AUSTRALIA: Contributing to Regional Equilibrium

By Lim, Robyn | Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

AUSTRALIA: Contributing to Regional Equilibrium


Lim, Robyn, Southeast Asian Affairs


John Howard, Australia's second longest serving prime minister, is now in his "legacy" period. Unlike many, Howard may be smart enough to leave the scene with style, handing over to his successor (presumably the current Treasurer, Peter Costello) with ample time before the next election. From mid-year, Howard will have control of the Senate, which will give him the chance to round off his domestic reform agenda. From unpromising beginnings, Howard may end up being regarded as Australia's most successful prime minister since Sir Robert Menzies.

Howard has also done much to' solidify the alliance with the United States, while ensuring that Australia continues to benefit from the booming resource trade with China, which contributed considerably to the 40 per cent rise in the Australian stock market in 2004. Now Howard is intent on improving relations with neighbouring Indonesia.

Having won four successive elections, Howard has also presided over one of the world's strongest economies. Before he retires from the scene, Howard is intent on proving wrong the critics who said that his strong support for the United States in Iraq would undermine Australian interests in Southeast Asia. The success of the Australia-New Zealand-ASEAN summit in Laos in November 2004 provides reason for optimism.

It is a hoary fallacy to claim that Australia's alliance with the United States is at odds with a close relationship with Southeast Asia. Indeed, the opposite has always been the case. Australia's alliance with America has helped underpin strategic stability in East Asia, an area in which great power tensions continue.

Strategic security in Southeast Asia still depends on a maintenance of a balance of power among the East Asian quadrilateral - the United States, China, Japan and Russia. Unlike in Europe, great power tensions were not resolved with the liquidation of the Cold War. These tensions arise in North Asia, not least in relation to the Korean peninsula. But because East Asia is mostly a maritime theatre, great power tensions manifest themselves around the vital straits that connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Australia can help strengthen security in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore by means of bilateral links as well as multilateral arrangements such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). Australia also possesses military strength and related assets that are useful in support of regional security, as well as a growing defence industry and military technology base.

But beyond maritime Southeast Asia, Australia's influence is limited. With a population of only twenty million, its resources are also limited. Further afield, Australia's alliance with America helps tilt the regional balance in ways that suit Australia's interests.

Australia's Choices

Australia is the world's only island continent. Surrounded by water and distant from the main sources of global tension, it is a naturally secure country. Unlike less secure countries such as Singapore, Australia has little instinctive understanding of how strategic interests, military power and threat offeree help shape the conduct of international relations. Thus, in the absence of palpable threat, of the kind posed by Japan in 1942, Australia finds it hard to think strategically.

Still, Australia does have strategic choices. One is to remain passive in the face of strategic uncertainty, and concentrate on continental defence. That was the approach which recommended itself to many Australians in the wake of the Vietnam War, widely seen as futile.

Indeed, some politically important elements remain neo-isolationist "little Australians" who say that Australia should defend its coastline, avoiding foreign entanglements. To some, that argument seemed even more cogent in the wake of the 2002 terrorist bombings in BaIi, when 89 Australians died. Australia, they said, had made itself more vulnerable to terrorist attack by supporting the United States in the invasion of Iraq. …

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AUSTRALIA: Contributing to Regional Equilibrium
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