Tag Archives: Australia

A Busy Week in the South China Sea

 

South China Sea Claims. The Economist

It’s been a busy week for the South China Sea. For those of you keeping score at home, these are some of the news stories we’ve been following:

 

1.      Post-ASEAN fall-out: After ASEAN failed last week to release a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years, Cambodia is looking to some in the region like a Chinese proxy playing the role of spoiler. Indonesia managed to salvage a version of the “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, a 6-point declaration to essentially work peacefully to implement existing maritime law and guidelines and avoid military confrontations: making progress by reaffirming the status quo.

 

2.      Beijing announces troop build-up in Paracels: On Monday, China said it would  send troops to guard its newly incorporated city of Sansha. The most likely location is the largest island, Woody Island/Yongxing. Fun fact – according to Chinese reports the city, home to 1,000 across various islands, already has a karaoke parlor up and running. Preparations for hosting the troops may take longer – the announcement and move is more symbolic than practical at this time.

 

3.      The Philippines and Vietnam Protest China’s moves: Manila summoned the Chinese ambassador to complain about the new garrison, while President Benigno Aquino took to the airwaves and decried Chinese provocations in an address to the nation. Meanwhile, Hanoi filed an official diplomatic complaint about the build-up in the Paracels, which it too claims. Both the Philippines and Vietnam however reiterated their desire for a diplomatic solution and stated they would not seek military confrontation.

 

Allies…but in arms?

4.      The International Crisis Group releases report on the SCS: Said the report: “The failure to reduce the risks of conflict, combined with the internal economic and political factors that are pushing claimants toward more assertive behaviour, shows that trends in the South China Sea are moving in the wrong direction.” Interestingly, the report also believes the Philippines made the wrong move in the recent Scarborough Shoal stand-off with China by sending in a naval vessel, thereby giving the Chinese an excuse to escalate, to play up nationalism to their domestic audience. The report also states the U.S. might not be obligated to assist the Philippines in the event of an attack in the South China Sea under the terms of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, as the U.S. has yet to make a formal statement whether the Spratleys and other disputed maritime areas are covered under the treaty’s terms.

 

5.      Taiwan to ship armament to the Spratleys: Taiwan has confirmed it will send a mix of mortars and artillery to Taiping, the largest of islands and host to a 130-strong Taiwanese force, in August. Fun fact – the total land mass of the 100 Spratley “islands” is less than 2 square miles.

 

6.      The Philippines ratifies a long-languishing Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Australia. “Although the agreement is not a defense pact, its symbolism cannot be lost on China,” President Benigno Arroyo said after the vote. The pact, however, has more to do with pursuing terrorists in the country’s muslim South – primarily the island of Mindanao.

 

No one of these stories points to a looming conflict, but taken together they provide context for what has been the increasing trend of looking towards military power for lack of a diplomatic progress.

Indonesia: Great Power on Australia’s Doorstep?

The following is the first cross-post of an article that originally ran on the site of our new partners at Security Scholar, an Australia-based security blog. First published last month, the relation of Indonesia’s future to Australian maritime security issues was reiterated with three recent hi-profile incidents of Australia-bound refugee vessels in distress in Indonesian waters. We look forward to learning more about the Australian maritime security outlook from our friends down under:

By Natalie Sambhi

Last month at the Australian National University (ANU) Professor Hugh White delivered a solid speech that lucidly and methodically explained why we, Australia, should be considering Indonesia with more care.

Projected to be the world’s fourth largest economy in a matter of decades and increasing in clout as a regional power, if not great power, Indonesia will be a force to reckon with, according to White. As such, many Australians will be forced to overturn their assumptions about Indonesia as a poor and weak country. White implored the audience to consider ways of redefining the bilateral relationship with Indonesia beyond third order issues like drug smuggling, people trafficking, border protection, and counter terrorism. Pointing to further evidence that the relationship was not as robust as Government would have us believe, White pointed to “fault lines” in the relationship caused by Australia’s involvement in East Timor’s independence which, for some time, severed diplomatic relations completely.

Against the backdrop of a shift in the strategic balance in Asia, and as Australia aligns itself towards the so-called “Asian Century”, White invited us to consider whether Indonesia would be an asset or an ally. In his view, Indonesia holds great potential to shield Australia from the threat of major powers in the region, if we get our bilateral relationship right. If we do, then we may start to think about the kinds of Defence capability that would complement the armed forces of Indonesia so that both countries could work towards a kind of “forward defence”.  White wrapped up his speech with five points to improve the relationship: 1) improve DFAT political reporting, 2) focus less on third order issues and more on China, 3) de-emphasise the role of aid in relating to Indonesia, 4) abolish travel advisories (as negative ones have tended to upset Indonesia), and 5) increase the importance of the bilateral relationship in Australian politics.

There are, however, a few extra elements in relation to Australia-Indonesia ties White might have explored in his speech (and I’m sure he would have, given more time), and I would like to take up three of his points to develop these further.

