Farewelling friends, finding allies

When Hugh White writes, governments read

Farewelling friends, finding allies

That’s not a response necessarily enjoyed by other academic commentators on foreign policy, but Hugh White, Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, has credibility established over time. After graduating he worked as a journalist, advisor to ministers, intelligence analyst and a senior public servant. In his latest book How to Defend Australia,”White, now 66, writes that “since the 1970s, Australia’s defense forces have been planned primarily to defend the continent independently against a local adversary — in effect, Indonesia.” 

Yet for many years China has been aggressively enlarging its influence and worrying both countries, while Indonesia has shown no appetite for foreign adventurism. 

Canberra’s response to White has stressed that Australia promotes peace and friendship towards Indonesia and bears no ill-will. Jakarta sends the same message. However, both sides remain unsure, their citizens sometimes paranoid.

There are many factors in play; foremost are shallow media reporting, ignorance and distrust built over generations. 

In the 2019 Lowy Institute survey of Australian public attitudes, 59 per cent disagreed with the statement that “Indonesia is a democracy” – which it has been for almost two decades.

Despite more than a million antipodeans hitting Bali beaches every year, the Institute says its long-term polling “has demonstrated the wariness with which Australians and Indonesians regard each other.” 

Why so when both nations sweat over how to manage tensions caused by Chinese ambitions beyond its borders, while relying on the People’s Republic for trade and investment?

Logic suggests Indonesia and Australia should be working together, but suspicion about ties with America linger; in 2003 US President George W Bush called Prime Minister John Howard Washington’s “deputy sheriff” in Southeast Asia.  

Jakarta hawks haven’t forgotten the arrogance and see it reinforced by the increasing presence of US troops in Darwin, the Australian city closest to the Archipelago.  

Since 2012 almost 7,000 US Marines have been rotated through a training base “to build trust and relationships with each other and across the region to preserve stability,” according to an official statement.

Then there’s this year’s partnership with the US to develop the deep-water Lombrum naval facility.

This is on the 2,100 square kilometer Manus Island in the Admiralty Archipelago, part of Papua New Guinea. It’s also being used to detain around 400 asylum seekers caught by Australian naval patrols while trying to reach the continent in boats launched from Indonesia.

Now labeled the Lombrum Joint Initiative, the so-far publicly uncosted plan is to make the port a joint US-Australian military forward-defense post, allegedly to counter Chinese expansion. Manus is less than 700 kilometers from Jayapura, the capital of Indonesia’s Papua province. 

Australia’s foreign policy has been underpinned by ANZUS (the Australia, New Zealand and US Treaty) for so long many thought it set in stone. President Donald Trump’s international relations inconsistencies have taken a hammer to that rock.

ANZUS was signed in 1951 when Australia had a population one third of its present 25 million, and feared the rapid spread of Communism. 

In those Cold War days Indonesia’s President Soekarno’s scorching anti-colonial speeches, and his leaning towards Russia and China, frightened Australians to get under the US umbrella.  

They remembered that the Japanese warplanes which attacked north coast ports and towns more than 200 times during the Second World War had taken off from airfields in the captured Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

If lumbering prop-powered planes loaded with munitions in West Timor could hit northern Australia, what might long-range modern jets do to the southern cities?  Which is why Australia bought 24 F111 high-tech fighter bombers from the US in 1963; these were capable of reaching Jakarta, dumping payloads and returning to Darwin.

The perceived need to attack a neighbor’s capital vanished in 1966 when the West-friendly General Soeharto ousted President Soekarno and closed down Konfrontasi.The undeclared war against the new federation of Malaysia was defended by British, Australian and NZ troops. 

Relative calm settled till 1999 when Australia supported the East Timor referendum, where citizens of the former Portuguese colony voted four-to-one to go it alone following 24 years of Indonesian rule. 

Australia led the international peacemaking taskforce after pro-Jakarta militia, allegedly backed by the military, initiated widespread violence. Conspiracy theorists claimed Australia’s motives were to fracture and weaken the Republic.

This was one of the reasons advanced by the Bali nightclub bombers for the deaths of 202 people, including 88 Australians, in October 2002. Two years later a car bomb outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta killed nine.

Further relationship damage came in 2015 when Indonesia executed two Australian drug runners after 10 years on death row, ignoring all pleas for compassion. 

In this year’s Lowy Institute poll measuring “best friend in the world”, New Zealand topped the list ahead of the US and UK.  Four per cent of respondents said China, just one per cent Indonesia.

Australia is more advanced and richer than Indonesia, but the population ratio is 11 to one; a frightening fact for the nervous.

Atheist one-party China is far bigger with 1.4 billion people; the government has imprisoned Australian citizens, persecuted the religious, acted belligerently, stoked trade wars and threatened Hong Kong dissidents.  

But apart from the 1989 Tiananmen Square slaughter of democracy activists, so far China has not been involved in the up-close and personal incidents which have upset Australia’s dealings with the world’s most populous Islamic country.

Aside from the joint ventures in Darwin and Manus, White claims the US can no longer be seen as Big Brother in the ANZUS family. He writes that the American response to the growth of Chinese power has been “feeble and faltering … and there is now a very real chance that the US will not remain the primary strategic power in Asia. 

“That means Australia must consider whether it needs forces capable of doing much more — defending Australia independently from a major Asian power. Australia has never really explored this question, because it has always assumed that it was both unaffordable and, thanks to great and powerful friends, unnecessary.”

Researchers at Sydney University’s US Studies Centre agree. Their report “Averting Crisis”released in mid-August reasons that as US military clout weakens Australia should look locally for friends.

The analysis suggests “robust diplomatic, political and military consultations with near neighbors, particularly Indonesia, should be conducted before Canberra embarks on establishing a long-range land-based offensive strike capability”.

So instead of those on either shore of the Arafura Sea squinting at each other and seeing potential enemies, they might consider being allies.  That’s going to need a major rethink in the electorates of both democracies.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

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