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Australia’s regional foreign policy left standing in the shadows of the Anglosphere

by Scott Hickie

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Upon taking government, Australia’s conservative coalition parties, led by Tony Abbott, had a simple foreign policy refrain: more Jakarta, less Geneva.

The previous Labor government had a more ambitious suite of policies on positioning Australia in the Asian century, yet regionalism was still order of the day.

Despite the supposed predilection for regionalism and Australia’s unique geopolitical interests, leaked NSA documents on intelligence operations in Indonesia suggest the country is struggling to reconcile historical alliances to the Five Eyes network and the rising ASEAN heavyweights. In short, Australia may still be standing in the shadows of the Anglosphere.

Material leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden indicates the Australian Defence Signals Directorate attempted to tap the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the president’s wife and high-level Indonesian ministers in 2009. Claims have also aired that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service placed listening devices in the Timorese cabinet room in 2004 during deliberations on a proposed oil and gas treaty with the Australian government.

The theatrical diplomatic confrontation that has followed these leaks coincides with a critical juncture in the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Indonesian cooperation with the Abbott government’s border protection strategy is operationally essential. Operation Sovereign Borders requires high-level Indonesian cooperation as most asylum seekers transit through Indonesia before making a seaward journey to Australia.

Many of the NSA revelations about Australian intelligence activities are not surprising, nor unexpected to the political elite of Asian Pacific countries. However, the revelations are likely to reinforce the worst stereotypes and popular regional (mis)conceptions of Australian foreign policy. More than ever Australian diplomatic activity will be seen through an unflattering prism of US patronage.

For the Pacific Islands, the Australian government is cast as a meddling neo-colonialist, pursing its economic and security agendas under the guise of aid effectiveness demands, unfair trade deals and conditional loans. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Papua New Guinea’s Peter O’Neill can now become even more publicly sceptical about Australian security narratives on Melanesian state stability and efforts to counter Chinese state investment.

For the current Indonesian parliament, political class and press, historical suspicions about Australia’s position on West Papuan independence, disappointment over live cattle embargos and residual political angst at Australian intervention in East Timor have raised to the surface of Indonesian political discourse.

The parties were primed for this exact type of diplomatic conflict after the then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd referenced the 1962-66 Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation, known as Konfrontasi (in which Australian troops fought as part of British forces in Borneo and West Malaysia against Indonesian-supported forces ), when discussing the Liberal Party’s border protection policy and its contravention of Indonesian sovereignty. Those that see the diplomatic spat as nothing more than theatre would argue these elevated suspicions are not that far from the latent, regional perceptions of Australia security and foreign policy.

Considering the status quo perceptions, the NSA revelations could be dismissed as having little substantive consequence – the inevitable price to be paid for a ‘regional sheriff’ keeping frail states and economically weak authoritarian regimes in check and supporting the Anglosphere.

However, the relative power balance across Southeast Asia and the Pacific has changed over the last 10 to 15 years. A notable proportion of fragile and developing states have emerged from negative growth and post conflict environments to improved security situations and increased political stability and have posted almost decade-long continued GDP growth alongside institutional reform.

These unfolding regional economic developments translate to growing political confidence and diplomatic clout for the rising ASEAN powers. The dynamic also underscores greater interdependency between Australia’s future trade interests and security posture – particularly critical on- and off-shore infrastructure in North West Australia.

This point is sometimes lost on Australia’s political class and public who harbour a decade old regional security understanding preoccupied with Australian proximity to fragile states and developing countries beset with political instability. A recent Lowy Institute poll on Australian perceptions of Indonesia shows an almost collective amnesia about any economic or political transformation post-Suharto.

Notwithstanding Australia’s considerable intelligence investment in Indonesia and the large-scale Bali terrorist attack in 2002, the security threats anticipated by the United States and Australia in early post-9/11 have not materialised to the magnitude anticipated and feared. Transboundary Islamic militancy and violent jihadist groups spreading a unified arc of insecurity across southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, primarily threatening Western interests, has not unfolded.

Provincial insurgencies, though in existence, have not toppled governments, triggered systemic, wide-scale human rights abuses demanding a regional/international Responsibility to Protect response or disrupted trade. Over the last decade, and in terms of wide-scale human devastation and insecurity, no event has surpassed the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that took the lives of 230,000 and left 1.69 million displaced. Yet, the call of the Anglosphere remains strong.

If the degree to which Australia plays the United States’ proxy regional security underwriter can be scaled back, diplomatic space may open for Australia to carve out a more independent regional international relations agenda. While there is significant consistency and similarity between US and Australian foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific, there remains nuanced but critical points of divergence around trade agreements, regional counter-terrorism initiatives, resolution of maritime boundary disputes, aid and human rights agendas in Southeast Asia. Most importantly, it is the emerging security interdependency at a regional scale that requires prioritisation.

One of the challenges for Australia tempering or better calibrating its regional interdependency with historical and so-called ‘civilisational’ allegiances is the optics and perception of Australia repositioning itself within some sort of Asian sphere of influence.

A US Asia-Pacific pivot and China’s increasing economic dominance and military modernisation lures existing and rising regional middle powers to the bipolar corners of the two global hegemons. Stronger Australian links with Indonesia and Malaysia could be miscalculated as Australia being one step away from falling into the Sino fold. Such a miscalculation fails to appreciate the nature of Indonesian/Malaysian and Chinese relations.

Furthermore, evolving security reconfigurations are resulting from some Southeast Asian countries establishing or augmenting security arrangements with the United States to counterbalance Chinese assertiveness around maritime claims. US efforts to build defence cooperation with Vietnam is a case in point. In one sense this may lead to a dilution of the perceived uniqueness of Australian and US defence ties within the region.

It is evident, now more than ever that Australian foreign policy needs to step out of the shadow of the Anglosphere and develop a deeper network of relations in Southeast Asia. This does not mean compromising US defence ties or being co-opted into a Sino sphere of influence. It means Australia can have greater flexibility to address critical regional trade, security and political imperatives with important neighbours.