Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:27 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:27 | SYDNEY

Australia, Sweden of the Pacific


Sam Roggeveen


1 September 2010 14:36

Michael Wesley's two most recent posts have rearranged my mental furniture a little. It simply had never occurred to me that the US and Australia could wind up competing for influence in Indonesia, and that Australia might be on the losing side of such a competition.

I agree with Malcolm Cook that, were this scenario to come about, it would actually present a pretty benign picture for Australia. In fact, a future in which Australia has to deal with a strong Indonesia that is friendly to the US looks more attractive than the most obvious alternatives – a weak, fractious and poor Indonesia, or a unified and wealthy Indonesia that is hostile to the US.

And yes, Michael's scenario could leave Australia in a relatively weaker position, in economic and strategic terms. But if, in return, we get a politically stable, economically vibrant near neighbour that is close to the US, wouldn't we take that offer' What matters more for Australia: to be secure, or to be important'

Hugh White and others worry about a new parity of forces in such a scenario. As Michael summarises the current position, 'Indonesia has a huge army but small naval and air forces; Australia has a small army but potent naval and air capabilities.' That disparity works for both sides, but will change as Indonesia gets stronger.

Michael recommends that, in order for Australia to accommodate a stronger, US-allied Indonesia, we ought to get to know the country better, in much the way that New Zealanders know us. This is absolutely necessary but not sufficient. Even if millions of Australians learn Bahasa, our neighbourhood is never going to be as secure as that of Wellington.

So let me throw an alternative idea out there: rather than New Zealand (or Canada, as Michael also proffered), perhaps Sweden will become a defence model for Australia.

The parallel is inexact — Australia won't adopt Sweden's formal neutrality — but Sweden is an example of a highly prosperous small-to-medium country surrounded by bigger powers in an uncertain though not hostile environment. Sweden has negotiated its regional defence disparities very well. It built a highly professional and advanced military that, although it could not defeat the major powers, could deter them, even from a position of relative weakness.

And Sweden did it all while presenting an utterly benign image to the world — the very model of a non-provocative defence posture.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.