productive of relationships with Washington and Beijing.

If the Abbott government fails the AIIB test, it fails the Howard test.​

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Alexandre Dulaunoy.

Australia as US satrap

Deputy SheriffThe former diplomatic mandarins of Oz think Australia is so committed to the US alliance it has mislaid its primary focus on Asia. A leading light of the ex-mandarins, John McCarthy, says Asia sees Australia as a US satrap, stating: ‘We have lost our way on Asia.’

The lament comes from a man who served as ambassador to Vietnam, Mexico, Thailand, the United States, Indonesia, Japan and India—a mandarin’s mandarin.

McCarthy says Australia’s decision not to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank illustrates the satrap image problem. The National Security Committee of Cabinet ruled against membership of China’s Asian bank on ‘strategic grounds’, after strong lobbying from President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Read more

McCarthy’s says it’s a ‘no brainer’ that Canberra should have rejected Washington’s pressure and agreed to join Beijing’s bank. His warning is not a call to step back from the alliance, to pick silly fights with Washington or to introduce false shades of difference in the alliance. Instead, it’s a plea for Australia to re-commit to its interests in Asia in ways that take it beyond the role of rusted-on US henchman.

As national president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, McCarthy told the Institute’s national conference in Canberra:

Asia is changing. If we are not seen as speaking for ourselves on security issues, people will not listen. They will see us—possibly, unhappily correctly—as an American satrap. An American satrap does not speak independently and any views we might have will simply be discounted.

The diplomatic mandarin class lined up to back McCarthy in questions and comments after his speech. Geoff Miller, 40 years a diplomat and former head of the Office of National Assessments: ‘We have to think for ourselves’. Miles Kupa, former DFAT deputy secretary, diagnoses a failure of the Oz ‘political class’. Richard Broinowski, former ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea and head of Radio Australia, says China’s going to force Australia to confront ‘more difficult choices’.

John McCarthy argues that 20 years ago the defining feature of Australian foreign policy was its focus on Asia. Australia saw itself as an Asian player and was accepted as such by Asia:

If you were asked today what is the defining feature of Australian foreign policy, my strong sense is the response you would get from leading interlocutors almost anywhere in the world is the proximity or the closeness of the US alliance…And it wouldn’t matter whether you talked to people in Europe or Northeast Asia or Southeast Asia. And that, I think, marks a very, very major sea change in the way we are now looking at the world as compared with the way we looked at the world 20 years ago.

McCarthy listed the rebuttals his satrap sally will get from serving diplomats and both sides of Oz politics:

  • the strength of trade relationships in Asia
  • bilateral trade agreements in Asia
  • work on the East Asia Summit and Australia’s continuing role in APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum
  • the number of two-way ministerial visits with Asia

(That final point, says McCarthy ‘is always used as a yardstick for the quality of the relationship with little reference often being made to the content of those visits’.)

McCarthy says the official and political response would be: ‘How can you be worried? Look at what we have done.’ But his observation, reinforced by talking to other Australian diplomats who spent years in Asia, is that for all the activity, Australia has lost sight of Asia as the fundamental and defining policy goal.

He sees that the intellectual understanding of the importance of Asia continues, but believes there’s not the energy and emotional commitment to that policy. America is easier and more comfortable for a country that belongs to an Anglo, Western tradition with a politics totally different to Asia:

It is far, far easier for a member of the Australian political class to go to Washington to be flattered by a people who are an enormously significant people, but with a capacity for flattering smaller nations which is really quite astonishing.

Australian political style—clash and smash and abuse—generates all sorts of misunderstandings in Asia. The Gillard government’s Asia Century White Paper, McCarthy says, was seen by Oz business and many parts of the community as a genuine effort to rejuvenate Australian thinking, yet it fell victim to Canberra habits:

There was a lot of political ducks and drakes going on. Eighteen ministers in the former government took credit for parts of it. By the time the politicians finished playing around with it, it bore no resemblance to what it was supposed to be. And, of course, the Opposition damned it with faint praise because it wasn’t theirs.

