Australia’s diplomatic blind spot
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has a significant impact on our culture, economy and national security.
But despite our proximity, it’s often been a relationship defined by tension as well as indifference.
Today, Karen Middleton on Australia’s regional blind spot, and why it’s time we started engaging more closely with south-east Asia.
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Karen, Indonesia is one of Australia's closest neighbours. How would you characterise the current relationship between the two countries? How do they see each other?
Well, I think they see each other as important neighbours and friends. I mean, we had President Joko Widodo here in Australia back in February giving an address to the Australian parliament in which he talked about Australia being Indonesia's closest friends.
Archival Tape -- Joko Widodo:
“Indonesia and Australia are destined to be close neighbours. And we cannot choose our neighbours, but we choose to be friends…”
You know, we pay lip service to each other as countries, but that's about the extent of it - it's not a deep and abiding public friendship, even though it's very important.
Archival Tape -- Joko Widodo:
“The 70 years of friendship between Indonesia and Australia is by no means a short period. 70 years is a platinum age…”
The proximity of the two countries to each other make them necessary friends; Indonesia's got a huge population, it's right on our doorstep. But we don't seem to engage in any depth, really. The Lowy Institute publishes an annual poll looking at relationships around the region, and it found in this year's poll that 39 percent of people in Australia don't even know that Indonesia is a democracy, which is kind of incredible.
So there's a sort of a lack of understanding on the Australian side, I suppose, at the depth of the relationship, but it goes both ways. The Indonesians don't focus very much on Australia either - if you talk to analysts in Indonesia, they say it's not a very present part of public debate, it seems to be an irritant sometimes when things flare up, but it's not foremost in the Indonesian consciousness.
And Karen, why is this discussion important? What is actually at stake in terms of the relationship between Indonesia and Australia?
Well, there's a lot at stake. I mean, as I mentioned, our two countries are very close together, Indonesia is a very large country, it has a massive population. And so it's an issue for Australia on a number of positive and potentially concerning fronts in terms of any unrest that might flare up there.
But if you look at the economic issue, there's a huge potential market there that Australia is just not tapping into. Last year, business invested more in New Zealand than it did in the whole of South-East Asia, New Zealand having a population of five million people in Southeast Asia as a region having five billion. So we're very underdone economically.
And of course, China is very active right across this region now, trying to engage new partners and strengthen its relationships there, and Australia, like the United States and some of its other security allies, is concerned about how China is behaving and what its intentions are.
So that's an argument in favour of stronger ties with Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia, not weaker ones.
Mmm okay. So this, I suppose, reluctance or ambivalence between Australia and Indonesia, where did it begin? Because in the 90s and early 2000s, Australia, you know, we were seen as a strong ally of Indonesia and also the region more broadly. So can you talk me through what changed?
Well, it has been an up and down relationship. I mean if you go right back to the 1970s, the Balibo incident in East Timor has strained relations...
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:
“Greg Shackleton and four other Australian newsmen were killed by invading Indonesian special forces in 1975…”
There have been these flare ups over the years, but there have been a particular number of points, I guess, in recent years where things have flared up again.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:
“Australia’s live cattle trade with Indonesia is in trouble with the federal government threatening to suspend it completely over cruel practices…”
We saw the live cattle issue back in 2011 when Australia abruptly cancelled the live cattle trade with Indonesia, we saw some concern in Indonesia about the failure to consult or at least notify in advance of the pivot to Asia that Barack Obama - the then US president - announced on his visit to Australia, the positioning of Marines in Darwin.
Archival Tape -- Barack Obama:
“Now here in Darwin and northern Australia, we’ll write the next proud chapter in our alliance.”
Particularly strenuously opposed was the announcement during the Wentworth byelection in 2018 that Australia was planning to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
I##Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:
“Indonesia has signalled it’s opposed to the Prime Minister’s suggestion Australia might shift its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem…”
Now, you might think, what's that got to do with Indonesia, it's a proudly non-aligned country, but it has a very strong view on Palestinian autonomy. And so making a step like that, making an announcement like that about Australia's embassy in Jerusalem was seen as offensive and running counter to Indonesia's foreign policy, and again, without consultation.
Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“And the key point that I’ve made in my connection with President Widodo is the Australian government has not changed its policy on a two state solution…”
These things are cumulative, and they have added to some of the tensions in Australia's ties with Indonesia.
OK. So those are some of the historical events that have strained our relationship with Indonesia. But now, in 2020, what are some of the current tensions?
In recent times it's become a lot more about China - there's become a lot more focus about what China is doing, what its intentions are, we're seeing China engaging very actively with countries right across the region, sweeping through Southeast Asia and around the Pacific.
There has been Chinese influence in the Pacific for some years, and arguably Australia under successive governments has neglected those relationships and allowed the Chinese influence to grow. So it is becoming a much more transactional thing for Australia that it's looking very much at trying to counter Chinese influence, especially now during the pandemic when that influence is growing.
And so tell me about that. How has the arrival of the pandemic impacted the shifting power dynamic in the region?
I think it's emphasised the vulnerability of some countries - countries without good health systems or with large populations or just not good infrastructure or governance have struggled to manage their infection rates and just to cope with trying to suppress this virus.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:
“Indonesia is reporting a new daily high of nearly 4,900 new Coronavirus cases. The death toll has also passed 11,500…”
Some other countries that have done better are able to capitalise on that, if you like, and I think particularly of China, which is reaching out to a number of countries and offering assistance in terms of early access to a vaccine and other kinds of assistance during this pandemic, which makes countries indebted to China in the end.
There is some concern amongst analysts in Australia and around the region that Australia has neglected its relationships in Southeast Asia ahead of the pandemic and throughout it, and that that is making it harder to counter some of these offerings from China.
We'll be back in a moment.
Karen, Australia has historically provided significant amounts of aid to south-east Asia. How has that changed, particularly in the context of the pandemic?
When you look back to crises in the past, like when the tsunami hit and in fact the Asian financial crisis of 20 years ago, the offerings were much larger around the billion dollar mark, but we're somehow seeing this as a different sort of crisis - whether it's because it's more of a creeping crisis, I don't know, but we’re not offering as much there.
There have been smaller announcements, 100 ventilators for Indonesia were announced earlier this year, and very interestingly, just in the last week or so, the government is foreshadowing now that it will do a multi hundred million dollar package for South-East Asia.
Now, that's curious, coming as it does right after the budget where there was literally no money for South East Asia. They hadn't earmarked anything, they had only included more money for Timor-Leste, and the Pacific. So it's curious that so soon after the budget, they're suddenly scrambling with an aid package. I'm sure the analysts will say that it's very welcome, but it's puzzling that it wasn't laid out before this.
And Karen, this reluctance, I suppose, to spend on aid in the region, which, you know, it's not just right now, it's been going on for a while - what does it tell us about Australia's priorities in the region?
Well, I think increasingly in the last probably two decades, Australia has been very focussed on security issues since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the subsequent bombings in Bali and terrorist attacks around the region - Australia has looked at the region very much through a security prism.
And its own relationships with its five eyes partners have grown much stronger and become much more of a focus, too. So that involves the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia as a security alliance.
We've seen a change of language in the last few years, I think going back to about 2013, where we now talk of the Indo-Pacific region, we don't speak of Asia Pacific anymore, and that was a deliberate move back when the Labour government was in power and Stephen Smith was the foreign minister, and they determinedly changed the language to sort of capture the sweep from South Asia right round near India all the way around to the Pacific.
But you could argue, and some analysts do, that that middle section now is sort of been left out and we're looking to the Far East and the far west of that arc and less in the middle.
And do you think that there is an element of short sightedness to all of this?
Yes, I think people make the point that these relationships require long term investment, that you can't suddenly whistle them up when things go bad or when things look like they might go bad or when your interests change and you suddenly need them. People are cynical about that in personal relationships when that happens, and they're certainly cynical about it in diplomatic relationships.
