The two trips by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to Indonesia have started to give a distinctive shape to a shift in Australian foreign policy. In keeping with Abbott’s assertive political style, Australia is on the diplomatic front foot, promoting his pro-Asia policy agenda.
But the forcefulness of the way in which this agenda is being pushed may leave Australia exposed to uncomfortable outcomes. We generally have good regional relationships, but the interests of our neighbours are not necessarily the same as our own interests.
Abbott’s overture to China to reach a free trade agreement within 12 months is ambitious and intended to secure a long-term economic relationship with our largest trading partner. Similarly, Abbott’s unambiguous message to Indonesia is that Australia will be an even more loyal friend, with less tolerance for dissent around human rights issues.
Both cases are intended to secure different aspects of Australia’s national interest and being the diplomatic initiator signals Australia’s positive intentions. But initiating the further development of relationships then requires that gesture be taken up by the counterpart country.
In both cases, Abbott’s eagerness gives China and Indonesia greater scope for setting the terms of the relationship. Australia thus becomes the supplicant, with China and Indonesia bestowing the favours.
By placing a 12-month timeline on a free trade agreement with China, Abbott has signalled a willingness to accept previously problematic Chinese conditions. These include investments in Australia by Chinese state-owned enterprises, a lower threshold for scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board, and allowing more Chinese workers into Australia.
China’s plan is to secure for itself continuing access to resources over the longer term, and to do so at a good price. Its foreign direct investments, including in Australia, achieve both those goals. Similarly, the greater its direct control over resources, the stronger its bargaining position over those resources that it does not directly control.
Abbott’s recent visit to Jakarta reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to Indonesia’s territorial integrity. In this he was, perhaps, even more insistent than his predecessors.
In significant part this reflects the deep concern that Indonesia had with the Coalition’s policy of returning asylum seeker boats to Indonesia and attendant plans to pay locals for intelligence on boat departures. That signature policy in opposition now looks to be in the process of being quietly abandoned in government, replaced by a slightly stronger version of the existing policy of bilateral co-operation.
But part of Abbott’s ”total respect” for Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty and integrity was code for endorsing the status quo in the territory of West Papua. This has played out recently with the return of seven West Papuan asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and the ”voluntary” departure of three West Papuan protesters from the Australian Consulate-General in Bali.
The seven returned to PNG would likely have qualified for refugee status had they been processed in the usual manner. Despite what could be fairly understood as a plea for asylum, the three are now in hiding from the Indonesian police.
The drivers for Abbott’s foreign policy push are not explicit. But they can be divined from his political history. Abbott is a classical free trader, pursuing a policy in which markets are self-regulating and find their own equilibrium. An open door policy towards trade with and investment from China fits perfectly into this framework.
On Indonesia, one can detect a sensibility that reflects the strong pro-Indonesia (and anti-communist) position of his political training ground in the National Civic Council. At the time, this included opposition to East Timor’s independence, and West Papua’s continued incorporation.
Three decades on, Australia’s interests in Indonesia are more complex. Indonesia’s economy is growing, soon to overtake Australia’s in total size, and it is in both countries’ interests to seek and develop economic complementarities.
But Indonesia is potentially also a major strategic and diplomatic partner for Australia. It provides Australia with entree into ASEAN and can help facilitate some of its wider regional interests. How Indonesia views Australia has major implications for Australia’s strategic positioning.
The relatively benign relationship that Australia has enjoyed with Indonesia over much of the past decade can be attributed to the reformist, pro-Western preferences of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. However, within a year, Yudhoyono will leave office. Abbott’s commitment to Indonesia is unlikely to change, but the successor may be more assertively nationalistic. This could include requiring Australia to even more strongly oppose West Papuan activism, despite the conflict this will engender with more pro-human rights sections of Australian society.
China, too, will ultimately be concerned over its own interests and much less those of Australia. Local discomfort, if of a different type, may have to be accepted in the push and shove of competing understandings over what a more open economic relationship might entail.
The conventional approach to diplomatic relations is to take them slowly, consider their implications deeply and to proceed cautiously. This does not, however, accord with Abbott’s political style.
Abbott’s international agenda is appearing to be about achieving much quickly. In his rush, however, such enthusiasm for making agreements and pushing policy on the run may miss some of the implications, much less the nuances, embedded in the detail.
Australia needs stronger international linkages, not least with major trading and strategic partners. But it does not need such arrangements at any price. No agreement is better than a bad agreement.
A more cautious and considered approach to international relations will produce results less quickly. But they may be results that Australia is more easily able to live with, with fewer negative consequences, over the longer term.