The Gillard government created the Asia Century White Paper but gave it no money; the Coalition ignored the policy because it didn’t own it. Politics isn’t the reason Australia refused to join China’s new Asia bank. Instead, the decision demonstrates Australia’s inability to look beyond the strategic terms of the alliance to serve its abiding Asian interests.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Dave Conner.

Julia on attack and defence

Then Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable Julia Gillard MP launching the Defence White Paper at No. 34 Squadron, Fairbairn.Julia Gillard writes that she inherited ‘unrealistic’ defence settings from Kevin Rudd and hints faintly that she bequeathed the same to the Abbott government. Just as Gillard needed a new defence policy because of Kevin Rudd, she needed a new Asia policy because of The Kevin. Gillard had to replace Rudd’s unaffordable and faltering Defence White Paper, while her Asia Century White Paper gave her a chunk of foreign policy without Rudd’s finger-prints all over it.

What was more important—the policy interests or the shadow of Kevin? Pointless question. Both sides of the equation were vital.

Remember Rule 1 of understanding Canberra: ‘It’s always personal‘. The personal shapes power and shifts policy; see Gillard’s grand swipe at Rudd and Bob Carr: ‘After the 2010 election, I never had a Foreign Minister I could rely on’.

Gillard’s book is useful on defence policy, if not as vivid in its verbal voltage as it is about Rudd’s ‘destabilisation’, ‘leaking’ and ‘treachery’. In such a spirit, turn to Julia’s demolition of the 2009 Defence White Paper. She makes familiar criticisms. But this is the Deputy Prime Minister who was present at the creation (of the mess). On the Rudd White Paper, Gillard writes: ‘The overblown nature of the prose had drawn an adverse reaction from the Chinese and the budget rule laid out in the White Paper for defence expenditure was unrealistic and almost immediately breached’. Read more

Gillard writes herself into a key moment of that overblown and unrealistic effort. The deputy PM filled in for Rudd as chair of the National Security Committee for a ‘pivotal’ meeting on reallocation of funds within Defence and new White Paper spending priorities: ‘When the meeting had to break into a series of side conversations in the corners of the Cabinet room, it was obvious that the process was unravelling and the final product would suffer as a result’. Memo to Tony Abbott: watch those side conversations in the Cabinet corners at crunch moments for next year’s White Paper.

Gillard disposes of her 2013 Defence White Paper in two paragraphs. She thinks it ‘set more modest and realistic ambitions’ and the document was ‘methodical and careful’. The muted pass mark rests on the admission: ‘Our government did not find the complete solutions’. Savour that negative nod as a moment when a politician hints that things possibly, perhaps, perchance, went less than perfectly.

Gillard gets all the headaches into one true, terse sentence: ‘Defence has historically faced massive cost, time and capability problems when undertaking major procurements’. Yep. Thus, next year, Australia will get its third Defence White Paper in six years. This is quite something for a country that had been getting by with one White Paper a decade. Are the problems bigger or the deciders smaller?

On the conflict she presided over, Gillard concludes that Australia was right to commit to its longest war but hard news looms: ‘In Afghanistan, I fear that we are to be disappointed again as democratic progress is stalled, even partially eroded, by poverty, governance incapacity, corruption, tribal politics and the predominance of the Taliban being reasserted in some areas’.

Gillard’s big shift on the alliance was the announcement during President Obama’s Canberra visit that the US Marines would train in northern Australia. Considering the policy in Cabinet, the big worries were ‘another nation’s soldiers training on our soil’ and ‘the concerns of the foreign policy establishment about the regional reaction’.

