Australia, New Zealand and the Geopolitics of Asia

Published: Tue 14 Sep 1999 11:05 AM
(Republished by Scoop with the kind permission of
Global Intelligence Update
APEC, East Timor and the New Asian Reality
12 September 1999
Ever since the fall of Sukarno, Australia and New Zealand have existed in splendid isolation. Indeed, a generation of Australians and New Zealanders came to the conclusion that their isolation was both natural and eternal. It was the way things were and the way they would be. In reality, though, the isolation was imperfect. Both countries have been physically secure from invasion, but both are also trading countries. As producers of primary products like meat and minerals, and as advanced industrial countries, both nations have depended heavily on international trade.
Australia and New Zealand developed an interesting perspective on the international system. In an economic sense, they were heavily dependent, while in a politico-military sense they were almost completely isolated. Now, given the vicissitudes of international trade, the global system has not always been kind to Australia and New Zealand. Tariffs, low commodities prices and stiff competition from foreign manufacturers all hurt them. But the other dimension of the international system, politics and warfare, seemed distant and in many ways unconnected to the two countries.
The slow but steady implosion of Indonesia changes the equation. Certainly, it has changed the behavior of the Australian government, which has taken the lead in organizing a force to move into East Timor. Aside from actions in Papua New Guinea and Bougainville — both low-level interventions within Australia’s sphere of influence — Australia has until now confined its interventions to minor missions in support of U.S. interventions. Thus, the decision to be the lead mule in managing the East Timor crisis represents a substantial change in policy for Australia.
It is not really obvious why Australia cares about Indonesia. One answer, although not a very good one, is that Indonesia is close by. A great deal of water separates Australia from Indonesia. Militias, no matter how murderous, are unlikely to swim the Timor Sea to Darwin. Even with their large numbers, Indonesians are unlikely to pose any threat to Australia. Quite the contrary; the greater the instability in Indonesia, the less likely it will be to organize a military challenge to Australia. Thus, the direct explanation for Australia’s assertive behavior doesn’t work.
A far greater threat to Australia than a chaotic Indonesia is a well-organized, aggressive Indonesia. Under the Sukarno regime, Indonesia lay claim to what is today Papua New Guinea, an area of significant national interest to Australia. That threat was, to some extent, credible. Sukarno, as the charismatic founder of independent Indonesia, seemed to be forging a unified nation of prodigious size. Had he succeeded in that mission, the ability of Indonesia to assert its power against Australia would have been substantial.
Move the fantasy forward a generation. Assume that Sukarno had survived in power. Allied to China, Sukarno would forge not only a substantial army but also a significant navy. At that point Australia’s physical security would become threatened. Now, one possible scenario in the current Indonesian crisis is the reemergence of Sukarnoism. Indeed, Sukarno’s daughter Megawati is waiting in the wings. But the likelihood of Sukarnoism again galvanizing Indonesia is small and the likelihood of a galvanized Indonesia posing a serious physical threat to Australia is smaller still. There are few scenarios under which Indonesia threatens any of Australia’s interests.
Consider an alternative scenario. East Timor’s secession destabilizes Indonesia as the civilian government, the central military command and the regional commands engage in a power struggle. Indonesia fragments. One of the consequences of this fragmentation is that Indonesian waters suddenly become insecure. Several of these waterways are critical for international trade. Closing waterways is much easier than keeping them open. Indonesia’s warlords, pirates and other denizens might well use waterway closure for political purposes, extracting tolls and challenging rivals.
It is important to understand the significance of Indonesia’s control over the passages between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Notably, Indonesia is less invested in the security of its own internal waterways than are some nations in the Pacific who need access to the Indian Ocean, and vice versa. Instability in Indonesia will directly affect Japan and Saudi Arabia, both of whom depend heavily on the Straits of Malaca and other potential routes between the Pacific and Indian oceans. The United States has an interest as well, since operations in the Persian Gulf require passage from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.
Moving a step further, we can see that a destabilized Indonesia is both a threat to international trade and an opportunity for international adventures. Indonesia was a fairly neutral manager of its waterways. It permitted free access to both international and national waterways on a fairly equal basis. Whoever gained control of all or part of Indonesia, however, would be able to change the rules to suit their wishes. Therefore, chaos in Indonesia opens the door to a variety of players with strategic ambitions. Whoever controls Indonesia can control and manipulate others who are dependent on Indonesian waters.
Thus, Indonesia’s disintegration would make it the cockpit of regional and global ambitions. Depending on how global geopolitics develops over the next few years, a wide number of powers might find themselves in a position to benefit from either permitting or preventing transit. Indonesia would then consist not only of native regional powers, but also of foreign powers manipulating internal interests. Indeed, in the resulting chaotic fragmentation of Indonesia, various great powers might support various regions. Imagine, for example, a Sino-Russian alliance competing with the United States. Each side would have its own clients in Indonesia, its own forces, its own spheres of influence. At the very least, weapons transfers to regional powers in Indonesia could create a substantial power projection capability. Under that scenario, the Timor Sea might no longer be a barrier but rather a highway. External military forces entering Indonesia in pursuit of their own interests could fairly rapidly threaten the national security of Australia directly.
This creates three realities for Australia. First, it is of paramount importance that Australia do everything it can to avoid the disintegration of Indonesia. It is not clear that this is in Australia’s power. But it does account for the relative delicacy with which Australia has approached the problem of intervention in East Timor. Australia would rather stabilize the central government, any central government, than undermine it.
Second, since Australia cannot really influence the evolution of events in Indonesia, Australia must increase its armed forces, in particular its sea lane control forces, both sea and air. While Australia itself has direct access to both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it may well face threats from powers who do not, if those countries are drawn to Indonesia to struggle for waterway control. Australia’s military forces were equal to the prior strategic reality, but they are wholly inadequate for the current reality. When we consider that Australia’s junior partner, New Zealand, has an armed force of only a few thousand in spite of a population nearly as large as Israel’s, a desperate gap becomes evident between the emerging threat and the available forces.
Finally, and most importantly, Australia must induce the United States to take a more assertive stance. The U.S. has sidestepped direct involvement in East Timor, but there is no question at all that the U.S. understands what is at stake in Indonesia, nor any doubt that it has contingency plans for keeping the various straits opened in the event of chaos. But Australia and particularly New Zealand have been rather cavalier in their treatment of the United States on security matters. New Zealand banned U.S. ships from its ports unless they certified that they carried no nuclear weapons. Australia did not go that far, but it also did not increase its defense spending to the level desired by the United States.
If the worst scenario comes to pass, and Indonesia collapses into regional warlordism, with foreign powers intervening and competing, New Zealand will welcome U.S. vessels with no questions asked. More to the point, Australia will be dependent on the willingness and also the ability of U.S. naval and amphibious forces to assert control over the archipelago. The U.S. does not have nearly enough forces to dominate Indonesia. It can keep the waterways clear, but it will require deep involvement from the regional powers most effected.
In short, the splendid isolation of Australia and New Zealand is coming to a close. The sense that military affairs were truly tangential to their interests has hit a wall. Under any scenario, the self-assured indifference to national security that has marked Australian and New Zealand policies is over. We expect to see quantum leaps in defense spending, bottoms-up reviews on strategy and above all, a new warmth toward the United States. Australia and New Zealand may even forgive the U.S. for the infamous tariff on lamb, now that trade must share center stage with national security.

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