Australia and its Region

Canberra’s Indonesia policy: imperatives collide in fate of Chan and Sukumaran

Demonstration in support of Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

Many Australian observers of Indonesian politics may have assumed that the election of Joko Widodo as Indonesia’s seventh president would augur well for the bilateral relationship. After all, the former municipal governor came not from Jakarta’s political oligarchies, but appeared a humble, self-made entrepreneur and committed democrat.

Moreover, ‘Jokowi’, as he was affectionately termed, had a proven record of good governance and service delivery. His impromptu visits or ‘blusukan’ as Jakarta governor delighted residents of the capital, who’d grown tired of Indonesia’s corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy failing to deliver on service efficiencies. Read more

For the international community, Jokowi’s victory illustrated the triumph of democratic values in Indonesia’s post-authoritarian political culture. His election policy platform (Visi Misi Program Aksi), for example, included strong commitments to corruption eradication, good governance and human rights. Furthermore, his election win at the expense of former Army general Prabowo Subianto, alleged perpetrator of serious human rights violations and proponent of democratic regression, was received well by the international community.

But in just over three months as president, Jokowi hasn’t quite turned out as the kind of president many foreign observers—and indeed Indonesians—expected. His commitment to democratic norms and good neighbourliness appears far more conditional.

This is evident in a number of domestic and foreign policy developments. First, Jokowi’s reluctance to exert his executive authority to end the latest battle between the Indonesian National Police (POLRI) and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has eroded his popular legitimacy. POLRI’s efforts to criminalise the KPK leadership in retaliation for their investigation of Commissioner General Budi Gunawan, who was approved recently as new police chief by both the parliament (DPR) and president, highlights just how far Indonesia has to go in terms of good governance and security sector reform.

Ironically, in the context of the POLRI–KPK battle, the fact that Jokowi doesn’t emanate from a security force background, unlike former generals Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and rival presidential candidate Prabowo, proves more of an impediment than an advantage. A high-ranking military background would have most certainly given the president greater authority over Indonesia’s police force—which has a reputation for systemic corruption.

True, Jokowi’s policy choices and political behaviour can be understood as a manifestation of the political constraints he faces. Jokowi is beholden to Megawati Soekarnoputri’s political vehicle, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), to govern (at least for now). As such, Jokowi has little choice but to compromise with Megawati on key political appointments.

In the foreign policy realm, however, it’s Jokowi’s pragmatic, business-oriented mind, which sees diplomacy more in transactional terms rather than as a means of regional community-building and a vehicle for promoting human rights. Under Jokowi, Indonesia has become more nationalistic and uncompromising in its external relations. The razing of foreign vessels seized fishing illegally in Indonesia’s waters, for example, has rattled Indonesia’s neighbours. In addition, there are concerns Indonesia’s new cost-benefit calculus of diplomatic relations—evident in the prioritisation of trade and investment promotion—comes at the expense of Indonesia’s commitment to ASEAN.

Unfortunately, it’s now Australia’s turn to contend with the consequences of a different leadership style and changed policy focus in Jakarta. The impending execution of two Australian narcotics offenders, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, represents a classic ‘intermestic’ policy dilemma for Australia, aside from a personal tragedy for the individuals and families involved.

Contending with elements of Australian civil society intensely critical of Indonesia’s human rights approach whilst pursuing close and constructive relations with Jakarta proved a significant policy challenge for Canberra during the decades of Indonesia’s repressive New Order regime. From the mid-1970s till 1999, for example, Australian human rights activists, trade unions, the West Papua lobby, church groups and pro-East Timor organisations railed against an Indonesia policy they considered unprincipled, whilst Canberra pursued national interests and regional stability through a cooperative working relationship with Jakarta.

Indonesia now looks set to enter a difficult political period with less appetite to compromise on what it identifies as its core national interests. That will have both domestic political and foreign policy repercussions for Australia. As the democratic consolidation achieved under SBY appears more fragile and Indonesia reverts to a more hardline policy approach, Australian governments will be forced to contend with conflicting policy imperatives. Sadly, Chan and Sukumaran are the current personification of such tensions.

Greta Nabbs-Keller is the director of Dragonminster Consulting, a Brisbane-based company providing Indonesia expertise to government and private sector clients. She is a non-resident research fellow of the Perth USAsia Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user ivanatman.

Symbolism and strategy on 26 January

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India travel by motorcade en-route to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Sept. 30, 2014.

