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Not the Asian Century White Paper

Tomorrow the Prime Minister will launch the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. This document, which will plot a way forward for Australia in what is already considered to be the “Asian Century”. It will act as the government’s version of a SWOT analysis. The paper will examine the real internal strengths of Australia and external factors that lead that do contribute to our strengths as we continue to engage in the region. The paper will also look at our weaknesses in terms of trade in particular, but also security. The paper will look at the opportunities for Australia in the Asian century, with whom we can engage more to our benefit. Finally, the document will also look at the threats in the region.

In a way, the Asian Century White Paper is behind the times. Trade with Asia already makes up about 70% of Australia’s international trade. This makes it appear clear, as do public statements, that the blueprint is more about the rise of China and to a lesser extent India, than it is about looking at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that exist in the Asia-Pacific area. As such, the possibilities of greater relations with the “Asian Tigers” and rapidly growing Asian economies will likely not receive much press.

This examination will look mostly at the bilateral activities Australia undertakes currently, could enhance or could begin to participate in and less at the specific domestic policy directions necessary to cope with living in a strong and prosperous Asia.

Undoubtedly, the Asian White Paper will say that China is the country, above all others to focus our energies on. You would be hard-pressed to find many who would say otherwise. We need China and they need us. Our commodities are prized by China and we source cheap goods from the Asian powerhouse, now the second biggest economy in the world after overtaking struggling Japan. To this end, concluding Free Trade Agreement negotiations with China is an absolute must.

Some will have you believe that China also serves as one of the great uncertainties of the Asian Century.  “Reds under the beds” is not a worry that should be occupying the mind’s of our people. China’s continued growth will almost certainly be one of peaceful empire. Their growth is because of the embrace of market economics and China is communist in name and some aspects of internal behaviour only. The military build-up in China is entirely consistent with the growth of the country as a world power and countries like the United States of America have nothing to fear except for loss of economic dominance. 

In terms of Japan, our second largest trading partner, the future of the economic relationship at least is not as certain. The economy of Japan has been battered by high levels of debt, natural disasters and unstable economic leadership. In saying this though, the relationship with the nation of islands should be maintained with caution and buttressed by increasing economic cooperation with other nations in the region. However, it is in our interests to continue to proceed with free trade negotiations with the Japanese.

Trade relations with South Korea continue to be strong with the nation, as of 2011, being our 3rd biggest export market. We have commenced Free Trade Agreement negotiations with Korea, but the discussions have hit the final hurdle. The agreement was supposed to have been concluded by now, but negotiations are ongoing.

Our next biggest market, is also our second biggest opportunity as the growth of Asian economies explodes. That nation is India. This is a nation with economic growth to rival that of China. While India is not in a position to rival China in terms of the size of her economy, India does provide opportunities. This includes, somewhat contentiously, uranium exports which are now being negotiated and also the restoration of Indian confidence in Australia’s safety for the large overseas student and tourism market the nation of the subcontinent can and has provided. Finalising the Australia-India Comprehensive Economic Agreement is also a necessary step in continuing to open up India to Australia and vice versa.

There are other nations of Asia in the list of our top 10 training partners too. In fact, Asian countries make up more than half of those nations. Also in the top 10 is Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand. With both Singapore and Thailand we have established Free Trade Agreements. However, in the case of Taiwan, there is no economic agreement being negotiated, awaiting approval or in force. Perhaps an opportunity lies there, perhaps we are frightened to pursue one for fear of causing China offense or perhaps our priorities are not mutual.

There are also other Asian states that are outside of the 10 biggest Australian trading partners with which we have already or are in the process of negotiating or approving FTA’s. There is an ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement which includes Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. This includes nations such as Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia with whom we either have individual FTA’s or are in the process of either negotiating or seeking domestic approval for.

In a broad sense, continuing to pursue the recently commenced negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is also a must and will only enhance economic relations with both Asia and other parts of the world.

So in terms of economic cooperation in the Asian region and into the Asian century, the task is not really to establish new markets, but rather to consolidate and build upon those already available to Australia. In the case of the services sector in particular the task is returning it to the vitality we know. Particularly in the case of tourism this will be a lot easier when the price of the dollar lowers and economies recover.

