In order to counter increasing Chinese influence, Australia needs to work at developing a closer relationship with Timor-Leste, Andrea Soriano writes.
Is Chinese influence in Timor-Leste cause for concern?
Learning to live Indonesian Islam
Is the time right for Australia and Japan to become formal allies?
Universities don’t have a drop out problem – everyone else does
More engagement, not less, with Myanmar
ASEAN-Australia: it’s all about peace and prosperity
Crest of the wave or dead in the water? Australian regional climate leadership
Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement on 1st of June 2017 has lowered America into an enormous chasm of moral inferiority that Australia cannot afford to replicate for the sake of its Pacific neighbours.
Trump’s rationale is typical of his international relations psyche: overtly transactional and business-like. Any outcome in the international realm that doesn’t deliver fruitful benefits to the US economy is regarded with scepticism and deemed deleterious.
Pacific island nations do not carry economic importance to the United States but they do possess enormous strategic significance to Australia’s defence and security. The 2016 Defence White Paper includes that “we cannot effectively protect Australia if we do not have a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and South Pacific (comprising Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific Island Countries). Australia must play a leadership role in our immediate neighbourhood”.
A secure Pacific island region is a core Australian national interest. Australia has a moral responsibility to be the guarantor and protector of Pacific security. Without American influence, the question of our regional leadership has become more important.
Worthy of greater alarm is the threat currently experienced by what Australia defines as crucial in the national security interest. Kiribati is now threatened by a predicted rise in sea levels over 6 feet by 2100 when the land itself only sits at 6 feet above water. A World Bank report found that the village of Bikenibeu, home to 6,500 could be submerged by 2050 with current rates of sea level rise. In 2015, Cyclone Pam affected 45% of Polynesia’s Tuvalu, displacing 10000 people.
An increase in global temperatures over 1.5 degrees would doom Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. As Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, emphatically put it: “As Pacific Islanders, we are fighting for our very survival…[our] existence as sovereign nations with land and coastlines hangs in the balance.”
This seemingly brings me to Australia’s highly politicised, yet rarely securitised, energy and economic policies. Australia is the largest exporter of coal. In 2015-16, Australia exported 388 million tonnes of coal, and contributed to a staggering 30% of the coal export markets, making Australia a global leader in emission fostering.
Coal proponents regularly prioritise the job creation, increased standards of living and strong and stable economic growth gained from this reliable commodity. Coal exports was largely Australia’s key to survival during the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and contributes to a resilient economy that hasn’t experienced a recession since 1991.
Canberra must remain vigilant to not develop the same psyche that pushed the US to withdraw from Paris. The domestic is undoubtedly important, but the regional, and international, is just as significant. Lowy fellow, Greg Colton argues that ‘no argument for domestic job creation carries much weight for island nations who are considering how to relocate their entire populations because of climate change. It is seen not only as a very selfish act from a supposed friend, but also ultimately foolish.’
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To become the regional leader that Canberra strives to be it will first need to adjust its solipsistic energy and commodity policies. The Pacific Islands Development Forum, a regional forum promoting sustainable development, urged for an international moratorium on the expansion of new fossil-fuel extraction industries. While this decision would adjust the economy to finally ascend renewable investment above coal and other fossil-fuel industries, this future looks bleak. Both major parties are backed by coal-based industries and there are continuing propositions for new mines, such as the Adani thermal coal mine in Queensland.
But if long-term energy solutions and altruistic concerns of humanity are not enough, this decision could improve Canberra’s diplomatic perception and influence. Wesley Morgan suggests that Pacific Islands are beginning to engage in a wider range of multilateral platforms (that do not include Australia) in order to pursue their survivalist interests. The extent to which Canberra’s voice will retain projection, reputation and influence is at risk if its priorities in the Pacific are not properly addressed.
Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji at July’s Climate Action Pacific Partnership Event stated “to allow sovereign nations to slip beneath the rising seas altogether to preserve the economies and lifestyles of others would be an act of unparalleled selfishness and injustice. And any global citizen who believes in justice has no moral choice other than to side with you in your struggle.”