Offering a fine rendering of the mix of personality, power, politics and policy in any such choice, Gillard describes how she rejected a cautious, small-steps approach to the Marines to go all-the-way-with-Obama:

I came to this view not because it was going to be easy, indeed managing regional reaction, particularly China’s, had a high degree of difficulty. Rather I thought it was the right decision strategically for the future. It would meet an American need. It would facilitate joint training and exercises at a time beyond both our deployments to Afghanistan. It would show our preparedness to modernise the alliance between our nations. It would also send a self-confident message to our region that Australia was not succumbing to a dogma of false choices between valuing our alliance and our relationships in the region in which we live. I was also absolutely confident that the days of progressive Left protests against an American presence on Australian soil were behind us, and contemporary politics, including an America led by a Democrat, meant this initiative would be well received.

Julia was confident about handling the Oz Left and the Right of the Chinese Communist Party.

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

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.

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.

Canberra’s unholy trinity

APH facadeHere’s Canberra lore—or three rules of an Unholy Trinity—explaining how politicians operate. When nothing makes sense, rely on the Trinity pulsing beneath the surface of party, parliament and government:

  1. It’s always personal
  2. There’s always a deal
  3. Follow the money.

I claim no custody of this lore. Spend four decades in the company of politicians in this town and the Unholy Trinity becomes a trusty guide. The rules have general application. Thucydides would have jotted them down if only he’d spent more time in the press gallery. Machiavelli penned a version for princes. Read more

When the Trinity parades in public, the rules appear as power, politics and policy. Rule one, the personal, is the power dimension. Rule two, the deal, is the politics. And money is ever a synonym for policy. In this discussion, other fundamentals of passion, principle and purpose sit on a different mountain—one at the other end of the range, shrouded in cloud.

To jargonise, the rules describe crucial inputs; the outputs are government and legislation. Government and law are done in writing while the Trinity operates an oral culture. The personal calculations and deals are done face to face. Talking comes first. The write-up happens later to dress the deal as policy. The Canberra press gallery reports politics as high-gossip-with-added-facts-and-figures to hint at what goes on in the big building under the giant flag, home to the three rules, two Houses and one government:

1. It’s always personal
The ‘What’s in it for me?’ and ‘How could this hurt me?’ questions are only part of the rule, although never to be discounted. As Jack Lang taught Paul Keating; ‘Bet on self-interest, it’s a horse that’s always trying’. Beyond glory and greed, render ‘always personal’ as the ‘will to power’, with all the personality baggage loaded onto that one phrase—ambition, ego, hatred, fear. Only driven personalities apply. The terrain is treacherous, the rewards as great as the risks. More fall off the mountain than reach the peak.

Isaiah Berlin catches the first two rules in Political Judgement when arguing that the politician’s art has few ‘laws’ and little ‘science’. Instead, personal instinct and skills are decisive. The skilled politician grasps ‘the unique combination of characteristics that constitute this particular situation—this and no other…the character of a particular moment, of a particular individual, of a unique state of affairs, of a unique atmosphere, of some particular combination of economic, political, personal factors’.

The ‘always personal’ rule is about the individual politician’s mix of experience, imagination, intuition and luck. Then the rule broadens to encompass the personalities of all the other politicians in the tribe (party), because the best allies and worst enemies sit beside you. Skill is about seizing the emerging pattern or surviving the crisis, making the call or doing the deal, building for a win or swerving to minimise loss. At the peak, this is Bismarck’s statesman able to hear the footsteps of history; down on the lower slopes it’s doing the numbers and judging the mood of caucus. While no qualification is needed to be a politician, a lot of qualities are needed to be good at it.

2. There’s always a deal
If to govern is to choose, then to politic is to deal. Australians want good government and law but aren’t keen on the politics that produce those fine sausages. Barry Humphries, comic genius, national treasure, and creator of snout-in-the-trough-supremo Sir Les Patterson, delivers a verdict from the heart of Oz, mocking Canberra’s dramas as ‘the battle of the dwarves’. A more understanding but equally ironic version was that of a wonderful old press gallery hack who used to proclaim in the non-members bar: ‘I’m shocked, shocked to discover that base and grubby politics is being played here in the heart of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia’.

