Australia in the Region


When Australia’s ally, the United States made the Asia Pacific its top strategic priority in the 2001 Quadrennial Defence Review, it was clear to all defence analysts that the ‘peer competitor’ was China. Indeed, in the last year America has not been shy about revealing the Pentagon’s direction – it was Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice’s remarks on her way to Australia this year that finally signaled a long held view from the hill.

‘All of us in the region, particularly longstanding allies, have a joint responsibility and obligation to try and produce conditions in which the rise of China will be a positive force in international politics, not a negative one,” she said.’

Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer then spent the next week trying to hose down suggestions that China was indeed a ‘strategic’ competitor, words used by US President George Bush prior to September 11 and written about in numerous articles in American foreign affairs journals from University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer to Aaron Friedberg, former deputy national security advisor in Dick Cheney’s foreign affairs team. He is now professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, and last year had this to say in his paper ‘Is Conflict Inevitable?’published in International Security.

‘If tensions between the two Pacific powers worsen, the whole of Eurasia could be divided into a new cold war, and the prospects for confrontation and conflict would seem certain to rise……..Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been busy trying to strengthen and solidify its ties to its traditional regional allies (including Japan, South Korea, and Australia) in large part out of concern over the growth of Chinese power.’

For the readers of International Security and Foreign Affairs, the ‘China’ threat is well known. It has been written about endlessly, as early as Richard Bernstein’s and Ross H Munro’s 1997 piece ‘The Coming Conflict with America’. The recent Pentagon Report in its annual report on China’s military power was clear.  ‘The pace and scope of Beijing’s military modernization give it the greatest potential of any nation to compete militarily with the United States’ and ‘it has already altered military balances in the Asia-Pacific and could pose a threat to regional armed forces’.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao responded by saying:

“The US Defence Department’s report, which exaggerates China’s military strength and expenditure and continues to spread the ‘China threat theory’, is based on ‘Cold War mentality’ and ulterior motives’

 It was a sign that the economic importance of China and ‘economic interdependence’ as a deterrence factor against US and Chinese competition in the region is fading rapidly. East Timor’s importance is that it will continue to be one of the countries in the Asia Pacific trying to deal with the powerful strategic competitors – China and the US. Timor happens to neighbour some of the most important waterways crucial during Pacific naval struggles – notably the Ombei Wetar Straits.
Geoffrey Barker in the Australian Financial Review noted that  ‘East Timor’s strategic location between Australia and Indonesia makes it an ideal launching pad for forays against Australia and its interests by hostile states, terrorist organisations and criminal gangs seeking to smuggle drugs, weapons and people into Australia’ as a reason why Australia should be concerned about Timor’s security. But that is public pleasing rhetoric designed to obfuscate the emerging US and Australian defence policy regarding China.

Australia’s defence is predicated on ensuring that we remain in the Pacific – and visible to the Chinese, who Washington believes has territorial aspirations for a ‘green water’ navy in the region. This means that the sea lanes of the Asia-Pacific are vital for Western defence – and the large arms build up of submarines by all Asian nations can be linked back to US concerns over China’s naval capability. This year, during the Congressional hearings on China’s military modernization, a range of military experts testified that China’s submarine advancement was a major cause of concern for the US. More importantly for the Asia Pacific, is that every nation in the region is involved in balancing these major geo-political players who are competing at military, economic and territorial levels.

In Indonesia in 2004, a prominent Muslim leader emphatically stated during an interview ‘what we don’t need in the region is a new cold war’. And yet a ‘New Cold War’ is exactly what has emerged, with countries such as East Timor struggling to deal with the myriad of interests that seek to control these strategic areas. Politicians and commentators from across the spectrum in Timor have been candid about what they see as the dilemmas for Timor in trying to balance the two giants – as many leaders are throughout the Pacific. That China is desperately seeking energy supplies for its booming industry and population means that energy has emerged as another crucial dimension of the struggle between the US and China. Countries in the region are having to balance the monetary enticements of Beijing against the political concerns of Washington. Timor, West Papua, Indonesia all have resources that the growing giant wants and needs. Just like Africa, it is quickly becoming a playing field of those for Team China/America and those against, although governments in the Asia Pacific region are adept at changing sides when it suits their needs. While the Cold War was a chess game between two clearly marked sides – this is a rather different battle, of ‘asymmetrical’ means by two powers that need not ‘control’ countries – rather strategic geographical ‘territories’.

The ‘China factor’ is causing chaos and instability in the region that people fear is more desire of these regional hegemons – China, US and Australia – than organic civil unrest. This is the third time international forces have failed to stop the people of Timor being terrorised by a third party. First, was the Indonesian rampage of 1999. Second, was the unrest of December 4th 2002 (leading to the first calls by the Australian press for Alkatiri to step down just prior to oil and gas negotiations) and now, civil chaos in 2006. This time the UN has sent Ian Martin – the special representative in 1999 when UN staff evacuated to leave Timorese residents to the Indonesian terror. The UN is discussing an extension of its mandate in Timor, despite the fact if they were a corporate CEO they would have been refused the job based purely on past performance levels. It is easy to be cynical about the latest UN media release which states that it ‘remains fully committed to promoting long lasting peace in Timor Leste.’  Promotion is surely not enough.

When Richard Wolcott, a former Australian ambassador to Indonesia recalled that a senior member of the Bush administration told him in 2000, that ‘Timor will be your Haiti’ it perfectly expressed the cynical politics at play. The ugly civil conflict and violence that has racked that country since President Aristide’s ousting is not something Timorese will welcome, or should be allowed to continue if indeed it has more to do with geo-political concern than legitimate unrest. While many Timorese and Pacific countries understand Australia’s defence pre-occupations, the ‘New Cold War’ has not won them over. The worry is that the ‘Defence defense’ will allow Australia to dominate these small countries – in Timor’s case, one with substantial oil and gas reserves that has seen difficult and protracted negotiations.

Sir Michael Somare in Papua New Guinea has made public his concern over Australian arrogance towards the sovereignty of Pacific nations after suspending a one billion Australian police program in 2005. He stated:
“We don’t need to be told how to run our own show…they are talking about this great Pacific plan … but they are using this as a disguise for their real intention. They want to control the region. So (Prime Minister John Howard) can go back to Britain and the US and say ‘we’re looking after the Pacific’… (with) the imposition of that mentality you are undermining the integrity of Pacific island people.”
That Australia will always play a leading regional role cannot be denied. Its defence interests in the region are clear in light of any further US-China competition. However the losers in the violence are once again the ordinary citizens of the Asia-Pacific. As the New Cold War builds up, it is they that should fear the cynical designs of the sparring geo-political players and all regional hegemons that do their bidding.
Maryann Keady is a freelance radio journalist and reporter who has covered Timor for ABC and SBS. She is currently at Columbia University’s Weatherhead Institute looking at US Foreign Policy and China. Her first book of interviews called ‘China Conversations’ will be out in 2007.

Leave a comment