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Monday 04 Jul 2022 | 18:08 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Our regional reticence

23 March 2012 08:46

Dr Daniel Woker, former Swiss Ambassador to Australia (2008-12), writes:

Malcolm Cook's 'five sound principles...prominent in Rudd's approach to the Asia Pacific' are spot-on. But, the fifth as formulated is way too modest and defensive. Australia is not just a 'non-major power'. In soccer terms it belongs into the region's exclusive 'Challenger League' (Korea, Indonesia, Australia), second only to the Asia Pacific's Championship League (Japan, China, India). Thus of course Australia has 'to work hard to ensure (its) interests are taken into consideration'. But it can, and sometimes does, do more and do it actively to ensure that the regional order is to its liking.

Let's have a look at some recent and future initiatives where Aussie imagination can, and did, make a difference. 

Take the Asia Pacific Community (APC), which was a first big step in the right direction. It cannot be said enough that the EAS (East Asia Summit; equaling APC plus Russia) is the region's delayed realisation that the APC — whatever quibble there was and still is regarding its diplomatic preparation and execution in 2008 — struck the right balance of who should, and should not be included in an Asia Pacific structure of the future. ASEAN and all ASEAN- solutions below the threshold of  EAS are too small and APEC too large to truly represent the interests that matter in, and for, the region.

The real challenge is now how to make EAS work and have all the champions really commit to the process. Obviously, this will be the hard part. But why wait for the elephants to move and then run for cover? Australia has made some decent moves to get out in front of developments. Take the US-Australian initiative for a joint but Australian-owned base at the northern end of this huge, if sparsely populated country (a hard security asset is not just a tool to ensure security but can also serve as a bargaining chip [eg. visits as a CBM] in a hard-nosed game of power poker).

Did the 'Zeuses' in Beijing throw their thunderbolts? Did the Indonesians recoil in horror? Quite the opposite is  the case. Plus, as a Lowy poll just found out, the Indonesians actually like Australia, if not all beer drinking Australians...

After four years of having worked on, and lived in, international relations as seen from down under, I come to the conclusion that Australians sometimes have a tendency to underestimate their importance in the regional strategic environment (much as they sometimes overestimate their sporting prowess in such exotic sports as soccer where the Socceroos' high hopes at World Cups are routinely dashed).

As has been said many times, what you lack in population, and thus partly in military muscle, you make up for with space, resources and, most importantly, due process. The latter is called, in the coded language of the emerging dialogue between the governed and the governing in such places as China, the requirement of basic decency in the treatment of the individual citizen by the state.

If we look at the Asia Pacific as the world's most important battleground of ideas, or ideologies if you want, then Australia is, or should be and can be, a shining example of the superiority of 'Democratic Capitalism' as opposed to 'Authoritarian Capitalism' or the 'Washington Consensus' vs 'the Beijing Consensus', or whatever you want to call the difference between an open society and its opposites (to misquote Karl Popper).

These are not parting flowers on my path into private life (and the liberty to say and write what I choose), but basic, if probably too banal to mention truths rarely heard among the Aussie chattering and think tanking classes. And, mind, Australia can and should do more. As the only realistic 'patron saint' (together with the small cousin over the Tasman) of the Pacific island states, what is Australia doing to ensure that their voices are heard on the emerging giant construction site of Asia Pacific security structures?

A second all-inclusive structure/organisation, perhaps, which would include the Mongolias, the Nepals, Bhutans and Sri Lankas, the Indian Ocean states, and finally PNG and all other PIF members which are as much part of the Asia Pacific as those in the EAS (those few who recall some of my past contributions to this blog will sigh and say 'there he goes again with a potential OSCA/P')?

I come from a relatively small but in some areas highly competitive country which — in a very different region of the world than Australia, with a very different history , and in different times — has suffered, and continues to do so, from an occasional political inferiority complex in its international relations: 'Better get out of the way, and into a neutral corner, when the elephants dance'.

A much better reading of today's requirements in a strategically (communications, weapon systems, natural and man-made disasters etc.) flat world for a medium power is the old poker dictum, which after all should be dear to hearts of this nation of passionate casino clients: You gotta know when to hold, rise, and, OK, throw them in, too.