The four-day visit by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudho-yono to Australia starting yesterday will cover a number of matters, such as trade, cooperation on asylum seekers and regional security.
But the real value of Susilo’s visit for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is political. With few foreign policy achievements to speak of, and several high-profile missteps in Asia, Rudd’s domestic and international reputation has taken a blow.
By meeting one-on-one with Australia’s most important and powerful regional partner, Rudd gets a chance to show his critics two things. First, he still has the respect of powerful friends in the region. And second, he will no longer attempt to be the lone ranger in determining Southeast Asia’s future but will instead learn to consult with the region’s key states.
The blow to Rudd’s foreign policy credentials is surprising. Having positioned himself as Australia’s intellectual, Mandarin-speaking statesman-in-waiting while in opposition, experts expected that he would usher in an enhanced era of Asian engagement. He had promised to ramp up Australia’s “middle power” activism and creativity in Asia.
Asian leaders and elites appreciated an Australian leader with an avowed interest and expertise in Asia. Yet, under Rudd’s leadership, Canberra has managed to enrage Beijing, irritate New Delhi, antagonise Singapore and annoy Tokyo and Jakarta.
When it comes to Southeast Asia, Rudd stumbled when he first proposed a security structure in 2008 for an Asia Pacific Community (APC) that could take its inspiration from the European Union and discuss the full range of strategic, security and economic issues in the region within the one new multilateral forum. He has been trying to recover ever since.
There were two problems with this proposal.
The first is that Rudd misread the strategic zeitgeist. Like all states in the region, the main question revolves around what to do about China’s rise. Most states—large and small—want to avoid the formal discussion of top-level security matters (for example, great power tensions or an increased role for the Chinese navy) in any all-inclusive multilateral security forum for fear of having to explicitly “rebuff” Beijing.
Furthermore, the unspoken preference of most Asian states is to resist offering China a forum for a more equal say in security matters, especially regarding the South China Sea, until China is truly enmeshed and committed to regional rules and norms.
This is not yet sufficiently the case and Rudd’s APC would have diluted existing leverage over China without Beijing offering any meaningful commitments in return.
The second problem is one of personal style and substance. Rudd’s style was problematic. Known for making foreign policy and other big decisions “on the run,” he never consulted with regional leaders before launching an idea that could radically change the way strategic and diplomatic interaction is to take place.
In insulting an already sceptical region, his special APC envoy, Richard Woolcott, was reportedly offered the post only two hours before it was first announced.
Worse still, when it came to substance, the APC would presumably eventually replace the so-called “weak” institution of Asean even though Australia is not a member of Asean. Canberra, smugly enjoying the American security guarantee, was telling Southeast Asia how to reorganise its strategic future without Rudd having even discussed his ideas with key regional leaders.
In one sense, he has delivered what he promised: he is one of the more tireless, imaginative, assertive and proactive heads of government in the region.
But in a more important footnote, Rudd wound back some of the progress made in Australia’s relationships with key states achieved during the Howard era. Whereas the whole point of “creative middle power” activism is to win new friends and influence powerful players, he inadvertently annoyed and enraged existing ones respectively.
Fast forward to this year and the two-year-old government under Rudd has belatedly discovered that despite the flurry of multilateral activity in the region, stability and progress in Asia (like the rest of the world) is built on the back of strong bilateral relationships and understanding between key states. Therefore, the visit by Susilo is a chance for Rudd to show the region that he is indeed adept at the bilateral game.
The visit is also fortuitous for other reasons. Indonesia is the largest and most powerful player in Southeast Asia.
When it comes to issues such as managing China’s power and influence in the South China Sea, regional terrorism, people smuggling and other transnational crimes, as well as the multilateral future of Asia, little will be achieved without Jakarta’s cooperation.
Hence, deepening the bilateral relationship between Jakarta and Canberra ought to be one of the first steps toward any regional “activism” on Australia’s part.
Finally, the visit comes days before US President Barack Obama sets foot on Australian shores. Rudd will want to show that Australia’s “special relationship” with America makes Canberra more important and relevant to a changing region, rather than less. A productive meeting with both the Indonesian and American presidents is Rudd’s first step towards regional redemption.