The Pacific nations are watching Australia’s every move. Malcolm Turnbull had the opportunity to champion climate change as a security issue at the past G20 leaders’ meeting. The next opportunity to convey Canberra’s selflessness and supposedly espoused justice will with the Adani coal mine. We cannot rely on the United States when it comes to this national security concern. In order to secure the national interest and pursue the moralism embedded in Australian values, Canberra cannot be like Trump.
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The strange invisibility of Australian aid
Australian aid is a heavily debated topic. How much should we give? Who decides? How do we decide?
In his most recent book, The Foreign Dilemma of Aid, Jack Corbett explores the history of foreign aid given by Australia, and looks at reasons why it’s changed.
“When Australians are asked, “Should we give aid?” the answer is almost always a resounding “Yes”. But, when asked, “How much do we give?” the answer is often “too much.” There is no question that Australians are supportive of foreign aid. However, this support is shallow”, Corbett states.
How much aid Australia gives fluctuates depending on government. We had cuts under Fraser and under Hawke-Keating with a huge rise in aid under Howard, and no real change under Rudd. Now again, we see more cuts.
It is important to acknowledge, as Corbett says, that “aid does not exist in a vacuum”.
Factors contributing to fluctuations of aid decided by expert policy makers include the absence of the Australian population holding the government accountable, and the personality and interests of the ministers in government, which Corbett refers to as “court politics”. To say that one party favors foreign aid more than the other would be incorrect. Both parties have increased and decreased the aid budget. Aid is often vulnerable to huge gestures. In cases of natural disasters, public interest is high and while major cuts are made often for internal political agendas.
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“Australians care, when they see images of natural disaster on the news they add appeals for support. But they don’t care enough for aid to be something that decides elections.”
Corbett spoke of three forms of legitimacy that ministers have aimed for in the past. The first was policy legitimacy. Aid can be used for multiple policy purposes, which means it can be used for political agendas. Corbett observed a pattern for new governments to cut aid when elected, and then later expand its budget the more time they spend in office.
Second is technical legitimacy, which emerged because of the belief that aid policy needs expert knowledge to be done well. Professionals crafting policy increases this legitimacy, but it also means that only a limited few have control of aid distribution. Because the budget is only controlled by a few and usually grows with more time the government spends in office, the budget is often considered too large and trust in the expert policy makers decreases over time.
The third form of legitimacy explained by Corbett was administrative legitimacy. This involves both policy development and program delivery. Both of these are pulled in opposite directions, as policy development is criticized from the outside, and program delivery challenges come from inside the government. When the two are balanced, the minister and government’s reputations are protected, and administrative legitimacy is achieved.
While identifying these three forms of legitimacy, Corbett also states that “I’m not saying you can look at policy in different points in time and say “at this time there was technical legitimacy, and this one shows policy legitimacy”and so on. At each point in time, aid will reflect a mixture of all. Legitimacy is a trajectory, which can explain the past, and influence how we think about aid in future.”
Corbett’s study of the history of Australian aid has shown that legitimate aid policy is almost impossible to achieve without participation from the Australian public. Balancing all three forms of legitimacy, each with their own aims and interests, has proved close to impossible. Australian aid is therefore passive to its fate of constant instability.
Shallow engagement of the Australian public is a key reason why aid is able to fluctuate with differing governments. A key question we can ask is “Would increased Australian public engagement stabilise aid?”. In question time, Corbett noted that this would be unlikely, and that instead, a holistic understanding how ‘court politics’, individual governments and domestic political contexts contribute to aid policy is more beneficial.
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Australia’s Afghanistan legacy: Missing in action?
Six years ago I was a soldier in the volatile province of Uruzgan, where Australia sent the bulk of its forces during its commitment to the Afghanistan War. Australia has since withdrawn from Uruzgan, closing another ostensibly successful chapter in its military history and begun celebrating its actions.