Mention 26 January and the thoughts of Australians jump quickly to barbeques, beaches and cricket. But this post isn’t about Australia Day. Many Australians will be aware that Indians celebrate their Republic Day on 26 January. This year, the 66th since the Indian constitution entered into force in 1950, will be no different. Festivities in New Delhi will centre around the Republic Day Parade, a showcase of the country’s defence capabilities—‘the glories and follies old and new of the Indian armed forces, from camel regiments to tanks to ballistic missiles’—alongside the lush diversity of Indian culture. Moreover, Barack Obama is set to attend this year’s parade as the invited chief guest, the first time a US president has received the honour. Obama’s attendance represents a diplomatic coup for Indian PM Narendra Modi. It’s yet another sign that relations between India and the US are being reinvigorated, and serves as a reminder of the foreign policy dynamism Modi has displayed since his election last May.

The Republic Day parade will be rich in symbolism for both leaders. The imagery of an American president watching on as India flexes its military muscle won’t escape the attention of India’s neighbours. That Obama’s trip marks the first time a US president has visited India twice while in office (he visited in 2010) will bring additional diplomatic cachet. The chief guest role will offer simple yet important sponsorship of the ‘rebalance’; it’ll similarly illustrate Modi’s support for a continuing American role in Asia. Read more

Obama’s trip to India comes just four months after Modi was in the US—a sign of the momentum in the bilateral relationship. The joint statement that came out of Modi’s September visit illustrated steady progress on a range of security issues. The decision was taken to renew for another 10 years the 2005 Framework for the US–India Defense Relationship, and pledges were made to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation, to deepen military-to-military contact, and to ‘upgrade’ the Malabar naval exercise. The statement reiterated support for India’s phased entry to the key non-proliferation regimes and established a contact group to push forward on civil nuclear cooperation. That Ashton Carter, Obama’s SECDEF nominee, has long championed US–India relations and seems a popular pick in India is unlikely to do the relationship any harm. Still, real challenges to closer US–India relations remain: distraction and competing priorities for Obama, and an historical commitment to strategic autonomy for Modi.

Modi’s decision to invite Obama recalls the symbolism and strategy of former Indian PM Manmohan Singh’s hosting of Japanese PM Shinzō Abe as chief guest last year. High expectations were attached to Abe’s 2014 visit, given his long-standing admiration of India and belief in the great potential of the bilateral relationship. (In his 2006 book, Abe wrote, ‘it would not surprise me if in another decade Japan–India relations overtake US–Japan and Japan–China ties.’)

The Japan–India embrace has tightened considerably since last May; the Abe­–Modi bonhomie runs deep beyond bearhugs. Both are nationalistic, conservative leaders; both were elected with mandates to restart their economies and reclaim lost pride; and both are playing for a greater role in underwriting peace and stability in the Asia–Pacific. Both PMs are apprehensive about China’s rise—historical tensions and territorial disputes abound—on the back of which they’ve sought to engage more with the US, regional partners and multilateral security architectures. The upgraded ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’ that resulted from Modi’s 5-day visit to Tokyo last September bore witness to growing affinity and shared ambition; so too did last week’s strategic dialogue between foreign ministers, brought back into play after two years on the bench. As Abe increases military spending for a third consecutive year (following 11 years of decline), the steady development of a balancing arc between Tokyo and New Delhi, across China, is an indication of the ‘proactive contribution’ to regional peace and stability that both leaders seek to make.

While the US has been drawn to various global flash points, the rebalance has quietly trundled along. It has become a standard administration line to encourage allies and partners in the Asia–Pacific to deepen and broaden cooperation. So the Asian elements of the one-time Quad—Japan, India and Australia—are holding the line in this respect. Australia should continue to aver strong support for the more active role that both Japan and India, separately and together, seek to play in the region. And with a freshly minted Framework for Security Cooperation with India and a ‘quasi-alliance’ with Japan, Australia should look for and jump at opportunities to foster cooperation. What happens in and from those relationships will serve as important support for a US rebalance that’s materially underway but politically underpowered.

David Lang is an analyst at ASPI and an editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of The White House.

The 2014 Australia–PNG Ministerial Forum: announcables and unannouncables

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, other Australian government ministers and business leaders at the ministerial forum in Port Moresby.

A week after a serious military–police clash in Port Moresby went largely unreported in Australia, prompting some commentators to warn that PNG mightn’t always muddle-through potential crises, it’s reassuring that four of our high-profile ministers attended Monday’s annual bilateral talks. Government, at least, still takes the relationship seriously. But even the Forum struggled for column inches, coinciding as it did with the Sydney hostage drama and federal budget update. So it’s worth a quick look at its key outcomes as a snapshot of bright-spots and challenges in the partnership.