In terms of economic engagement with Asia and the focus that it is given, it is a positive but has the potential to be a negative from time to time. Putting too many eggs in the Asian basket might expose us to regional shocks. So far, with the economic activities we undertake in Asia though, we have managed to avoid major damage to our economy when other countries in the Asia-Pacific have not been spared. But the possibility of exposure to risks should still be in the front of the mind’s of our policy-makers.

New Zealand and the other Pacific Island nations must also factor into the Asian equation. They are as much a part of Asia as we are. New Zealand is our greatest ally in the Asia-Pacific region, a long-term friend and economic partner and we will continue to share and grow our economic relationship and broader bilateral relations with her.

In terms of security, the most volatile place in the Asian region, the place that has the potential to most impact on our security, is Indonesia. Enhancing current cooperation with Indonesia on counter-terrorism efforts is a must. However, this must not be at the expense of combating homegrown terrorism on Australian soil.

It is certain that we will be seen to be deeply connected with the USA . We can, will and should make clear that our actions in the region will be peaceful and aimed at trade and our ongoing security, rather than offensive actions and manoeuvres that constitute a threat.

In terms of China, as stated earlier, it has been quite easy for some to classify the economic growth and consequential militarisation of China as a threat. This eventuality though, as stated before, appears hard to fathom. On the other hand, disputes involving China and her nearer neighbours, currently festering, do have the potential to develop into problems for those nations. By and large, these are conflicts Australia can remain independent of.

With regard to people movements, Indonesia as well as Sri Lanka and Malaysia will remain central to our efforts in cutting down on irregular people movement. We would be foolish to ever imagine that we as a country or even the wider Asian region could solve the complex issue that is asylum seeker movements.

Later on in the Asian century it is also reasonable to keep in mind the potentially significant movement of people in our region brought about by climate change. The scale of this is hard to calculate, but the prospect must be factored into equations. Australia as a rich and prosperous country would be expected to take up the majority of the resettlement burden in such circumstances.

Overwhelmingly the opportunities for Australia in the Asian Century are good. The positives far outweigh the negatives. We must however be careful of too much dependence on the region and too much nation specific interaction within the Asia-Pacific.

We must think, for the century ahead, well beyond commodities and to sources of renewable energy. An ongoing and healthy services sector is also a must as resources begin to diminish.

There is the possibility of regional instability, but much of that should not have consequences for Australia. The major threat will continue to be terrorism with hatred fomented and potential non-state actors trained in Indonesian camps in particular.

We will be seen as one of America’s deputies in the Asia-Pacific, along with South Korea and Japan as well as New Zealand to some extent. In reality though, this should not colour the way we interact in our geographical region nor the way in which our peaceful advances are received.

People movement will continue to be something Australia experiences for as long as there is security and economic concerns in nations around the world. Later in the century this will probably be exacerbated by climate change, particularly in the low-lying areas of the Asia-Pacific.

Australia must not be happy with the status quo. Moving towards greater engagement and cooperation not just in Asia, but the world, is the answer to making the most of the opportunities and the threats that we and the region already experience and may encounter in the future.

The Mad Scramble is On, But the Show Will be Good

There are now only 8, yes EIGHT days left until that massive sporting event the London Olympics kicks off with what is sure to be an amazing opening ceremony  followed by two weeks of great sporting feats. Moments of sporting brilliance and achievement will abound. Until recent weeks and months it has been a good lead-up with the Brits looking more than ready to host such an epic sized event.

But then in recent times we’ve seen basic security cock-ups, the acknowledgement that all tickets were not and would not be sold, including football tickets no less. The arrival of the first athletes has seen the operation of Olympic only lanes commence on the roads, complete with a lost driver and traffic snarls. Then just yesterday an acknowledgement that one part of the opening ceremony act would need to be dropped to facilitate spectators making the last transport services of the evening. Oh and then there’s the weather. Finally, overnight came confirmation that airport border security staff would strike the day before the games begins.

But despite the scrambling things will be fine, there might be some hiccups along the way but all in all the show, including the bookend ceremonies will go on and will run smoothly.

The venues for one are finished and will be able to house the sports and events trouble free for the entire period of the Olympics. There won’t be any holes in the track, bumps where there should not be bumps or poorly designed stadiums.

