Webcast Recap

Against the backdrop of a shifting geostrategic situation in the Asia-Pacific, political developments in Canberra potentially raise questions about continuity in Australian foreign policy. In June, Kevin Rudd's high-handed leadership style lost him the confidence of his Australian Labor Party. In a surprise party coup that astonished even seasoned watchers of Australian politics, Rudd was replaced as the party leader, and therefore as the nation's prime minister, by political ally Julia Gillard. Gillard moved quickly, calling a snap election to shore up her political support, only to lose Labor its majority in the Australian Federal Parliament. Gillard has managed to hold on to power by negotiating a coalition of Green party members and disaffected independents on both the left and the right of Australian politics, but the coalition's eclectic mix and razor thin majority have elicited mild uncertainty in Washington about the short-term future of Australian foreign policy.

According to Greg Sheridan, Wilson Center Australian Scholar and foreign editor of the Australian newspaper, any concerns on this issue are largely unfounded. Foreign policy is characterized by bipartisanship and continuity in Australia, and was not a pressing issue during the recent election. At an event hosted by the Asia Program on September 29, Sheridan noted that the pillars of Australian foreign policy—a commitment to global free trade, and an emphasis on relations with Asia while maintaining a steadfast commitment to the security alliance between Australia and the United States—remain strongly in place. While Australian foreign policy settings and the structure of cooperation between the United States and Australia remain secure, however, Sheridan noted that Gillard has been less interested in foreign affairs than her recent predecessors. The bilateral relationship could thus lack the dynamism and intimacy experienced under the earlier conservative government of John Howard, and then under Rudd.

While the general foreign policy settings remain consistent, moreover, confusion in Australian politics comes at a time when important trends are reshaping the Asia-Pacific region, and potentially providing new international challenges and opportunities to Canberra. Sheridan posed the question as to whether 2010 might stand as the year that China announces its intention not to comply with current global norms and standards, for example. The hard-line stance taken by Beijing towards Tokyo after a collision between a Chinese fishing ship and a Japanese coast guard vessel in disputed maritime territory is only the latest example of a newfound Chinese assertiveness in the region, including renewed Chinese interest in territorial claims in the South China Sea. Earlier in the year China also arrested Stern Hu, an Australian mining executive of Chinese ethnic background, because, Sheridan claimed, the Australian corporation Hu represented had failed to negotiate a business deal favorable to Chinese interests. China also refused to acknowledge the guilt of its ally, North Korea, after an international team of scientists concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March. Beijing subsequently complained when the United States announced that it would conduct anti-submarine exercises with South Korea in the international waters in the Yellow Sea adjacent to where the sinking occurred. The Obama administration moved the exercises to the Sea of Japan, an unnecessary and unfortunate surrender, Sheridan argued, to an increasingly assertive China. Questions about the rise of China and U.S. responses to this phenomenon are now clearly part of the foreign policy paradigm that the Gillard government will soon have to confront.

The second noteworthy trend that Sheridan highlighted was a change in character of Islam in the region. Islam in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, has traditionally been characterized by syncretism, tolerance towards other faiths, and an acceptance of modernity. Indonesia, for example, has made conspicuous efforts to show the world that its terrorist trials apply modern concepts of the rule of law in trying Islamic terrorist suspects. Sheridan, however, believes that Muslims in Southeast Asia, influenced by financial aid from the Middle East for Islamic schools and other religious institutions, have increasingly become more conservative. There is a narrative of persecution that infuses Islamic thought about western powers active in the region, particularly the United States. Sheridan stated that the United States and Australia have not done enough to engage the "new" Indonesia. While the Obama administration has lifted bans on American military training for Indonesian forces, more interpersonal links need to be forged through such methods as scholarly and military exchanges to improve the standing of the United States and Australia in the region.

Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs of change. Under Obama, the United States is renovating and revitalizing its alliances and relationships in the Asia-Pacific region. The administration has placed a great deal of attention on traditional relationships with Indonesia and South Korea. Meanwhile, problems over plans for the relocation of U.S. bases on Okinawa have soured relations between Washington and Tokyo, but Sheridan has no doubt of the continuing goodwill between the United States and Japan. Even nations that are not traditional allies in the region are receiving increased U.S. attention. Vietnam has agreed to cooperate with Obama's nuclear non-proliferation agenda and also provides naval facilities to the United States. Malaysia, wary of Chinese might in the region, has deployed troops to Afghanistan in order to be seen as a valuable partner in Washington.

Renewed American interest in the region also extends to the South Pacific, where the United States has pledged an extra $100 million in aid, hardly "chump change" for that area of the world. The Obama administration is also warming ties with New Zealand, which remains suspended from the ANZUS alliance due to its refusal since 1985 to accept nuclear-armed and propelled ships into its ports and harbors. Sheridan cautions that the United States should not give nations like New Zealand the impression that they can access the full benefits of an alliance partner without a commitment from them to bear all of the obligations that such a relationship entails. Nevertheless, he believes that an increased American attention to the South Pacific, and to the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, will work to the advantage of Australia, as an important and trustworthy ally of the United States.

By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program