The headline announcement that 50 asylum-seekers on Manus have been categorised as genuine refugees could have come wrapped in Christmas paper. Port Moresby goes along with the line that it’s simply playing its part helping to counter a regional challenge, but sees its contribution to our tough border-protection stance as a big favour. Reading the fine print, the first 50 successful applicants for refugee status from the 1,044 detainees on Manus will have to move to a temporary facility until PNG finalises a resettlement policy allowing them to integrate into PNG. Still, progress is welcome, as PNG resents the reputational impact of hosting the centre, extra strain on its weak administrative capacity, and friction from our constant prodding to please hurry up. Read more

Some critics of offshore processing may suggest the Forum’s muted language on corruption in general, and silence about the evaporation of Taskforce Sweep funding after it turned on its master, stem from our own difficult position on Manus. But for reasons I’ve set out elsewhere, I’d say it arises more from a calculation that megaphone diplomacy would be counter-productive. And even Sean Dorney—hardly a slouch on the Pacific or human rights—observes that, whatever you think about Manus, it has increased cooperation between the two countries.

Moreover, a desire to promote good governance lies at the heart of another of the Forum’s big deliverables: agreement to establish a School of Business and Public Policy to help rebuild an effective and ethical public sector. Although its aim to ‘transform PNG’s public service’ is ambitious given the scale of problems faced and resources available, this initiative fits Canberra’s strategic intent to focus on transformative projects: it makes sense to try to help Port Moresby get more out of its own spending as our aid sinks below 10% of PNG’s budget. The initiative also accords with encouraging data from a recent study suggesting that improved performance of PNG Government agencies to deliver development outcomes, though hardly inevitable, is far from impossible.

Australia’s offer to help PNG get ready for APEC 2018 can also be seen in a transformational light. Summit preparations will depend on putting the security, logistical and other practical arrangements in place so Port Moresby can meet its hosting responsibilities (no mean feat). But if we can also help PNG showcase a real take-off, lift its sights, and be taken seriously in the big league of Asia, chances are we’ll be able to rely on it playing a constructive leadership role in the South Pacific (as it has on West Papua, Fiji, and Solomon Islands) almost as a matter of course.

In the security sphere, the Forum announced a repositioning of our 73 AFP cops’ support for PNG police, to focus more on organisational capacity-building and training (broadly along the lines David Connery and I recommended in October) given their lack of legal protections and powers. Defence Ministers Johnston and Pok also held military talks. We’d hope they’re right behind Commander PNGDF’s ‘Companies of Excellence’ concept, given the role of new troops in the recent clash between PNGDF and police.

Following the Forum, Julie Bishop travelled to Bougainville, where next year’s Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) election, further debate about mining, and a referendum by 2020 loom. Major reinvestment in infrastructure is happening, WWII bomb-disposal efforts show the ABG can negotiate sensitive activities, efforts to extend radio-reach beyond 20% of Bougainvilleans are finally underway, and even the PNGDF and former-Bougainville Revolutionary Army have started reconciling. Yet communications between Port Moresby and the ABG, though apparently improved, remain unpredictable.

Bishop also visited Goroka, partly to follow-up a new plan to promote gender-equality in PNG—another crucial generational endeavour.

Earlier, Bishop had co-chaired a meeting of the Australia–PNG Business Council. Here, although there’s a buoyant outlook, with PNG set to achieve world-beating LNG-driven GDP growth, the economy remains fragile, the budget problematic, and the sovereign wealth fund a work-in-progress.

Of course, some of the same forces affect our own economy, with iron-ore and oil prices (which govern LNG revenue) nearly halved this year, prompting Monday’s savage cuts to our overseas aid. Port Moresby knows Bishop will try to insulate PNG, and that freezing aid spending in May was popular here. Nor should PNG necessarily be left untouched as other recipients reel. But there are smarter alternatives for helping balance the books than cutting aid to ‘fund critical national security to keep Australians safe’ where our humanitarian and strategic interests are so closely connected.

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Australian High Commission in Papua New Guinea Facebook page

The Oz taxi test in the South Pacific

Fiji Pacific Harbour taxi.

To see how deeply Australia reaches into the South Pacific, try the taxi test.

Hop into a taxi anywhere in the Islands and negotiate to pay the fare in Australian dollars.

My random survey over three decades finds it’s an easy negotiation anywhere in Melanesia and much of Polynesia, especially Tonga and Samoa.

