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Forget the West, our future is to the North

Date

Paul Keating

We risk becoming a Western outpost unless we focus on Indonesia.

Illustration: John Spooner.

Illustration: John Spooner.

I BELIEVE the era of effective foreign policy activism in Australia has passed. Our sense of independence has flagged and we have rolled back into an easy accommodation with the foreign policy objectives of the United States. More latterly, our respect for the foreign policy objectives of the United States has superimposed itself on what should otherwise be the foreign policy objectives of Australia.

The days when, as prime minister of Australia, I was able to wrest the Chinese premier into a multilateral body shared with the president of the United States, when I was able to bring the virtual head of the Non-Aligned Movement, president Suharto, into a structure that included the United States, indeed into a structure with China to boot, are behind us.

The United States and China will now not encourage us to propose and build structures of the kind we have in the past. In the 20 years since I put the APEC Leaders' Meeting together, China has become the second major economic power in the world; it does not need us to help construct its foreign policy, any more than the United States needs us to insinuate ourselves onto China to its account. That is not to say we cannot be influential at the margin, on either or both of them - we probably can and should be. But we have been traded down in the big stroke business. Even states like Indonesia are dubious of us because they do not see us making our way in the world or their world other than in a manner deferential to other powers, especially the United States.

This became apparent during John Howard's prime ministership; it has remained apparent under the prime ministerships of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. After playing the deputy sheriff, John Howard had us dancing to the tune of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, while upon the release of the WikiLeaks cables, the Chinese discovered that Kevin Rudd, as prime minister, had been advising the United States to reserve the military option against them. During the prime ministership of Julia Gillard, President Barack Obama made an oral and policy assault on China and its polity, from the lower chamber of our Parliament House. This brought immediate pangs of disquiet from the Indonesian foreign minister and later from his president.

The fact is, Australia's former sphere of influence is diminishing.

Our membership of the Anglo-sphere through the postwar years and down through the Cold War gave us influence in the temples of power - but that power came from the victory of World War II and our associate membership of the West. That world has changed. Now, we have to be propelled not by regard of withering associations, but by our enlightened sense of self. Knowing who we are, what we are, what we want, and having a solid idea about how we get it.

We will always be best being ourselves, exercising our ingenuity where it matters most, where we are most relevant, where our interests mostly coalesce and that is in the neighbourhood. Recognising that our membership of the West was most relevant to us while the West was the dominant global grouping - but that that period is now passing. What is not passing is our geopolitical positioning. The immutability of our need to successfully treat with and adapt to the neighbourhood - a neighbourhood which, save for New Zealand, is completely non-Western.

While we will always have a close relationship with the US based on our shared history and our similar cultures, it is obvious that the right organising principle for our security is to be integral to the region.

From now on we have to concentrate on where we can be effective and where we can make the greatest difference. I believe that is fundamentally in south-east Asia. In a geopolitical sense, this region is a place of amity, a zone of peace and co-operation, perched between the two most populous neighbourhoods on earth: broadly, Pakistan and India and their ocean, and China and Japan and their ocean.

It is completely natural that Australia be engaged there; certainly, with Indonesia but preferably with the wider ASEAN. This grouping represents the security architecture of south-east Asia, the one with which we can have real dialogue and add substance. In the longer run we should be a member of it - formalising the trade, commercial and political interests we already share. This is the natural place for Australia to belong; indeed, the one to which we should attribute primacy.

We have made some important movements in our dialogue with ASEAN and its member states, among them our inclusion in the East Asia Summit from its inaugural meeting in 2005. That development came about relatively late in the Howard government's term, when it came to the realisation that closer integration with Asia was an imperative for Australia, rather than being a Keating obsession - a contrary view that had formerly driven its policy. Alexander Downer negotiated our membership of the East Asia Summit, while Rudd effectively lobbied ASEAN and China to include the US and Russia.

Good and significant as these changes were, they were in essence of a foreign policy kind. What they were not were policies designed to make our general community more relevant to the nations of ASEAN - to set our broader relationships on firmer foundations.

In recent years, our relations with countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have been focused on transactional issues of marginal long-term significance; refugee management and live cattle exports come to mind.

In the meantime, policy towards our nearest, largest neighbour, Indonesia, has languished, lacking framework, judgments of magnitude and coherence. It is as if Indonesia remains as it was before the Asian financial crisis - before its remarkable transition to democracy and before the refiring of its wealth machinery.

How things go in the Indonesian archipelago, in many respects, so go we. Indonesia remains the place where Australia's strategic bread is buttered. No country is more important to us - and it is a country that has shown enormous tolerance and goodwill towards us. Focus on this country should be a major imperative driving our foreign policy.

The fourth largest country in the world, a secular democracy, the largest Muslim state, Indonesia's vast archipelago straddles the air and sea approaches to our country. No major power in or beyond the wider region could hope to have the capacity to project forces towards Australia, certainly to our north and west, without needing to transit Indonesia.

Already, on a purchasing power parity basis, the Indonesian economy is larger than our own. Indonesia's economy is likely to be at least twice as large as Australia's and in time, even larger.

How might we feel with a massive economy to our immediate north, in an archipelago approaching 300 million people? And a country which by then would probably have naval and air forces commensurate with its economic wealth. The fact is, Indonesia is building the weight to stand on its own feet, both economically and militarily, against anything that might come its way - either from the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean.

The question is what will that weight mean for us? An adversary with whom we failed to come to terms in good and propitious times or a partner to share common cause in the region and wider world?

The answer to that question will best be settled by Australia positively discriminating in its attitude and in its efforts towards Indonesia, removing the ambivalence that has informed our approach. In this way, there is every likelihood Indonesia would respond in kind, diminishing its own ambivalence towards us.

Whichever way we cut it, Australia must lay a bigger bet on its relationship with Indonesia. And this has to be cultural and commercial, as well as political. The Australian people are unlikely to beat a path to Java or to Sumatra without public policy in this country divining the way.

Now that Australia is front and centre in the fastest-growing part of the world as never before, our future has to amount to more than simply managing alliances. Effective at that as we have been in the past, we are now compelled to be more relevant to the dynamic region around us. This must mean that our opportunities to exercise independence and independence of action will be greater than they have ever been.

Not to measure up to this challenge would be to run the risk of being seen as a derivative power, perpetually in search of a strategic guarantor, a Western outpost, seemingly unable to make its own way in the world. Surely we have reached the point where we have to turn away from that scenario, recognise the realities of our geography and strike out on our own.

Paul Keating was prime minister from 1991 to 1996. This is an edited version of his Keith Murdoch Oration delivered in Melbourne last night.

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