Big Oz bets on Asia (part two)
27 Mar 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user GregMontani.

The descriptor ‘Asia’ attempts to identify so much that it delivers sparse meaning. So making a series of big bets on Asia will help define the many tasks and pressures confronting the Foreign Policy White Paper. The Asia bets flow from the need to Trump-proof the alliance. The previous column outlined Australian bets on Japan stepping up as an independent strategic leader in Asia and on Australia seeking membership of ASEAN. Now for further bets on Indonesia and India (with China on the table next week).

These big punts are an Oz version of Pascal’s Wager, living to secure infinite gains (heaven) and avoid infinite losses (hell). Australia must wager that the emerging Asian order can achieve some levels of rationality, cohesion and peace—and not send us to hell. Indonesia is a prime example of the uncertainties that bedevil Australia’s Asia bets. Name two neighbouring states with less in common. Maybe Australia and Papua New Guinea come close. Indonesia can direct Australia’s regional dreams or dominate its nightmares. Just as Papua New Guinea shapes the way Australia thinks about the South Pacific, Indonesia frames Australia’s view of Southeast Asia.

Australia and Indonesia make a disparate pair, destined to discomfort, elevating a bit of common pragmatism to a guiding principle: we must live together though we are ever apart. The Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, frames the Indonesia bet in the White Paper: ‘A key question for Australian diplomacy is what influence we will have in Indonesia as it grows in stature?’

Her answer:

‘As Indonesia reaches its potential as a top-ten or even top-five economy, with strategic weight to match, we want Indonesia to look to Australia as a reliable source of acute judgements and sensitive advice.’

In this bilateral relationship, the power meter keeps shifting Jakarta’s way. The problem for Oz is a 1960s Jakarta jest that still resonates: ‘Australia is like your appendix, you only think about it when it hurts.’ In the 20th century, the relationship was defined by differences. This century, Australia must seek equality and partnership with an ever-more powerful Indonesia. Our mindset must change.

As on most things Oz–Indonesia, the late Jamie Mackie is a reliable source. Here’s a ten-point guide drawing on many years listening to Jamie, as well as the study he wrote (a decade old, yet as fresh as tomorrow): ‘Australia and Indonesia: Current problems, future prospects’.

A central Mackie thought:

‘We should endeavour to ensure at all costs that our broader regional and global policies diverge from Indonesia’s as little as possible—and ideally should follow essentially convergent trajectories.’

Continually measuring Australia’s choices against Indonesian regional policy is a distinctly new way to steer Canberra’s mindset, and will constitute one of our big bets. Such an alignment will feed into the slow shift that would see Australia and New Zealand eventually join ASEAN.

Echoes of what Australia needs with Indonesia are to be found in the completely different relationship with India. There’s certainly some overlap, for instance with organisations like the Indian Ocean Rim Association –  Malcolm Turnbull attended it’s first summit in Jakarta earlier this month.

Yet while Indonesia only thinks about Oz when it hurts, India for decades didn’t think about Australia at all. The bet on seeking strategic convergence with India is the long-term wager—see how close it is to the lead 20 years from now. In my ASPI Strategy Paper, ‘Improving on zero: Australia and India attempt strategic convergence’, the proposition is that Australia’s strategic relationship with India was so frigid it was in negative territory for decades. In the 21st century, Australia and India have begun to attempt slow convergence. The rapid shift from negative to positive means the big change in Australia’s strategic perceptions so far this century have been about India.

By contrast, the same thought about China’s rise throbs consistently from the 2000 Defence White Paper (‘the most critical issue for the security of the Asia Pacific’) through the 2009, 2013, and 2016 White Papers. The China worry just keeps intensifying.

India no longer sees Australia as merely a US strategic stooge, because New Delhi expects to get much more from Washington. The stooges get politer treatment, courtesy of the rapid creation of a US–India strategic partnership over the past 15 years. Frances Adamson points to that reality: India has taken ‘a new interest in the quality and consequence’ of the Oz–US alliance. When Adamson looks beyond that at the shape of the White Paper bet she’s candid about how much still needs to be done to shift beyond the 20th century negatives:

‘As India steps out from the Non-Aligned Movement, and emerges as a maritime power, it finds more points of interest in Australian diplomacy. India still values multilateral diplomacy highly, and India’s diplomats appreciate the energy and effectiveness we bring to it—even when they are inclined to apply the handbrake.’

Oh dear, non-alignment and the New Delhi handbrake. Much to do. Many years to go. India must be a long-term bet. Next week, the big wager on China.