The Oz dollar fails the taxi test in Cook Islands, where the cabs can’t see beyond New Zealand. Interestingly though, Oz currency is often acceptable in New Zealand cabs. The Kiwi cabbie, of course, lives by standard Kiwi rules about exploiting gormless Australians, so usually wants to do the exchange rate at one-for-one; robbery more outrageous than the banditry at airport currency kiosks. Read more

In Melanesia, the taxi man can be relied on to know the going exchange rate to the second decimal. Allowing for commission, tip and rounding up for the whole note, it tends to be a fair exchange. Plus, it breaks the conversation ice. And interviewing taxi experts on current issues of politics, diplomacy and gossip is a standard rule of the travelling hack’s handbook (foreign correspondent chapter). In the Islands, the coconut wireless tells amazing stories—and the most amazing thing is how often they’re true.

My taxi research methodology is slapdash. The survey began merely because I was usually in a hurry, the banks always seemed to be closed, and the exchange rate offered by pubs is as extortionate as airports. After a while, though, it became part of the fun of the Pacific. The findings are offered as fact-based on another hack handbook rule: one incident is an anecdote, two constitute a trend, three similar events are hard statistical evidence. You can see the fellow feeling for the coconut wireless.

Turn now to the places where the Oz dollar doesn’t amount to fair exchange for a fare. In Micronesia, the greenback rules—only the US dollar will do. And several times over the years, attempts to do the deal in New Caledonia got a non, variously bemused, amused or straight contempt delivered with that hauteur the French are so good at.

To give the full French flavour, in several senses, I was in Noumea covering a visit by Australia’s Foreign Minister in the early 90s when it was announced with a flourish that the import duty imposed on Australian cheeses would be lifted. A cheerful French official advised this was because the relationship was improving after a bad period, plus Gareth Evans was a delightful man, despite his dreadful French (see my account here of Gareth trying to tell a joke in French) and New Caledonia was opening to its neighbours. Off the record, the French official concluded, lifting the duty wasn’t evidence that Australian cheese had actually improved.

With all that as prelude, I report an interesting finding—Noumea has changed sides on the taxi test. The Oz dollar is now as acceptable as the Euro and the French Pacific franc. And—zut alors!—the shops around the port are displaying prices in Oz dollars as well.

The reason for the shift is the giant cruise ships that now ply the South Pacific, sailing from the Oz east coast. In season, a dozen of these behemoths call in port each month, disgorging thousands of passengers, the great majority of them Australians. The extraordinary growth of cruises in the South Pacific in the last decade underlines an old lesson—relatively small shifts by Australia can have big impacts in the Islands. This is a new industry with a lot of history.

Australians heading to board their liner in Sydney, berthed by The Rocks near the old Sailors Home and the Maritime building, will speed by the Burns Philp building in Bridge Street, standing in testament to the great South Pacific shipping company that started off sailing tourists to PNG in 1884.

Going out into the South Pacific, Australians are surprised to find the Islands know us a lot better than we know them. Indeed, they remember our history in the region better than we do. Just ask the older caldoche cohort in Noumea whose vision of perfidious Oz recalls the Australian Navy turning up in the harbour early in World War II to ensure New Caledonia stayed true, no matter what happened in Vichy France.

The simple moral is that Australia matters in the South Pacific. And sometimes we have impacts without even realising that we’ve hit. Almost any taxi driver can tell you that tale, for only a small commission.

Graeme Dobell is ASPI’s journalist fellow. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user emmett anderson.

Preserving the knowledge edge: surveillance cooperation and the US–Australia alliance in Asia (Part 2)

Heron detachment Payload Operator, Flight Lieutenant Zalie Munro-Rustean, in the Ground Control Station at the Heron compound at Kandahar Airfield. Due to wrap up at the end of 2014, the Heron detachment has provided high resolution intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability in support of Australian and Coalition troops. The RAAF will retain one of the detachment's Heron's, which will join the one already  at Woomera.

Last week ASPI published Preserving the knowledge edge: surveillance cooperation and the US–Australia alliance in Asia (PDF). This short and sharp Strategic Insight focuses on why the C4ISR relationship with the US in the Indo-Pacific provides such a critical benefit to both members in the alliance, and what Australia can do to sustain and extend its contribution to the global American C4ISR system. We reproduce the second part of the report here (the first part can be found here on The Strategist).

