Australia's Asian security imperative

Australia's most important strategic partner is neither Washington nor Beijing - it's Indonesia. And now is the worst time to be jeopardising our relationship with Jakarta.

“No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right, and nurture and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete,” said former Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1994.

Twenty years later, Keating’s prophetic insight still rings true and in fact it is more important than ever for Australia to maintain a close strategic relationship with Jakarta. The geopolitical order in the region in which we live is undergoing a fundamental transformation and the rise of China as the next superpower poses a stark choice for Australia.

China’s economy will soon be larger than America’s and that economic weight will translate into military and political power over time. We have already seen signs of that as China builds more aircraft carriers, stealth fighter jets and nuclear submarines. The era of American dominance in the region is coming to an end whether we like it or not.

Much of the debate happening in this country is around whether we should choose between China –our most important economic partner -- or the United States -- the most important security partner. This is a false dichotomy.

Australia’s most important strategic partner should neither be Washington nor Beijing. This country’s future security depends on building a strategic buffer north of its territory. Luckily this buffer zone already exists and it takes the form of ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) of which Indonesian is the keystone member.

Australia has been blessed by this unexpected, yet valuable geopolitical buffer says Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean ambassador to the UN who served as President of the UN Security Council.

“For all its flaws and defects, ASEAN has enhanced Australian security by keeping Southeast Asia at peace, keeping Asian powers like China and India at arm’s length and increasing multilateral webs of operation which have created greater geopolitical stability, “ he said in a speech during a recent visit to Australia.

One of the biggest mistakes Australia has made recently has been to take ASEAN for granted, and one may even go as far to say to ignore it while the association has been embarked on an EU-like effort to create a common economic zone right at our door step.

Canberra only appointed its first resident ambassador to ASEAN last September after years of bureaucratic wrangling. A senior Indonesian diplomat aired his concerns about Australia’s neglect of the region during his recent trip to Australia.  

“Not many people in Australia are aware of ASEAN, although in terms of proximity we are not so apart,” Indonesian ambassador to ASEAN Gede Ngurah Swajaya told Business Spectator.

“Australia views Asia through the lens of China. Not many people know we have a free trade agreement ASEAN. You are ignoring this terrific opportunity which is ASEAN.”

In a time of uncertainty, Australia is naturally clinging to its powerful friends in Washington for comfort. At the same time, Canberra is engaging in a politically costly diplomatic fight with Jakarta over spying allegations and asylum seekers. The spat between Canberra and Jakarta will cost Australia political space in a region that is crucial to Australia’s future security.  

The best way for Australia to achieve security is through membership in ASEAN. Something Paul Keating once hinted at through the formula of a ‘community of Twelve” comprising ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand.

Ambassador Swajaya explained why Australian membership of ASEAN is crucial to this country’s success as well as its security. He used the example of Australia’s desire to be part of the solution to escalating disputes between China and other countries over maritime territories in the South China Sea.

“The only way for Australia to get involved in the South China Sea dispute is through ASEAN,” he said.

 “ASEAN is the only party in the region who can talk to everybody freely. Australia can’t enhance its alliance with the US, which will make China unhappy.”

Mahbubani, one of the foremost strategic thinkers in the region, argues that in the long run, Australia will have no choice but to seek membership in ASEAN. Australia can achieve long-term security by becoming part of a regional association that is able to withstand diplomatic, economic and military pressures from rising superpowers like China.

Unfortunately, our political and foreign policy elites aren’t entertaining such an option and prefer to tie Australia’s security even closer to that of the United States. Mahbubani says the key obstacle is cultural reluctance.

“The main reason why Australia will be uncomfortable as a member of ASEAN is that it will have to learn how to behave as an Asian rather than as a Western nation”. Australia needs to explore all serious options about this country’s place in an increasingly volatile, richer, powerful region populated by 3.5 billion Asians.

Ambassador Swajaya’s gentle warning should be a wake-up call. “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your neighbours.”

Follow Peter Cai on Twitter: @peteryuancai
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