The oral culture of the deal can burst into spectacular view: the Kirribilli agreement when Hawke promised Keating the succession in front of two witnesses and the similar moment when Howard promised to hand over to Costello because ‘one-and-a-half terms would be enough’. Both leaders reneged, which points you straight back to rule one on power and personality.

3. The golden rule is that gold rules.
When you can’t decipher the personalities, and the deals are safely secret, the money trail points the way up the mountain.

With the rules as aid, turn to the memoir by Australia’s 27th Prime Minister. My Story is a good and revealing work, although often in ways Julia Gillard might not intend. She writes how her eyes were set on the far peak where purpose and principle reside, but the Real Story is the struggle on the mountain where the Unholy Trinity rules.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Dave Sutherland.

General MacArthur on the US pivot to Oz

Macarthur and Curtin2

Turn to Douglas MacArthur for a tough and true description of what Australia means to the United States.

It’s 1942. The US commander is meeting Australia’s Prime Minister John Curtin to plan the war against Japan and America’s new alliance with Australia.

MacArthur tells Curtin that America sees Australians as a bunch of bronzed Brits, tied to Britain by blood, sentiment and allegiance to the Crown. That analysis shows its age, but MacArthur’s following thoughts resonate today as they did 72 years ago:

The United States was an ally whose aim was to win the war, and it had no sovereign interest in the integrity of Australia. …In view of the strategical importance of Australia in war with Japan, this course of military action would probably be followed irrespective of the American relationship to the people who might be occupying Australia.

Read more

Australia now has a standing alliance with the US and the two countries have done a lot together in the intervening 72 years. Any US general today would be far more polite and lay it on with a trowel; we certainly do. Still, MacArthur’s underlying thought holds. Australia is a marvellous bit of big real estate. It wouldn’t matter if the continent was occupied by Hottentots or Helots, the US would have strategic interests in Oz.

The realism beneath the rhetoric works in both directions. Australia knows the benefits it banks from Uncle Sam. Whether via treaty or mere habit, the US now has an interest in Oz’s territorial integrity. The role and worth of the alliance is one of the currents that runs through Australia’s Defence: Towards a New Era?, the first book of Melbourne University Press’ series on Australian strategy.

The quote from MacArthur—the sort of gem that turns archives dross into diamonds—is from Peter Dean’s fine chapter on the alliance. His work—and several other parts of New Era—rebut the argument of the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, that Australia is being conned, dunned and mislead by the US.

Peter Dean argues that the benefits Australia draws from the alliance far outweigh the costs. In intelligence, he writes, Australia is ‘an immense beneficiary’ and our access to US technology ‘rivals or surpasses the intelligence sharing access’. Dean endorses the view that from Vietnam to Iraq, Australia has been a hound dog, not a lap dog; no innocent victim, Oz has had a keen nose for its own purposes.

In the China decades of the Asian century, the US is coming afresh to MacArthur’s understanding about Oz real estate. Australia can give American forces strategic depth, operating bases, a site for prepositioning equipment, plus space and facilities for training; that’s what the 25 year Force Posture agreement signed at the August AUSMIN is all about.

MacArthur would have nodded knowingly at the trade-offs between sovereign interest and strategic intent that run through the Force Posture treaty, such as Article XII:

Vessels and vehicles operated by or exclusively for United States Forces may enter, exit, and move freely within the territory and territorial sea of Australia.

As the Americans rebalance our way, they might be impolite enough to ask Oz to put weight behind its usual words. Peter Dean observes:

Australia will find it much more difficult to commit small, niche and largely single service military forces to any potential US-led operation in Southeast Asia or the eastern Indian Ocean. Rather than simply doing our reasonable share as we have done for the past sixty years, it is likely the US will ask Australia to actually “punch above its weight” in the future.

The vision of Australia having to do more with the US where we live rings alarms for Malcolm Fraser. The Fraser lap-dog view of Oz doesn’t give much weight to the value the ol’ hound has extracted from the deal.