Australia’s geography, its relationship with the US and its own technical and human resources could together be an essential element in the necessary response [to enhancing the surveillance efforts of the US]. Australia should sustain and extend its contribution to the global American C4ISR system in the areas where Australia can add most value, and where Australia will be able to gain most from being able to access the data that flows across it. This will be likely to prove more important to regional deterrence and stability than the acquisition of more visible Australian strategic weight, such as ships, aircraft and vehicles, no matter how advanced or versatile such new platforms may be. The continuing advance of technology means that such support will need to evolve constantly. The key criterion that must be kept in mind will be the value to the US that the Australian contribution would represent, whether in continuing awareness efforts, or, in the last event, war fighting. Read more

Australia will thus need to be ever alert as to where it can make a unique contribution to the US effort, and one that makes a real difference. As in the past, this will often be a matter of exploiting Australia’s geographical position—which was the reason that the US constructed the ‘joint facilities’ in Australia during the Cold War. But Australia’s contribution will be greatest if it can use its own intellectual capital and national innovation to develop its own systems, optimised to exploit these unique geographical advantages, as contributions to the joint C4ISR network. Therefore, it’s essential that Australia maintain and extend its efforts in national activities that contribute to its own understanding of our region—of which the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar (JORN) is a prime example.

Cooperation with the US then also becomes complementary to fulfilling Australia’s own national requirements. Some surveillance capabilities can’t be provided by leveraging directly from the alliance effort, but have to be developed through a national effort instead. Again, JORN is a prime example. And, in turn, closer integration with allied systems will help maximise the effectiveness of Australia’s own national surveillance effort, whether in the air, surface or subsurface domains.

At the moment, the ADF conducts maritime surveillance through Operation Resolute (for border protection), Operation Solania (in the Southwest Pacific) and Operation Gateway (in the northern Indian Ocean and South China Sea). In addition to supporting maritime surveillance, JORN and other sensors maintain situational awareness in the air domain. Moving towards an integrated Australian–US C4ISR effort would see ongoing commitments to these operations increased, integrated with similar US efforts, and expanded to include the subsea, surface, air, space and cyber domains. A properly managed national ISR effort, in the alliance context, also has the potential to allow Australia to provide a lead to the emerging efforts of other regional partners to improve their own awareness. In the short and medium terms, this is likely to be confined to less sensitive areas, such as collective maritime security against lower intensity, non-state threats, but it will be an important element in the development of a cooperative approach and may lead to much greater things in the future.

Acting alone, Australia couldn’t possibly achieve the level of awareness that the evolving strategic environment demands. In alliance, it has the resources to ‘fill the gaps’ that remain in the US’s coverage of the region. This is why the C4ISR relationship with the US in the Indo-Pacific provides such a critical benefit to both members in the alliance. US–Australian C4ISR cooperation will be essential to the success of the US rebalance, but also to Australia’s own immediate security in a strategic environment in which more and more countries operate high-technology platforms that once used to be the preserve of Australia and its allies.

If Australia were to structure its forces for the alliance, it should make the ability to contribute to US operations in the Indo-Pacific theatre, in peacetime as well as in war, a key priority. Essential to this is the ability of the ADF to be a seamless part of an allied regional C4ISR system that cannot just detect but also target at long distances.

There’ll be significant financial costs to achieve the required level of close interoperability with the US C4ISR system and to provide the force structure required for an ongoing commitment. There’ll also be opportunity costs in achieving training priorities and the ongoing rates of effort that will be needed to sustain the Australian contribution.

With the Wedgetail, Super Hornet, Growler, Joint Strike Fighter and P-8, the future RAAF will already be well positioned, but less so the rest of the ADF. Priorities for force structure adjustments to support a greater Australian contribution include:

  • additional regional surface, air and space surveillance (including through JORN) linked with US systems
  • intelligence collection and analysis capabilities focused on the Indo-Pacific
  • cyber capabilities
  • communications and combat systems with effective data fusion and sharing mechanisms on air and surface platforms, including Wedgetail, the air warfare destroyer and the future frigate, that fully integrate with US networks
  • submarines and subsurface sensors whose communications enable them to make a contribution to intelligence gathering and theatre-wide antisubmarine warfare.