The security shortfall caused by poor coordination on the part of G4S, the company contracted to provide basic security in the Olympic precinct and event locations will likely be fully plugged. The shortfall will likely be made up by police and defence personnel who will be redeployed from their regular postings to make up for this awful mistake, but it will happen, it has to.

The customs strike will cause some serious gridlock and delays at the airport and is an arrogant and calculated move attempting to embarrass the government. Above all though, people will still get to the Olympic events even after annoying delays which could have been postponed to a time where it wouldn’t result in negative perceptions from the all important tourist market.

All tickets will not be sold, that is a given. There will be numerous venues operating below capacity. But this won’t matter too much, except for the bottom line of the organisation behind the games. More will be given away and there will be a mad scramble to sell as many tickets as possible, even to the bloody football in England for goodness sake. That will surely cause some embarrassment for a soccer, sorry, football loving nation like Ol’ Blighty.

Traffic snarls will cause some headaches for the English people and Londoners with athlete only lanes in operation around and between venues. This will also lead to increased pressure on the public transport network which will be at peak capacity, even overflowing from now until the last of the athletes and visitors depart the nation.

The organising committee can only hope that all other drivers other than one this week actually know where they’re headed, but surely they do and in any case that is a pretty trivial example of an “issue”.

An act was dropped from the opening ceremony overnight, just over a week from the extravaganza commencing. That will be annoying for that act, who were undoubtedly excited to be playing their part in such an historic event. It will also be a tad embarrassing for the artistic director and the organisers who will not have wanted to come to that kind of realisation so close to the beginning of London 2012.

The weather might keep some of the spectators away but the large international contingent and the absolute Olympic fanatics are likely to still want to venture to events. In any case, many events take place in covered facilities anyway.

But these issues, save for likely gridlocked transport for regular Londoners and the broader English population and the serious, but likely to be overcome security shortfalls will not impact negatively on the running of the actual events. There may well be some holes in crowd shots at some of the events because not all tickets were sold and the weather might be a bit shite, but all are likely to go ahead with a level of ease, even if some have to be delayed because the weather is a bit dreary. Embarrassment might just be the worst outcome, along with a bit of a hit on the bottom line.

Men In Black, Suits

For some months now we have been hearing reports that the Gillard Government have asked the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, better know as ASIO, to send agents out into the field to spy on coal protesters around the country. These revelations have drawn the ire of the Australian Greens, with whom anti-coal protesters would in many cases have a close allegiance or at least some of the same political aims at least as far as environmental protection goes.

These revelations appeared in Fairfax newspapers this morning following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the media  outlet which was directed to the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. The application was said to be rejected because it involved a confidential document from an “intelligence agency”.

Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens has called on the minister responsible for the department, Martin Ferguson to agree to the release of the documents so that the extent of the involvement of Mr Ferguson in organising the surveillance of the protesters can be brought to light.

Revelations of security agencies, be they state or federal police or higher spying on protesters have been around a long time in Australia and indeed many states, notably Queensland in the mid-to-late 1900’s have been clearly observed to have actively participated in the surveillance of protesters. Queensland too came down hard on protesters who marched the streets in contravention of draconian laws during the Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland,   arresting and charging many.

At university, it was also said that ASIO were involved in spying on certain protesters, particularly those of the loopy left who are supporters of groups like S0cialist Alliance and the like, the sort of groups against any use of intelligence services in the first place, be it for peaceful purposes or otherwise.

On occasion when observing protests during my student days, aside from the boys and girls in blue coming onto campus to ensure that protests didn’t get too rowdy and that the targets of protests and university property didn’t have damage inflicted upon them I could have sworn I saw besuited men snapping the protesters getting rowdy.

These were men adorned in black suits, with tell-tale sunglasses with mobile phones raised every now taking happy snaps of the not so happy revolutionaries engaging in chanting incantations, sometimes into the atmosphere and sometimes at the objects of their collective ire, university administrators, public figures and even the police. But then I could just be paranoid with an overactive imagination.

Is it really such a bad thing to have security services engaged in spying on groups in society that are causing a bit of noise, sometimes a bit of damage or even a lot or perhaps even engaged in acts as serious as eco-terrorism?

Perhaps if ASIO are engaged in observing your everyday kind of protest gig where a bunch of people are just getting loud and boisterous and not really causing harm to anyone or property then their attendance would be complete overkill. This is relevant if there is no particular person or group that is being targeted and it is just an issue is being prosecuted by a march of a small group with a few signs.