For that perspective, see Mark Thomson’s chapter in New Era:

For the past sixty years, the unspoken reality has been that we have “free ridden” on the efforts of the US. Since the late 1970s, it has all but been written into our defence policy. Australia has designed a defence force to defend its territory and explicitly relegated regional security under ANZUS to an afterthought.

As Mark observes, it has been easy for Oz to look good because of its ‘willingness to free ride just a little bit less than others’. MacArthur would understand that, too.

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

A new era for Australian defence 

Sydney Opera HouseTitles are always difficult, so give a good mark to ‘Australia’s Defence: Towards a New Era?

Mixing pickiness with praise, tick the ‘new era’ idea while guffawing at the question mark hanging off the title. Making the title a question is symptomatic of the timidity that gives academics a bad name. Don’t assert your argument, seek cover behind a query. Put a question mark in the title, then spend 344 pages ‘interrogating’ the question. Really? Oh, dear? Enough? This question-thingy does funny things to writing, eh?

Please disregard my querulous start. All praise for this first book in MUP’s series on strategy and warfare in Australia’s region.

Even as Iraq and the previous decade call again, the book makes the case that Oz faces new times, positioned between a rising China and a rebalancing America. The era will test Australia’s middle-power status and challenge its traditional vow to maintain a technological edge over regional militaries. Read more

One product that’ll struggle as a new era marker is the coming Defence White Paper. The 2015 Paper will be the third such defining document in six years; these are evolving iterations, handmaidens rather than harbingers. Still, the proposition that Australia confronts a new era can stand tall as a statement, not cower as a question.

Where the book shines in conception and execution is in its building on a foundational tome of Oz strategic studies, Tom Millar’s ‘Australia’s Defence’, published in 1965 (my copy is stamped from the ship’s library of HMAS Melbourne). The New Era volume is good enough to sit beside Millar; in this realm, praise comes no higher.

The Millar base and quality writers deliver a book that works as a set of excellent variations on the central theme rather than disparate essays—the chapters are from a mix of old guns (style them heavy artillery) and an insurgency of young guns (impressive new firepower).

Writing well about Australian politics, defence and strategic culture is a deeply difficult task. Russell Trood is one of the few who can do it from the inside and from the academy, as an International Relations Professor and Liberal Senator. His chapter launches New Era by considering an Australian strategic culture ‘infused with traditions and ways of acting and behaving that shape policy processes as much as they contribute to policy outcomes’.

One tradition is how Australia gets Defence Ministers. The former Senator is blunt—talent isn’t the top qualification to run Defence:

‘Holding office at the will of the standing prime minister, ministers invariably find themselves appointed for reasons other than talent—party political and factional balance, seniority and accommodation of state interests being most prominent among them. Regardless of the motivations, however, the regrettable record is that most occupants of the Defence Minister’s office have served for a relatively short time. Much the same came be said of Secretaries of Defence, of whom there has been a steady procession. In neither case has this been helpful to the stability of leadership in Defence or contributed to the continuity of policymaking.’

Trood judges Defence a portfolio where ‘persistent and repeated policy failures have exposed widespread shortcomings and weaknesses in the management of the department, eroded public confidence in the political and organisational leadership of defence and begun to undermine its historic and hard won reputation as one of the iconic and centrally important institutions of Australian society.’

Trood’s solution is not another independent review. Defence has had 15 of them since 2003. They are used for policy failure, to seek change, as political tool and to manage internal controversies, but Trood thinks Defence has become too dependent on reviews as a mechanism of governance.

Other old guns are equally quick on the draw. Paul Dibb shows again why he’s the Master; Richard Brabin-Smith is still the Sage.

The Sage can be sharp. The final sentence of the book is Brab calling for Defence to be treated ‘more like the instrument of state policy that it is, and less like a constituency that has to be flattered and cajoled’. His force structure chapter is a meditation on risks and resources beyond most people’s ken. The demand is for judgment, hard choices and big calls stretching decades.