Stephan Frühling is a senior lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of The ANU. James Goldrick retired from the RAN in 2012 as a Rear Admiral. He is a non-resident fellow of the Lowy Institute for International Policy and an adjunct professor at SDSC at ANU and in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW at Canberra (ADFA). Rory Medcalf is director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute and the incoming head of the National Security College at the ANU. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Preserving the knowledge edge: surveillance cooperation and the US–Australia alliance in Asia (Part 1)

The Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft from No.2 Squadron comes in to land at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson after a mission during Exercise Red Flag Alaska 12-2.Last week ASPI published Preserving the knowledge edge: surveillance cooperation and the US–Australia alliance in Asia (PDF). This short and sharp Strategic Insight focuses on why the C4ISR relationship with the US in the Indo-Pacific provides such a critical benefit to both members in the alliance, and what Australia can do to sustain and extend its contribution to the global American C4ISR system. We reproduce the first part of the report here, with the remainder to follow.

The US–Australia alliance is the bedrock of Australia’s defence policy. Successive governments have looked to the alliance for access to military technology, intelligence and training, as well as a promise of support against direct threats to Australia. Over the past 60 years, Australia has been a main beneficiary of America’s efforts to preserve a rules-based global order. However, Australia, the US and other regional allies today face a rapidly changing strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. The American ‘rebalance’ to Asia represents recognition by the US that it needs to give greater priority to its management of the changing balance—an effort firmly endorsed by President Obama in his address at the University of Queensland. The military element of this effort is likely to be an impost on US resources at least as great as the combat operations in the Middle East. Read more

It’s in Australia’s interest that US attention on Asia, and Washington’s increased political, economic and military engagement in the region, continue even as the US finds it more difficult to reduce its commitments in the Middle East. Through the ‘Force Posture Initiative’, Australia has therefore decided to open some of its bases and exercise areas in the Northern Territory to rotations of US forces for training and regional engagement and has agreed to host new space surveillance sensors on its territory. In addition, Australia has contributed ADF forces to the new campaign against ISIS in Iraq.

So far, however, Australia hasn’t made notable adjustments to the structure of its defence capabilities or their posture, potential deployment and interaction with other countries in the region to support the US rebalance. Indeed, suggestions of what such a structuring might mean vary widely, from possible contributions to ‘AirSea Battle’ against sophisticated anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) systems to a greater focus on stabilisation operations in failed states. And yet, in either of those types of operation, understanding regional actors’ capabilities, knowing what they’re doing and having a better understanding of the overall theatre of operations are essential for success. For a long time, Australia has recognised the importance of ongoing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in its neighbourhood as the basis of a self-reliant capability for the defence of the nation. As Australia’s strategic horizon expands to take account of strategic shifts in the Asia–Pacific, there’s now a need to develop a joint US–Australian ISR system for shared as well as national objectives.

Much attention has been given to the ships, aircraft and people that will be redeployed to the Pacific to increase the US presence and create confidence in America’s commitment. But additional platforms and military units are only a part of the military aspects of the rebalance. An essential component of the effort is developing an ability to understand just how the region’s emerging powers are employing their new capabilities, whether on land or in, over or under the sea. At the same time, regional countries are also developing longer reaching and more persistent C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems of their own, ultimately to provide targeting for the new capabilities that they’re acquiring. There’s thus a hard competitive aspect to regional surveillance that, ultimately, will determine which countries will be best able to exploit their military capabilities in conflict. In this task, the US needs systematic support.

The capabilities that the US maintains in Asia and those of the ADF are in many ways complementary, as is their geographical distribution. Working together, the ADF and US forces can achieve a greater level of situational awareness that will help to achieve Australia’s strategic objectives in relation to strengthening the US position in Asia and the global effectiveness of the alliance in general, as well as Australia’s distinct interests in its neighbourhood. But some of the elements of Australia’s defence capabilities that are most vital to the C4ISR effort of the US are not the most prominent in the ADF’s order of battle.

To understand how and where other countries operate in as wide a region as the Indo-Pacific requires awareness over ever larger areas because their new capabilities have increasingly greater geographical reach and greater sophistication. Ironically, it has taken a civilian disaster—the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370—to put into stark focus the sheer difficulty of detecting a target that’s not trying to be found. Knowing what’s going on in the air, space, land, surface, subsurface and cyber domains will require surveillance efforts that are even more comprehensive, persistent and pervasive than in the past. This will stress even the world-leading capabilities of the Americans. It’s not something that they can achieve alone, but it will be vital to the credibility of the rebalance to the Asia–Pacific and therefore of US global leadership, credibility and deterrence more broadly.

Stephan Frühling is a senior lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of The ANU. James Goldrick retired from the RAN in 2012 as a Rear Admiral. He is a non-resident fellow of the Lowy Institute for International Policy and an adjunct professor at SDSC at ANU and in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW at Canberra (ADFA). Rory Medcalf is director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute and the incoming head of the National Security College at the ANU. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.

