Commentary | 19 September 2013

New Cabinet takes on welcome western bias

In this opinion piece for The West Australian, Rory Medcalf argues that key ministers in the new Abbott Cabinet will put Western Australia at the centre of Australia's global focus on Asia and the Indian Ocean.

  • Rory Medcalf

In this opinion piece for The West Australian, Rory Medcalf argues that key ministers in the new Abbott Cabinet will put Western Australia at the centre of Australia's global focus on Asia and the Indian Ocean.

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

New Cabinet takes on welcome western bias

Rory Medcalf

The West Australian

19 September 2013

 

The announcement this week of the new Federal Cabinet has delivered something exceptional for Western Australia and its place in the world.

With Julie Bishop MP as Foreign Minister and Senator David Johnston as Defence Minister, WA has the potential to be on the map of Australia’s international relations as perhaps never before.

This coincides with the deepening importance of WA as a hub for the nation’s trade and investment links with Asia and the United States, as well as its growing security relevance as Washington ‘rebalances’ its strategic attention to Indo-Pacific Asia.

To be fair, in his roles as foreign and defence minister, Stephen Smith worked assiduously to remind Australians that the Indian Ocean matters as much to their future as does the Pacific. He helped ensure the hosting of some significant diplomatic events in Perth, notably the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the 2012 Australia-US Ministerial Consultations or ‘AUSMIN’.

Mr Smith also deserves credit for being among the first Australian politicians to recognise the new Indo-Pacific character of Australia’s region, being defined by the expansive economic and strategic interests of China, India the United States and other powers across two great oceans.

But we can expect a step-change in the years ahead, and not just because Ms Bishop and Senator Johnston recognise that the west matters profoundly to Australia’s global future. They, too, share an Indo-Pacific outlook, even if they sometimes choose different words, such as Ms Bishop’s ‘Asia-Pacific Indian Ocean’.

That is one reason we can expect renewed interest in making better use of Australia’s Indian Ocean geography for strategic purposes, such as upgrading the Cocos Islands air facility for the next generation of Australian and US maritime surveillance aircraft.

Some notable diplomatic opportunities lie ahead too.  These include Australia’s hosting of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium – a meeting of regional naval chiefs – in Perth early in 2014. Another is Australia’s chairing of one of the most daunting acronyms in multilateral diplomacy, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation.

Both of these organisations have underperformed. Now Australia can add value and focus on the practical side of their agendas, for instance in counter-piracy, disaster relief and the sharing of scientific knowledge.

Ms Bishop and Senator Johnston are also reportedly interested in the idea of three-way dialogue and cooperation with two increasingly capable Indian Ocean partners, India and Indonesia.

Defence is becoming an influential part of Australia’s wider diplomacy, whether in building ties with emerging powers like China, India and Indonesia, or intensifying them with long-term friends such as Japan, South Korea or our US ally.

Whatever the hue and cry about the presence of US marines in Darwin, they are much more likely to find themselves in cooperative activities like disaster relief training with China, Indonesia and others than using Australia as a base for warlike operations.

The same logic could apply to possible expanded US naval access arrangements in WA. There is every prospect of seeing multiple navies joining drills off the west coast in future, with Australian and US ships exercising alongside regional counterparts.

At the same time, the new Government’s policy on the alliance is very clear, and it will continue to be a fundamentally closer security relationship than we have with any other country. The challenge will be for Australia to ensure it can influence alliance strategy, including through smart and timely counsel, in ways that suit both countries’ interests, and to demonstrate that the alliance does not weaken our leverage in Asia – it actually increases it.

In refining their ideas about diplomacy, Ministers Bishop and Johnston could take a cue from the sophisticated nature of some of WA’s major international economic links.

For example, the Gorgon project – involving vital US investment to supply key Asian energy markets – embodies the very opposite of having to choose between the United States and Asia.

There is no reason a similar logic cannot be applied to diplomatic initiatives and some areas of security cooperation. The idea is to enmesh powerful countries, to give them a stake in Australia’s prosperity and security. Ms Bishop's ambitious 'new Colombo Plan' could further deepen those bonds through two-way educational and professional ties. 

Not only in regard to the fight against people smuggling, but also in more rewarding areas of strategic-level diplomacy, Australia’s west and north are now at the forefront of the nation’s contact with a changing world.

 

Rory Medcalf, a former diplomat, is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute and a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington DC