Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 00:52 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 00:52 | SYDNEY

Motoring with the G20 middle powers


Graeme Dobell

31 May 2010 08:07

I'm filing this from Jakarta, where I've been trying to find points of agreement between some of the middle powers in the G20 — Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and South Korea.

The conference I attended was run by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Australian Institute of International Affairs. We couldn't even come up with an acronym that joined this disparate group of middle powers, much less any theme that might unite them in the G20.

One participant quoted the old Sesame Street line: one of these things is not like the others. Brazil, under President Lula, seems to be drifting up from regional leader to global player. But as one of the Brazilians noted, the problem is that charisma is not a communicable disease. How much of Brazil's growing role relies on the character of its current leader rather than the heft it brings to the top table?

Power is certainly on the move, but fundamentals don't change quickly. One South African judgement struck me as spot-on: the G20 most certainly trumps the G7, but nothing will get through the G20 if Europe objects. The G7 no longer commands but it certainly has veto rights.

One thing that unites Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and South Korea is a common obsession with China. As one of the Indonesians said, we're happy to accept China's assurances about a 'peaceful rise', but what happens after it has risen?

The games Australia can aspire to play with Brazil or South Africa are different to what it can envisage with the Korea and Indonesia, so to follow Sam's car metaphor, I can report several sightings of a new model KIA — Korea, Indonesia and Australia.

Kevin Rudd's great telephone blitz in favour of the G20 as the new premier global institution got plenty of help from the KIA, especially South Korea.

Australia's naval detective work with South Korea over the North Korean torpedo attack was noted as another example of the growing range of contacts between the two countries. Seoul now picks up the phone to Canberra for lots of things. Mark this as a quiet achievement by Rudd in Asia.

One thing that unites the KIA — as opposed to a Brazil or South Africa — is the obsession with the US role in Asia. South Korea and Australia can talk as formal allies, while Indonesia is becoming more relaxed about private discussions of the interests it can pursue as a tacit US ally.

President Obama will touch down in Jakarta in two weeks to anoint a new strategic partnership. It will mark an upgrade of relations between Jakarta and Washington and the US military wants to use it to ramp up defence cooperation. But Jakarta under SBY is not being too strict on its acquisition of strategic partnerships. Indonesia already claims such strategic relationships with Australia, India and China.

The  editorial in the Jakarta Post expressed one element of this with an excellent image. Looking at the US-China Strategic and Economic dialogue in Beijing, the Post observed:

Southeast Asia is the forest where the eagle nests and the dragon resides. Hence, we are stakeholders who look with supreme interest when we feel the flap and breath of those magnificent beasts…The chasm between the world’s established hegemony and Asia’s rising dominion neither widened nor contracted.