Sat, 08 Mar 2003

Is Australia on collision course with Indonesia once again?

Paulo Gorjao Lecturer, Lusiada University Portugal

In February, with just a few weeks interval, Australia released a new foreign policy white paper, Advancing the National Interest (ANI), and a defense white paper update, Australia's National Security: A Defense Update (ANS).

Both documents are highly welcome since they provide relevant and useful information about Australia's official thinking in the fields of foreign affairs and security. Yet, they raise more questions than answers. ANI is a radically different document from the foreign affairs and trade white paper of 1997, In the National Interest.

While the former was highly influenced by the prospects of Asia's economic growth, which the Asian financial crisis rapidly shattered, the later is deeply influenced by the new security challenges.

In the same way, the 2000 defense white paper, Our Future Defense Force, was highly influenced by the Australian intervention in East Timor, while the defense update is deeply influenced by the new security challenges. Indeed, both ANI and ANS reflect recent developments concerning the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington DC, and on Oct. 12, 2002, in Bali.

Both documents identify the proliferation of WMD as a significant security challenge and a real concern. In part, this is a consequence of increasing globalization, with its expanded flows which make the proliferation of WMD easier. Thus, according to ANS, a "layered defense" must be adopted.

In the first place, this involves diplomatic efforts. However, when diplomacy fails, Australia may contribute to coalition military operations. But, as ANI admits, although states involved in the proliferation of WMD must be challenged (otherwise others will attempt to emulate them), nevertheless counter-proliferation efforts will "not necessarily halt (the proliferation)".

This is why Canberra supports a third defense layer: the U.S. strategic missile defense program.

Yet, how do we determine that diplomacy has failed and coalition military operations should be pursued? What are the criteria? Moreover, as North Korea has shown, not all cases have the same number of layers. If diplomacy fails to disarm North Korea, a coalition military operation is not an option. Indeed, North Korea receives surprisingly little attention in both documents.

It is almost impossible not to feel that it is U.S. priorities that will almost exclusively determine what Australia will do. The problem with this is the fact that U.S. priorities might not be the same as Australia's.

The Australian-led intervention in East Timor demonstrated this and North Korea seems to be doing so once again. Will Canberra act against the proliferation of WMD only as part of a U.S.-led military operation?

Certainly, some still recall Australia's willingness to act as the "deputy sheriff" of the U.S., and neither document does anything to change this perception.

The other challenge identified by the ANI and ANS is the fight against terrorism. ANS perceives this as a long-term task, and ANI believes that "countries in the region need to do more". The Bali bombings confirmed that extremist organizations in Southeast Asia are no longer focused exclusively on local issues.

Obviously, the existence of links between militant regional extremist groups and global Islamic terrorism is a particularly disturbing development to Australia. Unsurprisingly, the Bali bombings inflicted a strong sense of vulnerability, not only because Australian citizens were the direct targets, but also owing to the fact that it took place in Australia's immediate neighborhood.

Therefore, Canberra is willing to "contribute to further efforts on the war on terror", particularly regarding Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. This is a direct consequence of Australia's perception of its neighborhood as a "troubled region" with several potential "failed states".

In the case of Indonesia, the situation is particularly complex and troubling owing to poverty, unemployment, democratization, economic recovery, corruption, governance and legal reform, as well as religious, ethnic and separatist challenges.

Thus, Indonesia is considered "fertile ground for international extremist Islamic influences", but also for nonterrorist related security challenges such as people smuggling, illegal fishing, drug trafficking and money laundering. Moreover, geography dictates that the success of reform in Indonesia and its efforts to eradicate terrorism are crucial to the future security of Australia.

Still, is Australia willing to intervene to counter terrorist threats in Southeast Asia, even against the will of sovereign states such as Indonesia? Is Australia prepared to take the lead in such situations if necessary? Are preemptive strikes a real option?

While cooperation between Australia and Indonesia is much better than it was prior to the Bali bombings, the odds seem to play against such cooperation. Indeed, the commitment in both documents toward increasing close cooperation with the United States implies certain difficulties concerning Australia's engagement with Asia.

Moreover, Canberra's willingness to intervene militarily in its immediate neighborhood makes it safe to assume that political friction between Australia and Indonesia (as well as other countries) is likely to occur in the next few years.