As someone who likes to portray himself a traditionalist, Tony Abbott is meeting expectations in one area. He’s following the Liberal Party tradition of ham-fisted foreign policy.
From Menzies’ appeasement in the 1930s to the folly of Vietnam and Iraq, Australian conservatives have consistently cost the nation young lives. They never get it right in foreign policy because they never think for themselves, contracting out our strategic interests to bigger powers such as Britain and America. It’s the ultimate cultural cringe, paid for in body bags.
With little public debate, Abbott has made a major shift in foreign policy, declaring Indonesia to be “the most important single relationship we have”.
While he started his time as Liberal leader talking about the role of the “Anglosphere” in world affairs, earlier this year he pivoted towards Java. But why?
It was a typical Abbott ploy. With the Gillard government unable to resolve the boat people crisis, he looked to Jakarta for political advantage. If the Coalition could promise a new era of co-operation with Indonesia to stop the boats, Labor would be damaged electorally.
Abbott and his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop arranged high-level meetings with Indonesia’s leadership, accepting at face-value assurances of bilateral goodwill. With misty-eyed optimism, the Liberal leaders genuinely thought the Yudhoyono administration was onside, overlooking the corruption that dominates all levels of Indonesian governance, especially in people smuggling. The Indonesian military acts as an escort service in transporting economic refugees to embarkation ports.
Despite the complexity of the problem, Abbott persevered with his populist slogan to “stop the boats”. The significance of China, India and Japan was downgraded, with a gold medal placed around Indonesia’s neck as our most important relationship. It was a marriage of the three driving forces in Abbott’s personality: his priestly accommodation of people in face-to-face meetings, anti-Labor partisanship and a populist urge to simplify issues and make inflated claims.
‘A bit player’ in Asia
Through this strange convergence, Australia now has an exaggerated foreign policy. By any objective test, Indonesia is a bit player in Asia. It takes less than 2 per cent of Australia’s exports, well behind China (30 per cent), Japan (19), Korea (8) and India (5). Talk of Indonesia emerging as an economic powerhouse is delusional. Its work ethic is weak, its inventiveness poor and across society, systemic corruption overshadows the rule of law.
As a military presence, Indonesia has invested heavily in personnel, with its soldiers acting like a domestic police force. But its naval and air-strike power are limited. In dealing with terrorism, the Indonesian government has acted only in response to international pressure, not because it respects Western values. For more than a decade, its strategy of pushing asylum seeker problems onto Australia has been an act of international bastardry.
The best approach for Australia is to keep Indonesia at arm’s length, neutralising difficulties but not expecting goodwill or co-operation. We should avoid foolhardy gestures such as Abbott’s so-called “prime ministerial precedent” in visiting Indonesia ahead of other countries.
While he wasn’t directly responsible for the recent spy scandal, Abbott made it worse for himself by pumping up Indonesia’s significance. Our national interests would be better served by upgrading relations with China and India, two authentic economic powerhouses.
Unfortunately, in his attitude to China, Abbott is innately suspicious – as we saw last week in the government’s unnecessary intervention in the East China Sea dispute.
The Prime Minister has been influenced by his old DLP buddy Greg Sheridan from The Australian. A crusty Cold War relic, Sheridan has declared China to be the equivalent of Japan in the 1920s – that is, an expansionist power likely to invade the rest of Asia. In this scenario, Indonesia is seen as providing a strategic buffer between Australia and Chinese aggression.
Truly, the inmates have captured the asylum. “Bufferism” is one of the core beliefs of Australia’s foreign policy establishment – an unwritten assumption on which successive defence white papers have been based.
With Abbott and Bishop now directing this nonsense, anything could happen.
This article originally appeared 5th December 2013 in the Australian Financial Review.