The New Regionalism – another update

Thursday, 30 April 2015 

I feel desperately sorry for the parents of these people. I do. All of us as parents will feel that way, but the warnings have been there for decades.

John Howard reacting to the handing down of the death sentence to Andrew Chan April 2005

I have nothing critical to say about collaboration between the Federal Police and the Indonesian police, and I back up the Federal Police.

Kim Beazley April 2005

Australia’s foreign policy should have a Jakarta rather than a Geneva focus.

Tony Abbott gets his wish October 2013

In just over the last twenty years, there have been four Australians executed in South East Asia. Michael McAulife hanged in Malaysia in 1993, Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore in 2005, and Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran on Wednesday. And, of course, there is Pham Trung Dung, sentenced to death in Vietnam last year.

Yet while there was little outcry for the other executions, and of Pham Trung Dung (still on death row?), not a peep, it’s been the two of the Bali 9 that has caused the biggest political and diplomatic reaction from the Australian government.

There are a couple of reasons why this should be surprising.

Not least because it was the Australian government that made sure they were arrested for the capital crime in the first place. As Chris Graham thoroughly sets out in New Matilda, the delivery into the hands of the Indonesian authorities of the Bali 9 in April 2005 was carried with deliberate intention by the Australian Federal Police.

But while the AFP is now getting some flak, the operation was carried out with the full approval of the political leadership at the time, on both sides of the fence, with both Howard and Beazley unrepentant when Chan and Sukumaran were given the death penalty ten months later – just as Mike Rann had been for Van Tuong Nguyen the previous year. Indeed, even for Chan and Sukumaran, the public hasn’t seem especially concerned, with one poll showing a majority of Australians (especially Liberal voters) didn’t want the government to do more to help them – a poll bizarrely criticised for even being conducted.

The second reason the political reaction’s surprising is the importance of the relationship with Indonesia. As Graham notes, the AFP operation was part of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Australian and Indonesian governments. While such treaties and arrangements stretched back to the days of Keating, they became especially important after 9/11 when the arrangements were formalised under the Bali Process, which formed the basis of the post 9/11 security framework and repairing the damage from Howard’s actions in East Timor in 1998.

The relationship became one of the few diplomatic successes for Australia in a region where it finds it hard to come by – a relationship that has become more important in recent years as a rapidly growing Indonesia offers one of the few regional counterweights to the influence of China.

The importance of the Indonesian relationship meant that even when pressure was building over the fate of the Bali 9, Australian politicians were still wary of upsetting Indonesian relations because of it. Here, for example, is Downer, Foreign Minister at the time of their arrest, offering “advice” to the Gillard government in 2013 on how to handle the Indonesian government so as to secure the pardon of a pair his government got into the situation in the first place:

The government should also avoiding [sic] issuing public threats either explicit or implicit. Threatening the Indonesians publicly will only get their backs up. They will make it clear that Indonesia won’t be threatened by anyone.

So publicly suggesting we’ll downgrade the relationship if the President fails to grant clemency won’t work.

Yet here we are now, two years later, and the Abbott government has done precisely what Downer warned it not to. But even a few weeks ago, this wasn’t Abbott’s intention either. Indeed, there is a third reason why especially he would have preferred not to have damaged the Indonesian relationship in this way.

Along with the Bali 9, Howard left another legacy to complicate Abbott’s relationship with Indonesia, the idea that “we will decide” who comes to these shores. This is, of course, nonsense. One of the best kept secrets of the Howard government was the vital role that Indonesia played in stopping boats, something that Howard had lost control of in the first five years of his Prime Ministership, especially after the East Timor intervention, but regained following 9/11. Handing the Bali 9 to the Indonesian authorities by the Howard government was part of the system of cooperation that from Indonesia’s side meant stopping the boats coming.

This was kept under the radar until Rudd Mark II, when, in full disruption mode, he made the importance of Indonesia’s role explicit, and so turned the whole border issue upside down. Instead of “we” deciding, Australia had a practically unprecedented intervention of an Asian neighbour into a highly sensitive domestic issue.

What Rudd did, to the horror of Downer and others, was to give Indonesia vital leverage over Australia, which it has used since, especially following revelations of phone tapping at the end of 2013. While much praise has been given to Abbott and Bishop for the foreign policy successes like the UN Resolution on MH17 (backfired) and confronting Putin at the G20 (ditto), the real foreign policy success has been unsung, namely containing that damage with Indonesia to restore cooperation over the boats policy.

So how has this mess come about? Up until a few weeks ago, no Australian government wanted these executions to damage the Indonesian relationship. Indeed, this may have been why we now discover that last year the Abbott government dropped even its formal request to the AFP to account for its opposition to the death penalty when sharing information with overseas authorities. So how a few months later have these executions now damaged that relationship?

