Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Weekend catch-up: Australia's relationships, the state of Xinjiang, Facebook's vision and more

The state of Australia relations with the US, Indonesia and Israel, voters in PNG, Zuckerberg's manifesto, and more.

Photo: Flickr/US Department of State
Photo: Flickr/US Department of State
Published 25 Feb 2017 

By John Gooding, Digital Editor at the Lowy Institute and Associate Editor at The Interpreter.

This week Foreign Minister Julie Bishop flew to Washington, DC to meet with her US counterpart Rex Tillerson after what could generously be called a tumultuous month of US-Australia relations. Her main mission in America, according to Nick Bisley, is to find out who's actually calling the shots:

The question for Bishop, which only first-hand experience can help answer, is whether the ‘grown-ups’ will be in charge or whether the wild-eyed revolutionaries will remain at the centre of power. A great deal depends on this for Australia and indeed the world.

Back in Australia, Sir Angus Houston and Rory Medcalf discussed the future of the US alliance at the National Press Club in Canberra. First, Houston:

Australia should endeavour to continue to quietly engage and influence the Trump administration as to the success of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific and the importance of the ANZUS alliance to Australia’s security.

And second, Medcalf:

The onus needs to be on the critics of the alliance to offer realistic alternatives. Likewise, friends of the alliance need to set out a realistic plan for helping Australia and the alliance adjust to the difficult times ahead.

Sam Roggeveen wrote on the fundamental question Australia's upcoming Foreign Policy White Paper needs to address:

Finding a way to manage the tension between the interests of our major strategic partner - the US - and our primary economic partner - China - surely has to be at the very heart of Australian foreign policy over the coming decade, yet our political leaders seem far from ready to even acknowlege the tension.

Hugh White concurred, and formulated his own response to the dilemma:

Sam Roggeveen is right. The new DFAT White Paper cannot ignore the big questions about America, China and the strategic future of Asia, because those big questions will do more than anything to frame Australia’s international situation over the decades ahead. But what can the White Paper say? There are no well-honed talking points on all this, because for a decade now our political leaders – with one notable and lamented exception - have been in denial, unwilling even to acknowledge the problem, let alone discuss how we should respond to it.

Earlier this month Australia's Ambassador to the US Joe Hockey delivered a speech in Chicago on the value of mateship in the US-Australia alliance; another 'apparent triumph of stale thinking', wrote James Curran:

Australia would be better served by adopting a more critical and discerning approach to its management of the US Alliance under Trump, one that stresses the need for greater self-reliance both within and sometimes without the alliance, rather than selling tickets to a matinee of ‘mateship’.

In this new context, Australia and Japan would do well to hedge with a Plan B, argued Michael Heazle and Andrew O'Neil:

A major White Paper takeout from the Dialogue is that increased security cooperation between US allies with support from US security partners in the region (e.g., Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and India) could be very effective not only in satisfying demands from Trump and future administrations for a bigger contribution from allies (and therefore encouraging ongoing US support), but also as a hedge against a possible drawdown of US strategic engagement in Asia.

So how is the US President coping with resistance to his agenda from US institutions? Aaron Connelly:

The story of 2017, and perhaps of the next four years, will be of a struggle between the American institutions acting in defence of fundamental liberal values, and a President hostile to them. The field of foreign policy will be shaped by these standoffs as well. The leadership and the vast majority of the United States’ foreign policy institutions — the military, the intelligence community, the Foreign Service, and the civil service — have it in their DNA to support allies, democracy, and a rules-based international order. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Australia this week - for the past decade the bilateral relationship has idled in neutral, argued William Stoltz

Israel has assumed Australia’s ongoing support based on our historical kinship and Australia’s strategic dependence on Israel’s great patron, the United States. As a result, Australia has been taken for granted and Israel’s envoys have done little to consolidate the friendship.

Also visiting Australia will be Indonesian President Joko Widodo, due this weekend. Aaron Connelly on prospects for the relationship:

Given the unprecedented goodwill between the Australia and Indonesia, and the likelihood that another crisis will emerge in time, it is worth asking what more can be done to take advantage of this moment. Though there are a variety of opportunities for further cooperation in specific fields, two broad areas dominate the bulk of the discussion: trade and investment, and the strategic situation in the region.

Last week saw dozens of local elections held across the Indonesian archipelago. The most-watched race was for the governership of Jakarta - a run-off vote is due to be held this April. Max Walden on the election's positive signs for pluralism:

April's runoff election in Jakarta and the 2019 presidential elections will likely prove even greater tests of Indonesia's 19-year-old democracy. Yet, in demonstrating the nation's institutional ability to conduct 101 simultaneous polls across a vast and diverse country, these elections should ultimately be cause for celebration.

In Papua New Guinea, Catherine Wilson examined the hot topics for prospective voters ahead of this year's elections:

Five years ago, intense candidate rivalry, carnival showmanship and controversy about electoral roll discrepancies were the hallmarks of a drawn-out contest between veteran post-Independence leader Michael Somare and the People’s National Congress leader Peter O’Neill, who was eventually declared the winner.

Kadira Pethiyagoda on how Sri Lanka is handling the transition to Asian multipolarity:

Sri Lanka provides Asian countries valuable lessons through its manoeuvring. This was facilitated by Colombo's non-aligned political culture, forged in the fires of the anti-colonial struggle. Today a significant portion of the Sri Lankan population is fiercely supportive of an independent foreign policy - an approach that, if managed properly, can lead to security and prosperity in an increasingly turbulent multipolar world.

Last weekend authorities in Xinjiang, China, held an antiterror rally in response to an uptick in ethnic tensions and local violence. Michael Clarke on the failings of this strategy:

Deputy Xinjiang CCP Secretary Zhu Halian's remark that measures such as last weekend's rallies have forced Uyghur terrorists 'to end of the road, like a cornered beast driven to desperate action' are tragically ironic.

Finally, I analysed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's manifesto, which envisioned Facebook as playing a key structural role in a new form of global civic life:

There’s no doubt that contemporary civil society is in some strife, and Facebook could potentially play a role in rectifying the situation. But as I’ve argued before, there’s no reason to have faith it will all work out and leave Facebook to its mission. Facebook is transforming into a global, monopolistic utility. It’s time for the world to treat it like one.

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