First, perceptions matter. In building his case for cultivating better relations with Indonesia, White used excerpts from Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s 2010 address to the Australian Parliament. In the address, the President underscored mistrust and misperceptions that beleaguered the bilateral relationship in the past. White referred to several parts of the address, but here I have selected the one I think is most salient:

I was taken aback when I learned that in a recent Lowy Institute survey 54 per cent of Australian respondents doubted that Indonesia would act responsibly in its international relations. Indeed, the most persistent problem in our relations is the persistence of age-old stereo-types—misleading, simplistic mental caricature that depicts the other side in a bad light. Even in the age of cable television and internet, there are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country, as a military dictatorship, as a hotbed of Islamic extremism or even as an expansionist power. On the other hand, in Indonesia there are people who remain afflicted with Australiaphobia—those who believe that the notion of White Australia still persists, that Australia harbours ill intention toward Indonesia and is either sympathetic to or supports separatist elements in our country.”

It will take some time for these perceptions to erode. But it is equally important that we do not replace them with those that may mischaracterise Indonesia. Let’s take Indonesia’s democracy, for example. Lowy’s poll also states that “62% of Indonesians say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government and there is near universal agreement on three core democratic values – the rights to a fair trial, freely express yourself and vote in national elections.” How this is practiced, however, may be a different story.

A New York Times article warned that Indonesia is no model for a Muslim democracy, citing its mixed human rights record and lack of religious freedom as evidence. Admittedly, the case by the Human Rights Watch author comprises a quick grab of examples presented in highly emotional terms, but the take-home message is clear: Indonesia’s democracy is different. Sure it’s a no-brainer, but it may surprise us to learn the extent to which ethnic and religious criteria shape Indonesia’s elections. That is, Javanese Muslims have, historically, dominated politics and are perceived to be more viable candidates than their non-Javanese, non-Muslim counterparts. Given our Prime Minister is a non-religious, unmarried, Welsh-born woman, that a potential leader is discriminated against in ethno-religious terms is anathema to our political system should give us a moment’s pause for thought.

While we, and others like the US, are turning to enthusiastically embrace the democratic character of our northern neighbour, it would serve us well to carefully appraise the challenges of Indonesia’s ongoing democratic development. This is not to say this is a bar to good relations; quite the contrary. Australia must make an effort to understand these challenges and know how to engage with them without being paternalistic. If Australia and Indonesia are to work closely together in the Asian century, a deep understanding of each other’s political systems and working with them is necessary.

Second, Indonesia will be more than a middle power, and even perhaps a great power. There has been much discussion on whether Indonesia, given current growth rates, could outstrip India’s position in the BRICS grouping. Despite this optimism, according to one commentator (and it’s worth reading Grenville’s post), there are still significant political challenges holding Indonesia back. For one, there appears to be no clear successor to President SBY, with current candidates ranging from former generals like Prabowo Subianto, to Megawati Sukarnoputri, to tycoons like Aburizal Bakrie. Building on the discussion above on Indonesia’s democratic practices, with speculation abound about the nomination of Ani Yudhoyono, wife of the Indonesian President and sister of the Indonesian Army’s Chief of Staff, one wonders about the state of nepotism there. I hope I’m wrong.

This threepart series in last week’s Jakarta Globe exposes the lack of military business reform in the country. Without robust systems of accountability and practices that encourage transparency and due diligence, Indonesia risks undermining its own developments. Reliable maintenance of the rule of law remains problematic. While Indonesia has made attempts to grapple with military reform and eradicate corruption, these articles show that the country still has a long way to go.

As Indonesia grows in wealth and in confidence, it will head down the road of becoming a middle power. But its ability to transform into a great power will be hindered by domestic political challenges, and thus an inability to translate its wealth into military capability commensurate with great power status.

The right kind of President—he/she who can best cultivate the country’s wealth from natural resources, maintain high economic growth rates, reduce poverty, spur reform, maintain Indonesia’s clout within ASEAN, consolidate territorial integrity and domestic security, among other wishlist items—will no doubt help Indonesia comfortably secure a place in the upper bracket of middle power status. But what happens when Indonesia’s future President comes from a cadre of military officers who served in East Timor and who might be Australiaphobic?

Earlier this week, Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, warned of growing economic nationalism in the country resulting in investment conditions that are not necessarily in Australia’s interests. Let’s hope this trend does not continue.

Third, White stressed the de-emphasis of aid in the relationship. He stated that there is a particular psychology attached to the receipt of aid. While there are many people in Indonesia who live in poverty and need our help, it was no basis for the bilateral relationship or the lens through which we should see Indonesia. As White underscored in an interview last month, it leads Australians to treat Indonesians in a patronising manner. White’s suggestion that we redirect aid money towards sending 10,000 Australian students each year to learn about Indonesia is well-intentioned, but we’d be hard-pressed getting even a third of that number across the education system. But again, I hope I’m wrong.

As one blogger pointed out this week, language study comes from an interest in culture. But it also comes from repeated exposure to the other culture and repeated contact with people. That Indonesia features obliquely in popular soap operas is not indicative that it is part of our thinking. The solution to piquing interest in Indonesian culture will come with the sense that Asia is part of Australia. That is, as continental European faces are as commonly featured in mainstream media alongside Anglo-Celtic ones, familiarity with Asia will come with increased exposure: particularly newsreaders, politicians, business and community leaders, the actors in advertising campaigns, performers, and athletes. Exchanges are useful but they are usually led by travellers and students who are already willing to engage beyond Bali’s beaches. Perhaps Indonesian-Australians could lead the charge, perhaps change will come with time.