Reader response: Pacific labour mobility

Graeme Dobell argues in his latest post that ‘the one thing the Islands want from Australia and New Zealand—labour mobility—is the one thing Australia and New Zealand won’t give’. He says that ‘If PACER Plus is going to deliver new opportunities to the Islands then it must tackle the taboo of labour mobility’.

Graeme’s right that  Pacific Island nations see labour mobility as an essential component of the PACER Plus negotiations. We’ve now got a Seasonal Workers Program where people from the Pacific and Timor-Leste can work in Australia on a short term basis in select industries. We recently invited Fiji to join the SWP. Read more

ANU development economist Stephen Howes points out that in 2013–14, the SWP cap was 2,500 and just 2,000 workers came. The main problem is backpackers:

…backpackers are currently rewarded for three months work on a farm by a second year’s visa…It has been incredibly effective in channelling an ever-growing number of backpackers onto farms. Pacific seasonal workers simply can’t compete with backpackers. The number of backpackers who applied for a second-year visa on the basis of farm work in 2005-06 roughly equals the number of Pacific SWP workers last year. But in the meantime the number of backpackers on farms has shot up to over 40,000! No wonder the SWP is languishing. If Australia is serious about the SWP…the two most important things we could do are reform the backpacker scheme and increase the SWP cap. Both together are important. Increasing the cap on its own will achieve nothing. Reforming the backpacker scheme and not increasing the cap will quickly make the SWP cap binding.

Apart from those two sensible reforms, why don’t we look across ‘the ditch’ and consider a variant on New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category (PAC) scheme as a way of addressing unemployment in the Islands. Under the PAC and Samoan Quota Scheme for settlement in New Zealand, New Zealand provides residence to a number of citizens from Island countries. The schemes provide opportunities for low-skilled workers and for those who don’t qualify to migrate under the various skills categories.

Eleven hundred Samoan citizens are granted residence in New Zealand each year under the Samoan Quota Scheme. Under the PAC, New Zealand grants residence to 75 Tuvaluan and 75 Kiribati citizens as well as 250 Tongan citizens each year. Fijian nationals will be able to apply next year. Both the PAC and the Samoan Quota are determined by ballot. Applicants become eligible for the schemes once their registration number is drawn from the ballot pool for their country. To be eligible, applicants must register for the annual ballot and meet application requirements. The principal applicant must be aged between 18 and 45 years and be a citizen of one of the three PAC countries or of Samoa. Applicants must either have been born in one of those four eligible countries or be the children of citizens who were born in an eligible country.

After being selected from the ballot, applicants can apply for residence if they (or their partner) have an acceptable offer of employment and meet health, character and minimum English language requirements. Applicants with dependent children must meet minimum income standards. Under the PAC and Samoan Quota schemes, New Zealand accepts 1,500 migrants annually. If an equivalent program were adopted in Australia, and we accepted the same number of migrants per capita as New Zealand, we’d accept 7,964 migrants.

Graeme Dobell suggests that the ‘prize of labour mobility’ between Australia and the Islands maybe three decades away. In the meantime, we ought to consider a permanent Pacific migration scheme like New Zealand’s, at least for the smaller island states, where such an arrangement would make a significant economic difference. It would also put more Pacific people into our Pacific policy.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user ashokboghani.

Jokowi’s waves of opportunity

Following a successful boarding exercise, HMAS Maryborough's Petty Officer Bosun Michael Cunnington, is assisted by an Indonesian sailor at the completion of a boarding exercise with Indonesian Warship KRI Wiratno during the first Australian-Indonesian Coordinated Patrol.Today ASPI has released Waves of opportunity: Enhancing Australia–Indonesia maritime security cooperation. The full report can be found here [PDF].

At the recent East Asia Summit (EAS), Indonesia’s President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo spoke about Indonesia’s new maritime doctrine, the ‘World Maritime Axis’ concept. But what does that mean? Some criticise the term for its negative connotations, as in ‘axis powers’, or ‘axis of evil’. Perhaps it’s more apt to describe it as a ‘pivot’, as the US ‘rebalance’ used to be termed.

The World Maritime Axis highlights that ‘the sea is becoming more important for our future’, wrote Jokowi. Indonesia is increasingly aware of its central location along the sea lanes that connect two strategic oceans, the Indian and Pacific. Hence, Jakarta has warmly embraced the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ not only as diplomatic jargon [PDF], but as strategic comprehension.

