The Russians are coming. Not.
19 Nov 2014|

A Russian sailor assigned to the Russian navy destroyer RFS Admiral Chabanenko (DD 650) plots a course It’s always good to spend time in Indonesia immersing oneself in the local scene and receiving a different perspective on the world. I was there for two weeks—for both a defence technology exhibition and some leave—and it always surprises and sometimes embarrasses me about how much thinkers in Jakarta know about Australia and how little most of us know about the complexities of this country. A partial explanation is that many of the people I spoke with went to university in Australia and still visit regularly.

But there’s more to it than that and I found many Indonesians have a far more nuanced view of regional politics than do most Australians. I assume this flows from the radically different postcolonial paths both countries have followed. Indeed the phrase ‘post-colonial’ barely applies in Australia with the country happily supplementing the British with the United States as a dominant security and cultural partner. Other measures such as the re-introduction of Imperial Honours and the slavish affection directed toward visiting US politicians shows how desperately we desire to cling to someone else. On the other hand, with the end of Dutch rule, Indonesia quickly became a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement under President Sukarno and has remained leery of becoming anyone’s deputy sheriff ever since.

When I discussed the apparent hysterical reaction in some Australian paper to the presence of some Russian ships in the Coral Sea, the view here was very much one of ‘what on earth are they talking about’? Particularly since the end of the World War II, Indonesia is well accustomed to various navies—especially the USN—exercising right of free passage through the entire archipelago. That trend’s likely to intensify with the rise of China and US pivot to Asia.

Few people in Australia—and I suspect the same is true in the United States—realise just how annoying this sort of behaviour is to a proud and sovereign country such as Indonesia. As a former Defence Minister put it to me, speaking figuratively, several years ago: ‘imagine the reaction if we had an aircraft carrier and used the right of free passage to sail through the Great Lakes and anchor off Chicago?’ But who knows—maybe someday an emerging naval power will do just that.

For decades the US—almost always a force for good and regional stability—has sailed carrier battle groups all over the place. Those deployments regularly go into the Yellow Sea to scare the bejesus out of the North Koreans while reassuring South Korea and Japan; into the North Pacific as a reminder to the Russians of who’s who; down to Singapore as a gesture of solidarity and, most famously, in 1996 when two carrier battle groups were sent to the Straits of Taiwan to smack down China. Indeed, this was a lesson in the offensive use of naval power that the Chinese seem to have learned well.

Australia has been spared entirely from this sort of behaviour because, of course, we aren’t on the way to anywhere else and the US hardly needs to protect us from New Zealand or New Guinea—at least, not yet. I’m reminded of Henry Kissinger’s assessment of Chile as ‘a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica’. The position of Australia isn’t much different.

However, times are changing and I think it’s likely that the Australian public—and the boorish media—is going to have to get used to the presence of more non-US warships in our immediate vicinity. These’ll most probably come from China, which in February this year sent a three-ship flotilla (two destroyers and a support ship) along the south coast of Java not too far from Christmas Island before heading back north.

The reasons why the Chinese Navy, the PLA(N), might wish to have greater visibility in and around Australia are varied. Firstly, China has a great interest in the Antarctic, of which Australia administers a disproportionately large amount. Secondly, China has small ethnic communities amongst many South Pacific nations and also tries to curry political favor with these same countries—it’s always handy to have extra votes in the UN for little cost. Thirdly, the PLA(N) might wish to deploy down here using the same logic sometimes applied by the USN: because it can.

This is the likely new reality of the 21st century—and neither the British Queen nor the US President can stop it happening.

Kym Bergmann is the editor of Asia Pacific Defence Reporter and Defence Review Asia. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Navy.