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From Asia anxiety to regional security

Image credit: Australian Embassy Jakarta (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Earlier this month, Indonesia briefly suspended all military cooperation with Australia. Within 24 hours, Indonesia backed down and limited the suspension to ‘some Special Forces language training material’. Reasons given for the suspension ranged from Australian training facilities containing ‘offensive material’ relating to West Papuan independence, fears that Australian intelligence was recruiting young Indonesian soldiers and the mocking of Indonesia’s core state philosophy of Pancasila.

In response to the suspension, Australia’s Minister for Defence Marise Payne stated that ‘Australia is committed to building a strong Defence relationship with Indonesia’ and ‘will work with Indonesia to restore full cooperation as soon as possible’. This desire for mutual co-operation evinces the prevalent Australian understanding that its security is best achieved through regional cooperation. However, this understanding has not always been the case for Australia.

Rather than seeking cooperation with Asia, Australia has a long history of viewing Asia as a security threat to be ‘guarded’ against. Already before Federation, all of the Australian colonies enacted laws to prevent Asian immigration and this desire to ‘guard’ against Asia became one of the most powerful influences on the colonies that led to Federation. In part, these fears reflected White Australia’s own developing identity that carried a symbiotic exclusion of the Asian ‘Other’.

Even after WW2, Australia had only a limited relationship with Asia. Although Menzies developed good relationships with like-minded Asian leaders, much of Australia’s engagement at the time was characterised by communist fears and, according to some, racist fears of invasion by the ‘Yellow Peril’. In terms of security, Asia was seen primarily as a threat to Australia’s sovereign integrity and a potential source of foreign invasion.

It was only in the 1980s that Australia’s invasion anxieties began to subside and Australia began to seek cooperation with Asia. The 1986 Dibb report concluded that Australia faced no foreseeable threat from the region and that Australia’s defence should not be thought of as against Asia, but as something to be achieved collectively as a region. Additionally, Australia began to view its security in economic terms, preferring to capitalise on the opportunities available in Asia than to fear an invasion.

At the same time, Australia’s own ‘Asian’ population also began to grow: from 1.3% in 1971, to 4.3% by 1989. By 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating’s first visit abroad as prime minister was to Indonesia and by 1993, Australia’s Strategic Review noted that ‘more than with any other regional nation, a sound strategic relationship with Indonesia does most for Australia's security’.

However, this modern understanding of shared security has not been without hiccups of its own. Aside from particular issues that have directly strained the relationship, such as the phone tapping scandal and the Bali Nine executions, Australia’s perception of Asia has not always been static. Most notably, during John Howard’s prime ministership, the Bali Bombings regenerated older notions of defending Australia against an Asian threat. This was coupled with the events of September 11 and the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. More recently, politicians have again ‘securitised’ asylum seekers, many of whom pass through Indonesia en-route to Australia.

Yet, even Howard sought security cooperation with Indonesia, encapsulated in the clumsily phrased ‘Asia-first, but not Asia only’ policy. Notably, in 2002, Indonesia and Australia jointly formed the Bali Process, a regional forum to address ‘people smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crime’. Additionally, Australia signed the Lombok Treaty with Indonesia in 2006, which provides ‘a treaty-level framework for addressing traditional and non-traditional security challenges’. This has been since reaffirmed in the signing of the 2014 Joint Understanding in the implementation of the agreement.

In this light, the recent events in Indonesia once again reflect Australia’s desire to maintain security cooperation at the regional level. Of course, other factors are also at play here, such as Australia’s need for Indonesian cooperation in its response to asylum seekers and in regional issues such as the South China Sea disputes. But notwithstanding this, Australia’s current security approach reflects a maturation from early Asian anxieties into a security framework based on regional cooperation.

Shmuli Levin is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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