But the important shift isn’t just maritime. Rather, it’s how Indonesia views its surrounding geography. Indonesia has traditionally looked north and east toward the Pacific, for economic, diplomatic and strategic reasons in its engagements with ASEAN and the major powers, including the US. The World Maritime Axis aims to give greater attention to the less-understood, but no less important, Indian Ocean in Jakarta’s mental map [PDF].

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That brings Australia (and India) into the equation. The Indian Ocean, including the Timor Sea, has been known as a sea of troubles due to challenges ranging from people smuggling and illegal fishing, to more strategic Chinese submarine forays and the security of its maritime choke-points—including the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits. No countries are better poised to address challenges to those vital waterways than Australia and Indonesia [PDF].

Maritime security cooperation can therefore support some, if not all, of the five pillars of the World Maritime Axis concept: rebuilding the maritime culture; enhancing the maritime economy (especially the fishing industry); improving maritime infrastructure and connectivity (through the ‘sea highway’ proposal); engaging in maritime diplomacy (such as the chairmanship of IORA); and strengthening maritime defence.

First, trust must be built between policymakers. Cooperation can be both a way to build and maintain trust and an end in itself. Trust-building can start from personal ties between policymakers at both strategic and operational/tactical levels to underpin the formal consultative and dialogue processes, such as the Indonesia-Australia Defence Strategic Dialogue, annual leaders’ meeting, and the 2+2 foreign and defence ministers’ meeting. Institutionalising personal ties, such as those facilitated by the Ikatan Alumni Pertahanan Indonesia-Australia (IKAHAN), is useful but could be more so if expanded to include civilian counterparts, such as law-enforcement officials. With trust anything is possible. Both countries could discuss their individual—and potentially their collective—plans to prevent or counter the threat of force in territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea.

Second, there’s an apparent need to streamline institutional stove-piping and bureaucracies responsible for cooperation. Cooperation currently takes a siloed form: each agency responsible does its own thing. The problem partly lies in Indonesia’s multiple, but poorly coordinated, maritime-security agencies. The Badan Koordinasi Keamanan Laut (Maritime Security Coordinating Agency, BAKORKAMLA) is supposedly responsible for coordinating 12 agencies. But competition among some of them has stymied operations and precipitated turf battles. As such, BAKORKAMLA will soon become the Badan Keamanan Laut (Maritime Security Agency, BAKAMLA) as Indonesia’s new Coastguard so that it can gain a command authority. Even then, overlaps and duplication of roles will still exist. Under National Law No. 32/2014 on Marine Affairs, BAKAMLA would be responsible for patrols, search and rescue, and law enforcement, similar to other agencies such as Marine Police and Transport Ministry’s Sea and Coast Guard Unit (KPLP). That necessitates major legal and institutional reforms. The formation of the Australian Border Force (ABF) [PDF] next year could give Indonesia useful insights on the Australian experience in streamlining multiple agencies responsible for maritime security.

Third, while Indonesia still lacks the capacity to secure its waters effectively, Australian assistance needs to be recalibrated. Rather than giving hardware assets, assistance should be aimed toward improving Indonesia’s maritime security policymaking and assisting Indonesia to contribute more in regional maritime security. Australia can offer education and training opportunities for BAKAMLA’s officials, while simultaneously planning for future BAKAMLA-ABF exercises. Such training could be jointly conducted in other countries, such as Timor-Leste [PDF].

Fourth, the ultimate achievement of security cooperation should be maritime domain awareness (MDA) along the maritime boundary. MDA is essentially a comprehensive understanding about what’s happening over, on, and under the sea and along the littoral. Australia has voiced support for Indonesia’s National Maritime Security Information Center. That Center could support surveillance and information-sharing cooperation between Australia and Indonesia.

Finally, Indonesia can engage in joint tri-service military exercises with Australia, both to increase interoperability and to make our two armed forces more comfortable about working together in a joint environment. Submarine search and rescue might be another opportunity to add weight to bilateral cooperation.

Notwithstanding those opportunities, old problems remain and new ones can arise. For Indonesia, it remains to be seen whether the President can promote his ideas beyond the circle of advisers and ministers. He must convince the skeptics in the parliament, the bureaucracy, and the public that the World Maritime Axis concept is indeed what Indonesia needs to navigate the Indo-Pacific century.

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto is an associate research fellow in the RSIS Maritime Security Programme and author of Waves of opportunity: Enhancing Australia–Indonesia maritime security cooperationImage courtesy of Department of Defence.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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