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Global outlook shapes our regional ties

By Peter Jennings - posted Monday, 4 April 2005

In the light of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's visit, it's not surprising that several foreign policy observers are saying the Howard Government has refocused on Asia. There are calls for the Government to become more active in shaping an Asian multilateral grouping. For some, this "tilt back towards Asia" is a welcome return to a regionally driven policy after a mistaken foray into the Middle East.

There's no question that the outlook for Australia's relations with key South-East Asian countries has seldom been brighter and we should move quickly to capitalise on new opportunities. These developments do not, however, signal a fundamental shift in the Howard Government's foreign policy.

Australia has not returned to a more regionally focused Asia-only strategy, and nor should we. In particular, the new diplomacy towards Asia should not be seen as a tacit admission that the Government overplayed its hand with the US or in the Middle East. Indeed, it is because of Australia's more high-profile international role that new regional opportunities are emerging.


If a single factor could be said to shape the character of Australian foreign policy under this Government, it is the model that John Howard and Alexander Downer share of Australia being a middle power with global interests, rather than a smaller player focused on Asia. This view has driven Canberra to take on substantial policy tasks that, its critics say, go beyond the level required to support Australia's direct interests. These have included substantial financial support for key regional countries after the 1997 Asian financial crisis; leadership of the multilateral intervention force in East Timor; significant military commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq; regional leadership of counter-terrorism co-operation; a more interventionist South Pacific policy; and, far from the least important, long-term post-tsunami funding for Indonesia.

Underpinning these activities are what might be called the four pillars of Howard's foreign policy: a strong alliance relationship with the US; a pragmatic focus on maximising links with China; wholehearted support for a global counter-terrorism strategy; and - perhaps surprisingly for a government that prides itself on being non-ideological - boosting democracies.

These interests and objectives cut across any attempt to limit Australia's foreign policy focus to Asia. Indeed, in a globalising world Australia cannot afford to have a regionalised foreign policy. Terrorism provides the clearest example of why Australia must look beyond its immediate region.

The sources of terrorism in the Middle East have the potential to export instability to Asia in the form of trained people, a pre-existing ideology, funding, and through direct examples of how terror operations are conducted. Any attempt to deal with the underlying causes of terrorism in South-East Asia can hardly ignore sources of instability in the Middle East.

In a very direct way, and more so than in the past, Australia has a stake in the security of places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. So do other countries in Asia. It is not surprising that China, for example, is significantly increasing its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, given Beijing's long-term energy needs. Likewise, Japan's military commitment to Iraq reflects Tokyo's assessment of its strategic needs.

It is no coincidence that several Asian states want to build closer relations with Australia at a time when we see this growing interplay of global and regional events. What does Australia offer the region? First, a record of being prepared to put serious and sustained commitments of people, money and effort into solving mutual problems. Second, a close and influential relationship with the US. Third, security relations with regional partners that are more comprehensive than the Asian states have between themselves.


These are valuable diplomatic cards for Australia, the credibility of which is underlined by our active engagement beyond the immediate region.

The background of the past few years means that, as Australia seeks closer re-engagement with South-East Asia, it is now able to do so on more balanced terms. If a security treaty is negotiated with Jakarta, this time it will at least be done openly, and with a democracy - two important advances on the 1995 treaty.

If momentum builds towards a stronger multilateral community of Asian states, Australia must be present and active at the creation of such a group. Our most vital role will be to argue that the success of an Asian community will be measured by how the region engages with the wider world, not by how Asia defines itself as something separate from it.

Far from being a weakness, Australia's unique position at the crossroads of the economies and cultures of Asia and the wider world is a strategic asset. Our interests remain global and our performance on that wider stage is what has created new opportunities for us with our Asian neighbours.

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First published in The Australian on March 30, 2005.

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About the Author

Peter Jennings, a former senior official in the Defence Department, is Executive Director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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