Yet despite the deaths of 41 soldiers, hundreds badly wounded and $7.5 billion spent on the war, remarkably little was achieved. Uruzgan is now the single most Taliban-controlled province in Afghanistan.
My home was a remote outpost in a farming valley where a handful of Australian and Afghan soldiers lived, worked and fought the Taliban together. Despite the hardships and numerous casualties, we achieved some modest successes.
Taliban insurgents remained, but the loss of fighters, commanders and equipment weakened them. Security was gradually improving and there was hope that one day government services could be introduced to the area.
But any sense of accomplishment was tempered by the knowledge that Australia would soon be withdrawing from the base, leaving the Afghans to provide security on their own. I was not optimistic about their chances.
These concerns are now justified.
Taliban fighters overran the outpost last October and dozens of Afghan soldiers defending it reportedly defected. A video published on the Taliban’s news website, Al Emarah, shows soldiers surrendering the base and handing over weapons and armoured vehicles.
Nearby bases fell in a similar manner and the Taliban now control the valley. Despite years of commitment and the loss of at least eight soldiers, Australian forces left little lasting impact.
[caption id="attachment_5510" align="alignnone" width="552"] Patrol Nase Wahab pictured above under control of the Afghan Nation army and below after falling to the Taliban (Top source: author) (Bottom source: Al Emarah)[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_5532" align="alignnone" width="435"] Combat Outpost Mashal above manned by Australian and Afghan soldiers and below under Taliban control (Top source: author) (Bottom source: Al Emarah)[/caption]
What happened there is just one example of a broad collapse of security across Uruzgan. After Australian troops withdrew in 2013, the Taliban made sweeping gains and now claim to control the entire province except for district centres. Uruzgan Governor Mohammed Nazir Kharoti has called for Australia to return to the province and says the Taliban are threatening the capital, Tarin Kot, and are “coming very close to the city…a kilometre, to two kilometres in some sites.”
Reinforcements have prevented the city from falling, but the countryside remains out of the government’s reach.
So, what of Australia’s legacy in Afghanistan? Attempts to bring Uruzgan under enduring government control certainly failed. Yet Australia’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Campbell, defends Australia’s achievements as part of a bigger picture, citing “education, communication and thousands of kilometres of road infrastructure” that have improved quality of life for Afghans and liberated them from the desperate conditions they once endured.
Australia’s commitment may have indirectly supported social and economic development elsewhere in Afghanistan, in the larger cities and safer provinces. But in Uruzgan, quality of life remains dire.
Even before the Taliban seized much of the province, government services and infrastructure began to crumble. According to tribal elder Haji Mohammad Qasim, two years after Australia’s departure only 20 per cent of Uruzgan’s schools remained functional. Those that were open were run by elderly teachers with no understanding of modern education.
Health care was non-existent in most places while the central hospital relied on unqualified staff with inadequate supplies. Some infrastructure projects were successful, but many were never completed and much of Uruzgan received no development. The province remains a leading producer of opium.
Despite this grim picture, can Australians take comfort in the idea that they did their best against insurmountable obstacles? It is debatable.
A controversial strategy facilitated the spectacular collapse of governance and security in Uruzgan. Leaders neglected the requirement to build government institutions that follow the rule of law. Instead, they used a tribal warlord named Matiullah Khan to assert control through his personal power. His assassination in 2015 left behind a province with no successor and no viable institutions. Uruzgan descended deeper into lawlessness and the Taliban capitilised on the chaos.
Uruzgan’s only hope now is that the government in Kabul will survive and become strong enough to impose order. This is a tenuous prospect. The government's authority is dwindling, now controlling just 57 per cent of Afghanistan and propped up only by foreign support.
As I look back, I wonder if we ever had a chance of success. Without enough manpower to defeat the insurgency and without serious efforts to build a functional administration, it is difficult to imagine how Australia’s mission could have ended differently.
Despite this, Australia poured soldiers and resources into the province for nine years. Australians and Afghans alike paid a heavy price, with many killed and countless more bearing physical and psychological wounds that will never completely heal.
The question is unavoidable: was it worth it?
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