It has been 14 years after the fall of Suharto and despite the challenges that are still abound, Indonesia has transformed remarkably. I want to be optimistic about the future of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia, and I am in furious agreement with White about strategic and cultural imperatives that should drive this, but we must be wide-eyed about the challenges that lay ahead.

Natalie Sambhi is a Hedley Bull Scholar in International Relations and a Masters graduate of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. She currently researches and edits on a freelance basis, and is a contributor and co-editor of Security Scholar

Coral Sea Redux?

Earlier this week I attended the Battle of the Coral Sea 70th Anniversary Commemoration at Washington, D.C.’s Navy Memorial. Rain earlier in the morning threatened to push the event indoors, but the weather was blessedly cool and dry. Yet storm clouds might be gathering on the horizons of the Australian-American partnership the ceremony celebrated.

 

70 years ago, a clash of carriers handed the Japanese their first major defeat in the war in the Pacific, turning back an invasion force enroute to Port Moresby. As the Australian ambassador noted on Tuesday it also signaled a change in Australia and New Zealand’s defense formulations. Britain’s ability and responsibility to defend her imperial possessions and former colonies formed the bedrock of the nations’ pre-war planning.

 

According to the honourable Kim Beazley, the structure of British imperial defense “had crashed on land with the Japanese capture of Singapore, and at sea with the sinking of the British warships Prince of Wales and Repulse.” The American decision to risk carriers to parry the southern thrust threatening Australia – while so much else in the theater was at stake – was praised and highlighted as one of the key moments later bringing the nation under the American security umbrella, where it has remained ever since.

 

A Future Crisis

Could Australia face another crisis and restructuring of its strategic security arrangements down the road? This depends much on the ability of China and the U.S. to play nice. Australia is bound to the U.S. in the ANZUS treaty, a firm defense alliance between the two nations and New Zealand (the Yankee/Kiwi portion has been much less firm, but is improving), and has contributed forces to major American-led military conflicts from Korea to Afghanistan. Just last month, U.S. Marines began to deploy to Darwin, Australia, as a step towards strengthening ties (unofficially, in the face of growing Chinese regional clout).

 

Coming soon to a down-under near you.

However, Australia is much more commercially dependent upon the Chinese than the U.S., exporting less than a quarter of the goods to the U.S. it does to China, its biggest trading partner by both exports and imports. A serious spat between the two nations could cause Australians to rethink the benefits of their closeness to the Americans, especially if the cause of the row was of only marginal importance to the Aussies.

 

Similarly, the Chinese could begin to apply economic leverage to force Australia to scale back the level of its security and basing commitments (although done poorly this could risk a backlash). Conversely, the Chinese want to boost their own ties with Australia. In an April interview, Rory Medcalf, director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia pointed out:

Beijing has recently asked, or warned, Australia to build stronger security and strategic dimensions into its ties with China, to bring them more in balance with the very strong trade ties. In fact, Australia’s military already has quite good relations with the People’s Liberation Army and has provided a conduit of contact during phases when U.S.-China and Japan-China military-to-military ties were in trouble.”

Might Australia decide in the future it’s better to step from under the American umbrella and risk rain rather than a lightning strike? Might the Royal Australian Navy’s highly skilled mariners and expanding fleet be kept in port in the event of a conflict?

 

Some voices are already cautioning against more closely embracing the American military build-up in the Asia-Pacific, warning of the danger of being drawn into “someone else’s” fight with the potential for dire economic consequences. This appears to be a minority opinion among the public and politicians. According to the Lowy Institute, 85% of Australians are to some extent supportive of the U.S. alliance. As Mr. Medcalf states:

if Canberra is asked any time soon to make hard strategic choices between China and the United States, the signs are clear about the choice it would make—it has intensified the alliance with the United States.”

Yet Mr. Medcalf also correctly points out 15% is a substantial minority, and could grow as the American footprint expands in Australia. I don’t foresee Australia dropping the U.S. for China as its main strategic guarantor any time soon, but if the relationship between the two nations is handled poorly by either side, and its benefits not fully explained, the Chinese would be only too happy to exploit the opportunity and apply pressure to limit Australia’s commitments.

 

The Americans can help ensure this doesn’t happen. Proactive prevention of the sort of liberty incidents that so inflamed relations with another key partner to the north are vital. Aggressive goodwill diplomacy and exchanges can remind the Australian public of shared values.

 

And of course, events like the commemoration of the Battle of the Coral Sea remind both nations of shared sacrifices. Said Ambassador Beazley:

As the distribution of global power becomes more diffuse, it is useful for us to have as a reminder American risk-taking for its friends at a time when the US position was by no means the superior one.”

Coverage of the commemoration down under: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/us-flags-stronger-security-ties-with-aust-20120503-1y228.html