I'm reminded of what the then Prime Minister, John Howard, used to be fond of saying when he was in office that you can't fatten the pig on market day. In other words, these things take long term investment. You have to put in the effort - genuine effort - over a long period of time.
In many of the countries of Southeast Asia, there's a sense of not wanting to be provocative, controversial, to play things very carefully and diplomatically, whereas Australia is often a little more blunt and forward leaning. And sometimes, although that can ruffle feathers, it can also be useful to some of our neighbours - if they can't speak out and say something straightforward, they sometimes appreciate that another country of like mind will do that.
But there is also a sense, if you talk to people like Dewi Fortuna Anwar, who's an analyst in Indonesia, very prominent, she was a vice presidential adviser - she says, look, we've appreciated your straightforward approach, but now you're increasingly not being straightforward. You're doing these things without letting us know, without consulting and conferring. And that is undermining your straight-shooting reputation. And so Australia, in some ways, might be undercutting itself with one of its best assets in terms of relationships around the region by being less straightforward and risking being seen to be a bit duplicitous sometimes.
And with that in mind, what do you think it is that these South-East nations would like to see Australia doing, and what role would they like Australia to be taking on at this moment in time?
Well, I think the message coming from the region in terms of the security relationships and particularly relationships involving China, is that they don't want to be made to choose. And a number of these countries manage those relationships carefully - as I mentioned, Indonesia is non-aligned - and the message very strongly is, don't make us choose. We don't want to have to choose between, for example, the United States and China. We want to seek to manage these relationships.
Ok. So, that is a tricky balance. How do you think Australia can best navigate that? Do you think it should be taking a more involved role in the region?
I think it needs to be very careful about the role that it takes. We await the result of the United States presidential election to see what emerges, but I think the general view seems to be that whichever of those two candidates wins that election, it's going to be a complicated relationship with China and the region going forward. And it's going to require a great deal of attention and a great deal of finesse. And I think Australia needs to carefully assess its interests and its relationships.
It's got an increasingly testy relationship with China, we’re in danger of that being reduced very much to public sniping when there's an awful lot that underpins that. So we have a difficult road ahead in terms of the security relationships and the business relationships with China. And I think Australia needs to think very carefully about that, and the message coming from analysts in this country is we need to be investing a lot more in the important relationships around the region than we currently are.
And I think there is evidence there, both through business, through the aid budget, through diplomatic and security relationships, that we're a bit underdone on the issue of Southeast Asia. And as I say, I can remember back to the days when it was much more a vivid relationship, Australia and the countries of the region; there was more engagement and more travel there by our leaders - that's, of course, not been as possible this year.
It's a bit of an outlier this year because of the pandemic. But there's just a general sense, I think, that it's fallen from the public consciousness and perhaps the political consciousness.
Karen, thank you so much for talking to me today.
You can read Karren Middleton’s essay on Australia’s relationship with south-east Asia in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs.
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Also in the news today…
The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, has delayed announcing the next steps in Melbourne's reopening, declaring that it is "not safe" to ease restrictions yet.
Victoria recorded 7 new cases of covid-19 yesterday, including six linked to a growing outbreak in Melbourne’s northern suburbs that the government is struggling to contain.
Meanwhile, former Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos accused Premier Daniel Andrews of "paralysis in decision-making" for postponing his announcement about the next step in the easing of restrictions.
And in the US, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence has tested positive for Covid-19. While Pence is considered a close contact, he has said he will maintain his travel schedule as the election campaign heads into its final week.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.
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Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has a significant impact on our culture, economy and national security. But despite our proximity, it’s often been a relationship defined by tension as well as indifference. Today, Karen Middleton on Australia’s regional blind spot, and why it’s time we started engaging more closely with South-East Asia.
Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.
Australian Foreign Affairs - Friends, Allies and Enemies
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.
Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
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More episodes from Karen Middleton