Australia waives the rules with Timor-Leste
4 Sep 2019|

Australia is one of the most outspoken and prominent supporters of the ‘rules-based international order’. Given its status as a modestly credentialled middle power with a limited capacity to influence the international order or the behaviour of its most powerful members, this is unsurprising, perhaps. What is surprising is the fact that Australia’s leaders actually flout the rules when they judge it to be in the national interest.

The most diplomatically embarrassing example of this possibility can be seen in Australia’s treatment of its impoverished neighbour Timor-Leste. The ABC has recently highlighted the shabby and shameful way that the Australian government has treated both Timor-Leste and the whistle-blowers who—rather courageously—drew attention to Australia’s remarkably self-interested foreign policy.

There are two aspects of this increasingly well-known story that are worth briefly repeating. First, successive Australian governments have shown a remarkable lack of concern about the welfare of the Timorese for decades. Even the otherwise progressive government of Gough Whitlam was happy to give a nod and a wink to the authoritarian Suharto regime when it sought to replace the Portuguese as the resident colonial power.

Although the Howard government eventually played a constructive role in facilitating Timor’s push for independence, subsequent Australian governments have resumed normal practice and shamelessly tried to take advantage of their newly independent neighbour ever since.

The most egregious episode in this context was the bugging of the Timor-Leste government’s Palace of Government by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service under the guise of providing much-needed aid and development assistance. This would have been an unfriendly move no matter what the circumstances, but in the context of a dispute over territorial boundaries and the lucrative oil and gas reserves they promised, it was remarkably duplicitous.

No doubt some will respond that it was ever thus: all nations spy on each other, seek to gain advantages, and privilege the national interest above all else. Perhaps so. But not all nations style themselves as principled upholders of a rule-based order that is supposedly the mark of good international citizenship.

Australia’s double standards would be a bit awkward and embarrassing at the best of times. Unfortunately, these are not the best of times—which is what makes the rules-based order even more potentially important from the perspective of Australia’s beleaguered and perennially anxious policymakers. The second point to emphasise about this sorry tale is that its legacy makes the conduct of contemporary regional relations all the more difficult.

The defining foreign policy issue for Australia now, of course, is the rise of China. Rather awkwardly, Australia’s complaints about China look uncomfortably like the pot striking attitudes about the kettle. Yes, China is shamelessly spying on and bullying—or buying off—some of its neighbours to get its way, but so did Australia. Even more importantly from an Australian perspective, China is also studiously ignoring the foundational principles of the much-invoked rules-based order when it suits it.

China’s refusal to abide by the judgement of an international tribunal in The Hague on the validity of the Philippines’ territorial claims induced much hand-wringing and adverse comment in Australia. Such complaints might have carried more weight were it not for the fact that Australia had also rejected arbitration and adjudication by independent authorities when it came to resolving its boundary disputes with Timor.

It’s not hard to see why. Australian governments have fiercely resisted any attempt to overturn earlier agreements that disproportionately favoured Australia and overcame the fact that most of the actual reserves of gas and oil were much closer to Timor. Only criticism of Australia’s behaviour from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’s compulsory conciliation process persuaded Canberra to strike a new deal with Dili.

Although Australia finally seems to have resolved its embarrassing dispute with its tiny neighbour, the damage to its diplomatic standing may prove more enduring. It may also complicate Australia’s leverage in its increasingly problematic relationship with China. And it raises a number of discomfiting questions about Australia’s standing in the international community.

How can Australia’s leaders claim to be pillars of good international citizenship when they have such a questionable history and a willingness to flout international norms when it suits them to do so? How can Australia criticise China’s approach to its less powerful neighbours when both the major political parties have acted fairly callously at times?

Even more remarkably, perhaps, the Australian government appears to taking a leaf from the Chinese playbook and harassing its domestic critics and pursuing them through the courts. It would be rather ironic if the major lesson that came from this unedifying saga was an old one about national interests trumping principles, no matter which country we may be talking about.

Perhaps the alarmists are right to worry about Chinese influence, but not quite in the way we expected.