Hartcher on Tuesday suggested the problem lay with the Indonesian President who showed his weakness by bowing to the pressure of internal opponents by not, er, bowing to the pressure of foreign opponents. It is true, things are not going well for Widodo, who faces not only a lack of majority in Parliament, a lack of control over his own party and, with a slowing economy, now finds his only asset, his personal popularity, fading with an approval rating slump to the mid 40s.

Mid 40’s approval. That’s bad. But, of course, it’s the type of approval rating Australia’s current Prime Minister hasn’t enjoyed since a few weeks after coming to power in what was derisively known as a “honeymoon”. Abbott’s comments linking the Bali 9 to Tsunami aid, which set off such a reaction in Indonesia, came barely a week after he became the third ever Liberal Prime Minister to face a leadership challenge – from an empty chair. As recognised at the time, it was unhelpful to say the least. If weakness has played a part in the response in Widodo’s handling of the executions, it has certainly played a hand in Australia’s.

This has the making of being a regional diplomatic disaster. As Carr has noted, withdrawing the Ambassador is one thing, working how to reinstall him is another. It is not of Abbott’s making but rather a problem both the Coalition and Labor have no solution to, how to build a new framework for relating to a region that Australia has only ever really dealt with through the US. That political framework reached its apogee 50 years ago yesterday, when Menzies announced Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. It’s been unravelling ever since and this week it lurched another step down.

And still Australian politicians don’t know how to respond, typified by the proposal now to campaign in the region against the death penalty – to which the obvious retort from Asian neighbours would be why Australia doesn’t start with its closest ally, which despite having only a 50% greater population, put to death nearly five times the number of people since SBY lifted Indonesia’s moratorium in 2013. Yet Australian politicians have to not only manage this unprecedented regional situation, but at a time when they are arguably weaker than ever to do so. It seems difficult to believe from Canberra, but the two are not unrelated.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 30 April 2015.

Filed under International relations

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4 responses to “The New Regionalism – another update”

  1. F on 30th April 2015 9:54 am

    There was an outcry for Van Tuong Nguyen. Candle-light vigils and what not. Australian government pleas, papal pleas(!), etc.

    Apart from that, a very good piece. I’m actually shocked Abbott’s government let it get to this;surely after being hated for so many other things, they could stand to be hated for being perceived to ‘kow tow’ to Indonesia? Who on earth are they trying to please?

    Abbott has backed himself into a macho corner; he makes everything a trial of strength. Him against all comers. It’s ridiculous. He simply can’t help but strong arm ‘opponents’ at all costs.

    But even now this won’t be read as loss by him. He seems to need being in this dogged fighting position. In fact, PMO may see this as a way to ‘reconnect’ with the electorate….at the expense of the relationship with Indonesia, of course. Why not? He did it with the boat policy, so why not do it with these executions?

  2. No Crap App: w/b 27 Apr 2015 | No Crap App on 3rd May 2015 12:11 pm

    […] Piping Shrike: The New Regionalism – another update […]

  3. Riccardo on 4th May 2015 1:24 pm

    And it proves Australia still really only a colony. 1901 was just a set of housekeeping matters for the British. We have no actual way of having a relationship with near neighbours.

    Just as we have to communicate with New Caledonia’s local govt through Paris, in effect, what we do with the likes of Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines is speak loudly while clinging to the Washington apronstrings.

  4. Riccardo on 11th May 2015 12:47 pm

    When you look at the history – other things emerge:

    -the nation state called “Australia” had no real relationship with the Dutch East Indes except that minimal one through their head office in Europe, and ours

    -there was no influence on the formation of the nation state called “Australia” from either the Dutch East Indes or their HQ (except insofar as they didn’t want it) and the Javanese – who knew the landmass was there for hundreds of years prior – also didn’t want it

    -Australia was stuck with the colony called Dutch East Indes as a government in exile during WWII, until it was overrun by the Japanese

    -its transition to Indonesia was something that Australia really had very little to do with as it was between the people of the archipelago and the Netherlands

    Now the reason this matters is that there would be very, very few situations worldwide where nation states adjacent to each other came into being, with minimal or no input from their neighbours.

    The USA, Canada and Mexico are all part of the same tale. The nations of Europe and Asia also really only exist with reference to their neighbour’s histories – the repeated invasions, the claiming of each others lands, overlapping histories of subjugation by third parties.

    Yet Australia and Indonesia both exist with hardly a reference to each other. Even the fabled isle of Bali – the focal point of the relationship for most Australians (but never for Indonesias) just happens to be the cheapest of several candidate isles.

    If Fiji had lower labour costs Bali would be ignored.

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