SYDNEYAustralia is a beacon of prosperity, good governance, liberal values and
successful market economics. Yet it is still struggling with its identity in the
world, beyond its remarkable record of its sporting achievement.
Australia's reputation for political
stability and contract reliability has just landed it a record energy deal - a
25-year contract worth upward of $12 billion to supply China with gas. China
will also get an equity stake. The contract was won in the face of fierce
competition from the Middle East and Indonesia, which may get a smaller deal as
Security was the clinching factor for
China. Indonesian supply could be vulnerable to separatism, while the Gulf has
low production costs but high security risks.
A deal of this size has unspoken
political implications for Australia. Ever since minerals trade with Japan
boomed in the 1960s, the lure of Asian trade has had a significant impact on
domestic policies - on immigration and foreign investment - as well as on
foreign policy. The gas deal underlines the importance of Australia to Asian
economies, and the advantages that geography and governance give it over many
suppliers of primary products. Nonetheless, the cornerstone of foreign policy
remains the relationship with the United States. So news of the gas deal was
overshadowed here by debate over Australia's policy toward Iraq. Foreign
Minister Alexander Downer has appeared to support hawkish elements in America
favoring military action. "The world must not stand idly by while Iraq develops
weapons of mass destruction," he said. Prime Minister John Howard suggested that
Australia would be willing to follow the United States into an Iraq war, just as
it has contributed to the Afghan campaign and took casualties in Vietnam.
A combat role in Iraq is not inevitable,
even if there is a war. Polls show most people opposed to using Australian
forces against Iraq. Farmers, represented through the National Party's presence
in Howard's coalition, were aghast when Iraq threatened to retaliate against
Downer's rhetoric by canceling a wheat contract. Most media commentary, even in
conservative papers, has been critical of Downer.
The episode is puzzling Asian neighbors
in the way many Europeans fret over Britain's zeal for supporting U.S. military
ventures, noting that it goes beyond the debt owed to the United States for
regional security. Why was Australia so willing to participate in a U.S. war in
a distant part of the world where it its interests were commercial? Was it the
cultural link of language and legal system? Or a desire to "punch above its
weight" on the international stage? The gibe that Australia viewed itself as a
U.S. "deputy sheriff" was again in the air.
Meanwhile, Canberra's loyalty seemed to
go unnoticed in Washington. It has done nothing to alleviate U.S. farm policies'
damage to Australian agriculture.
Relations with Asian neighbors are almost
all cordial. That with Indonesia has survived the Timor trauma. But there is
little sense that Australia, despite its large economy, open society, military
capability and Asian-oriented immigration policy has been able to increase its
regional influence. Its attempts to link more closely with Association of South
East Asian Nations have been rebuffed, and it is overshadowed by larger powers
at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum.
Through little fault of its own, it is
also uncomfortable in the southern Pacific. It is too big, too rich, too Western
to fit easily with the mainly Melanesian members of the Pacific Islands Forum.
The islands - Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in particular - face
massive governance problems. Meeting in Fiji in mid-August, the leaders devoted
as much energy to criticizing Australia for its contribution to global warming
by not signing the Kyoto Protocol as to addressing their own more immediate
problems. They want aid but resent advice and being used as Australia's dumping
ground for asylum seekers.
Australia's mix of linkages - with Asia,
with Europe, with the United States, with the Pacific - are a strength. But
keeping a balance is not easy. Perhaps it would do best to enjoy its good
fortune and not try to be influential other than by example. International