That all changes when there is someone or a group of people who police or intelligence agencies have identified as being a direct threat to a particular person or persons or the interests of an organisation. In that case, it is entirely justifiable for high-level intelligence agencies to be involved in the investigation and oversight of such militant people or groups.

In all other cases the men and women of our state police would more than suffice as security and surveillance, with the ability to arrest protesters disregarding lawful directions or committing criminal acts.

Surveillance of people in most cases is not a necessary evil, but it is a reality that we have to get used to in some situations, particularly if we have been a bit on the naughty side.

Peace-loving New Zealand Gets First Carr Trip

New Senator for New South Wales and Foreign Minister designate has used his first trip overseas to visit our long term ally in the far reaches of Earth, New Zealand. The incoming Minister for Foreign Affairs headed there this week to meet with parliamentary colleagues while he finds his feet in the crucial role.

But is it smart for our new Foreign Minister to visit New Zealand ahead of all other nations in the region, some of whom we share a strong or growing relationship with and others with whom we have struggled in recent years, think Fiji and Papua New Guinea, the latter with their own political strife in recent times.

Nobody doubts the importance of New Zealand to our defence interests in particular with our southern partners across the Tasman being a long-time ally, particularly since the ANZUS Treaty was signed, but harking as far back as when the ANZAC legend was born on the shores of Gallipoli.

New Zealand are our strongest friends but also the most stable of nations in our immediate international region and a growing trade partner with whom we share a great history in realms other than defence relations. This is precisely why the wisdom of New Zealand being the first port of call for Bob Carr above all other neighbours in our dynamic Asia-Pacific region.

There are multiple countries in our immediate vicinity where our diplomacy is required for reasons including political stability, security and action on people smugglers and asylum seekers.

Think most recently of Papua New Guinea, a country where in recent months and years there has been some very serious political instability at the very top tier of government, with former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare at loggerheads with the parliament and his own party, aspects of the police and the military and even senior officials of the judiciary.

Thankfully there has not been a successful coup in the country over the power struggle, although a temporary “mini coup”  of sorts by a small part of the security forces in one part of the country shows that the country is far from stable, even if tensions have been suppressed since that moment.

Fiji is another country requiring some serious attention from the Australian Government, even though this has been made all the more difficult by the expulsion of the acting Australian High Commissioner to Fiji.

The coup where Fijian Commodore Frank Bainimarama was just one in a serious of military overthrows of democratic government in the country over the last twenty plus years and has led to freedom of speech being completely overrun with foreign-owned media expelled, making it harder for reporting of human rights violations.

There are positive signs with consultations on a new Fijian Constitution initiated, to be completed in 2013, but it remains to be seen whether the deeds will meet the words of another Fijian dictator.

Further, the Commodore has stated that 2014 will be the year when democratic elections will return to the small multi-island nation in our region so our work in the region, through multilateral bodies and non-government organisations will be to help ensure, albeit from a distance, that this timeline will come to fruition and be met at the earliest possible opportunity, with 2014 still being too far away.

Indonesia is another nation in the Asia-Pacific that deserves our ongoing attention at an intense level with security concerns post the Bali bombings continuing to be an issue not just for Australians travelling to the country for holidays and business, but also for a regional response to people smuggling which runs rife in the country and the broader asylum seeker issue.

A large number of Australians travel to Indonesia, particularly the capital Jakarta and Bali for both business and leisure activities each year so this requires intense diplomatic efforts in mutual security support in an attempt to make sure that our two nations do all they can to stamp out terrorism activities in the south-east Asian nation.

Australian attention is also needed with our partner Indonesia, to ensure that people smuggling is combatted at the source in Indonesia in efforts to stem the flow of boats which can lead to the drowning of asylum seekers. This can be done on a bilateral basis, but also as part of the so-called Bali Process of nations in the region. This must mean that all nations in the region sign up to the UN Refugee Convention and agree to take on their share of asylum seekers.

In the broader Asian region there are other countries which need to become more open, democratic and free, such as Malaysia and Singapore, so focusing an initial trip on peace-loving New Zealand, whilst important must not neglect those nations in our region where there is much work to be done to ensure they enjoy the freedoms that both our nations have enjoyed.

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