The Master’s Strategy chapter is classic Dibb:

‘…a map of one’s own country is the most fundamental of all defence documentation. However, it is still conspicuously missing in force structure arguments coming from the single services, as well as some so-called expert commentators. The abiding nature of Australia’s continental geography and its maritime surrounds should be an iron discipline in determining force structure priorities and ADF dispositions.’

Salvos aplenty!

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of See-ming Lee.

What Jokowi confronts

Through the Suharto years, the economists were optimistic about Indonesia and the political scientists were pessimistic. Now the roles have reversed.

With the explosion of Indonesian democracy, the political types can hardly contain their joy at the rich vistas—oh, what glory to study the cornucopia that is today’s Indonesia. The economists have reverted to type as exponents of the dismal science. The role switch was on display at the 32nd annual Indonesia Update at the Australian National University the other day.

Professor Hal Hill, one of the two most cheerful economists I know—with a grin to match his smarts—opined that Indonesia is at an economic crossroads, facing its most difficult period since the 1997–98 financial crisis toppled Suharto. Prof Hal sees a complete disconnect between the political narrative of this election year and the economic reality facing Indonesia. Read more

The optimism of the political analysts was best expressed by Dewi Fortuna Anwar, from the office of Indonesia’s Vice President, describing a modern Asian success story: ‘Indonesia is stronger, more democratic and more united than it was ten years ago.’

In the classic Indonesian manner, they are both right. The tensions between the economic and political visions are captured in Dr Peter McCawley’s new ASPI paper. Peter’s my other cheerful economist; perhaps having devoted his life to development economics, optimism rates as a professional need as well as personal trait.

In the ASPI interview with McCawley, we started with the series of summits Jokowi will attend as soon as he is sworn in—APEC in Beijing, East Asia Summit in Naypyitaw and the G20 in Brisbane. McCawley suggests Jokowi might quickly adopt the mantle of a Javanese leader and just ‘nod and listen’.

Even in considering the trio of summits and Jokowi’s new leadership of ASEAN, the discussion quickly reverts to Indonesian domestic dynamics—from money politics to the institutional limits confronting the new president.

Will Jokowi, like SBY, preside not rule, govern not change? As McCawley observes, power is dispersed:

We are now learning something about the position of the presidency of Indonesia. What does it mean to be the President of Indonesia? And how much real power does the presidency hold? Joko Widowo and SBY are far closer in the powers they have to the President of the United States than they are to, say, the Prime Minister of Australia. The President of the US always has to bargain with the Congress and finds it quite difficult and is sometimes subject to surprising rulings from the judiciary as well; that traditional three prongs of power, the administration, the legislature and the judiciary…It’s a mistake to assume—and this is becoming clearer and clearer—it’s a mistake to assume that the President of Indonesia can necessarily easily get his way with the legislature. For 40 years we lived with President Suharto who made parliament look quite unimportant. The game has changed dramatically now. This will be tested in the next three months, six months, under President Joko Widodo.

In his ASPI paper, McCawley writes that the two economic scenarios on offer are an outward-looking reform path that would be politically tough to implement versus  a populist and nationalist resilience path that would turn Indonesia inwards:

If there are strong pressures on Joko Widodo, including from the parliament, to adopt populist policies, the incoming government may find it difficult to promote strong economic growth. In an inward-looking resilience scenario in which the government faces resistance to reform measures, the overall rate of economic growth could remain relatively low, perhaps below 6% per year. That wouldn’t be sufficient to provide jobs for the expanding labour force, and unemployment could be expected to rise. Criticism of Widodo’s leadership would be likely to grow. The first requirement for a higher rate of growth is a sustained level of investment of over 30% of GDP. But increasing nationalism would be likely to discourage foreign investment, particularly in the oil and mining sectors. In turn, that would also tend to constrain domestic investment. In that case, the other sectors of the economy could also become sluggish before too long.

The interview finishes on Australia and Indonesia (their elites understand Oz a lot better than our elites understand the giant next door, McCawley observes) and the neighbourly echoes to be found in political jokes.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow.