The role of the Australian Greens in Asia-Pacific strife


Not naturally curious about the world beyond the core Anglosphere, the Australian political gaze does occasionally drift abroad, bringing some unfamiliar land into sharper focus.

Bumptious, it lacks the breadth of outlook and culture won from wide experience in colonial administration. Such antipodal thought therefore tends to borrow what ideas it has from the imperial heartlands of the North Atlantic.

True as a matter of course for Canberra’s security elite, this holds also for many critical voices on the margins of Australia’s political mainstream. Even the mildest, apparently well-meaning naïf is apt to reproduce generic premises of foreign policy heard originally from the roughest voices in Washington.

Thus the US President, on a recent visit to India, played to local ambition and flattered Delhi’s self-regard, encouraging it to strengthen Washington’s cordon sanitaire around China.

According to Barack Obama, ‘we want India to not only “look East,” we want India to “engage East” — because it will increase the security and prosperity of all our nations.’


On the same day, the US secretaries of State and Defense, on a visit to Australia, secured the local elite’s commitment to a closer military-strategic alignment against Beijing.

Washington’s two departmental heads repeated plans to ‘upgrade the presence of the United States’ in the west Pacific and East Asia.

Hillary Clinton:

[We] are determined to strengthen and deepen our already strong alliances with countries like Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, to build relationships bi-laterally and multi-laterally with other nations to work through these regional organisations. To solve problems, like maintaining the freedom of navigation and maritime security that is essential to trade and commerce throughout the region.

And on this same day, the Australian Greens, a party that lists ‘peace and non-violence’ among its four ‘core beliefs’, demanded ‘strong action’ (including a full trade embargo) from Australia’s government to promote regime change in Burma.

greens assk

Burma, just to remind, is the shortest path between China and the Bay of Bengal. It therefore presents an alternative energy supply route to the US-controlled maritime chokepoints through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

It’s the site for the new Kyauk Phu and Sittwe container ports, linked by pipeline and highway to Yunnan in southwest China. Offshore sit the Shwe gas fields; farther west are the energy resources of East Africa and West Asia.

In 2007, Indian, US, Japanese, Singaporean and Australian forces staged a massive naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal.

Beijing  ‘concerned’ at what an Indian military think tank called a ‘mammoth war-game in the Bay of Bengal… close to the international sea-routes leading to the Malacca Straits’  ‘sought clarification’ from the participants.

Yunnan itself forms part, with Tibet, of the PRC’s politically vulnerable western frontier; Indian counterinsurgency forces sit permanently poised nearby in Manipur, Assam, Mizoram and Nagaland. 

The highlands of the North-East Frontier, still disputed, provided the occasion for Sino-Indian war in the 1960s.

Today New Delhi and Beijing are hastily constructing road and rail infrastructure to these respective hinterlands.

Control over the hydroelectric resources of the Brahmaptra is a perennial source of contention, recently given ventilation, from the perspective of an Indian strategic think thank, in the Washington Post.

China’s southwest plateau contains the glacial headwaters that furnish the downstream river systems and food production of East and South Asia, ‘an effective bargaining tool and potential weapon’ that ‘gives Beijing enormous strategic latitude with its neighbours.’

tibet rivers

Chinese dam-building in Yunnan spills over the Burmese border: the 6000MW Irrawaddy-Myitsone project is one of seven that will transmit power to Yunnan, as part of Beijing’s regional development program.

The local powers  New Delhi typically backed by London and Washington  have each pursued their regional ambitions by arming and financing respective ethnic proxies, or the central state, in Burma’s relentless internal conflicts.

Given these facts, and the proximity of successive events, it would be selling the Greens short to describe their call for the Gillard government to ‘support the genuine democratic aspirations of the Burmese people’ as merely naive and quixotic.

As Clinton and Robert Gates described it, Australia and the US will be ‘working even more closely together’ over the next few decades as the US ‘re-engaged in a major way’ in the southwest Pacific and east Asia, to counter ‘evolving strategic threats’.

Stripped of euphemisms, the US is no longer satisfied with delegating responsibility for the regional ‘arc of instability’  to the Australian ‘deputy sheriff’.

That strategy, employed for several decades, has failed to slow the rapidly growing influence of Petrochina and the PRC in East Timor, PNG, Fiji etc.

Meanwhile unreliable executives in Canberra and Tokyo (Kevin Rudd and Yukio Hatoyama) were both accused of displeasing the State Department by pursuing strategic goals independently of the hegemon. Each leader was dispatched from office in June, and more deferential replacements installed in the local chancelleries.

Regional protectorates thus brought to heel, Washington can proceed with its agenda.

Its new project, given voice by thinkers from the foreign-policy establishment in the capital and Boston, is for a direct re-assertion of US authority, to maintain its position relative to ascending rivals such as China, in the face of competitive decline of the US industrial base, the diminishing regional weight of its ally in Tokyo, and the increasing scarcity of low-cost energy.

Australia will participate  just as it does in the ‘global war on terror’  to maximize opportunities for local firms, protect the security of the latter’s property and investments, maintain regional influence and secure raw-material supplies against Chinese expansion.

Using the above events as an example, the specific contribution of the Greens to this project may be easily stated.

In the first instance, they will publicly oppose the subordination of ‘Australia’s national interests’ (sic) to US aims. Thus the party’s sole response to the AUSMIN meeting was a press release from new MP Adam Bandt: ‘We don’t want US ships.’

The Greens have gained ‘progressive’ credentials, and the support of some Australian voters uneasy with the invasion and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, by criticizing use of ‘the armed services at the behest of President Bush rather than in the direct interests of our nation’.

The party regularly voices lofty opposition, to no practical avail, against placement of Australian troops under US command.

In response to the longstanding, seamless fusion of Canberra’s external stance with Washington’s, the Greens state that ‘[our] troops should be reserved for our own region of the world. We need a foreign policy based on Australia’s relationships with our region and south Asia, not on a White House strategy.’

What does this mean?

Australian military forces, according to Greens leader Bob Brown, should be concentrated in the south-west Pacific (e.g. East Timor and the Solomon Islands) where ‘instability is rife and our defence forces are already stretched.’

The Greens have had no qualms about identifying such a ‘regional’ focus as an attempt to prevent Chinese infiltration of Australia’s sphere of influence.

In a recent opinion piece, setting forth his party’s military and diplomatic priorities, Brown wrote that ‘we are neglecting neighbours in need like Timor-Leste, which is, this week, exploring new defence ties with China! The Greens’ strategy is to have our defence forces personnel at home to secure our own arc of stability.’

Brown has expressed concern ‘that Australia has so much more to do in terms of economic relationships with places such like Fiji and Timor Leste again who are turning to look at what China has to offer.’

Indeed, Brown tends towards unhinged Sinophobia, the latter supplementing his native anti-communism, as in his warning that ‘the communist bosses in Beijing will exert control over the management of Rio Tinto’s Australian mineral resources.’

More broadly, the moralizing idiom in which the Greens discuss Canberra’s security, diplomatic and external affairs itself serves several ends.

It borrows from Washington’s own preferred salvationist language for presenting its imperial statecraft, taking for granted a Western droit d’ingérence that overrides state sovereignty.

Brown’s 1986 speech on the ‘morality of protest’ found a new application from the late 1990s in international affairs. 

Canberra was duty bound, as government of a wealthy nation, to intervene across borders for humanitarian purposes:

In Australia we are far too shy to act…

How dare we do so little? How can we be so cold-hearted, so frightened for ourselves, so extravagant in the face of such need?

[How] dare we sell our lives so short as to not grasp our privileged position as individual Australians and get much more involved in the planet’s affairs? How dare we not be protesters? All that is needed for the world to disintegrate is for good people to do nothing.

In the manner of a Bernard Kouchner, no less than Paul Wolfowitz, the Greens encourage a nationalistic faith in the local state as a benevolent force for global good: Canberra can, by undertaking ‘strong action’ with moral purpose, advance the ‘genuine democratic interests’ of downtrodden people in Burma and elsewhere.

Joschka Fischer and his German Greens show the likely outcome of this tendency.

The Greens’ electoral appeal, concentrated in a narrow demographic band, exploits well-meaning features of popular opinion. In the manner of Clinton-era diplomatic self-presentation, it translates power politics into a moral-humanitarian idiom.

Popular feeling, stoked via the bien-pensant opinion column, is thereby gathered behind elite policy goals, granting the latter a potent ideological supplement. The constituency for war and regime change, of otherwise limited size and narrow social origin, is broadened and mobilized.

Thus there is legitimate repugnance among the Australian population for authoritarian regimes such as the PRC, Fijian and Burmese leaderships, and widespread popular sympathy for various oppressed groups and ethnic minorities in these countries and others.

The Greens provide an outlet for such feelings, by suggesting that the ‘international community’ or the Australian state ‘do something about it’, using military and diplomatic instruments — with purity of purpose, of course.

Machtpolitik, with UN support, thus becomes ‘humanitarian intervention’.

The public’s concern is absorbed, then connected to the strategies and concerns of the upper layers of society. An elite project thereby assembles a broader ideological programme with which to attract mass support.

The message of the Greens  with their concern for human rights, ‘his holiness’ the Dalai Lama, Tibet and ‘Lady’ Aung San Suu Kyi is pitched at exactly the right frequency for this task.

This is not to say that the party’s electoral platform will become openly pro-war. A large subset of Greens members and voters are, it seems, sincerely interested in the welfare of people in Burma, Tibet, West Papua etc, and would also seem likely to oppose and resist direct Australian power-projection.

But so long as this electoral base lacks, as it does presently,  a principled opposition to armed interventions by imperialist states, it remains vulnerable to manipulation from above, on the basis of a ‘responsibility to protect.’

Here’s Adam Bandt, MHR, in the parliamentary debate on Canberra’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan:

The Greens do not oppose the deployment in Afghanistan based on any absolute opposition to the use of military force or from any lack of commitment to our troops. We led the call for military intervention in Timor Leste and are proud of the role our men and women played in the struggle for freedom and independence in that country.

Here’s Senator Bob Brown, a few days later, contributing to the same debate:

Australia, a small to moderate nation in terms of international clout, should secure its own region while offering aid through the United Nations to solve greater global problems.  Except in very extraordinary cases, and Afghanistan in 2010 is not one of them, our troops should be available for Australia’s immediate regional security, stability and welfare. We do not underestimate the need for armed services to defend this nation and its neighbourhood.  The Greens urged military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Timor Leste before the Howard Government decided on that justifiable deployment.

The claim by both MPs that Australian military intervention in East Timor aimed to ‘stop the bloodhead’ and secure ‘freedom and independence’ strains credulity.

So, for 30 years Australian governments of all stripes ardently supported the Suharto regime’s annexation, before in 1999 John Howard’s Coalition government stepped in to defend East-Timorese self-determination?

This surely overstates the degree to which Australian government policy in 1999 responded to popular pressure rather than manipulating it. It underestimates the everyday strategic calculations involved: the latter so blindly obvious and universally desirable to elite policymakers that they could remain unspoken, kept safely withheld from public view or media comment.

Canberra’s goal was simply to preserve its local beachhead in an energy-rich outpost of the collapsed Portuguese empire, one with a substantial Chinese minority. (On Beijing’s designs, see this article by the son of José Ramos Horta, a graduate of both the People’s Liberation Army National Defence University and the Pentagon’s National Defense University.)

The Australian envoy Richard Woolcott famously stated in 1974 that ‘a treaty on the oil and gas-rich seabed could be more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal or independent Portuguese Timor.’ Departmental planners concurred: ‘bear in mind that the Indonesians would probably be prepared to accept the same compromise as they did in the negotiations already completed on the seabed boundaries between the two countries. Such a compromise would be more acceptable to us than the present Portuguese position.’

Minutes published in 2000 record the utter cynicism of the Australian government’s position: ‘The Prime Minister [Gough Whitlam] noted that, for the domestic audience in Australia, incorporation into Indonesia should appear to be a natural process arising from the wishes of its people.’ Whitlam remarked in September 1974: ‘I am in favour of incorporation but obeisance has to be made to self-determination. I want incorporation, but I do not want this done in a way which will create argument in Australia.’

The subsequent Coalition government later operated with the same motivation, Prime Minister Fraser justifying his attitude thus: ‘The government is being subjected to growing pressure from exploration companies with permits in the East Timor area to clarify the legal status of these permits… the fact remains that Indonesia is clearly the only government which is in a position both to conclude and to enforce an agreement with us.’

Of additional concern was maritime control over key regional straits.

In 1976, after Jakarta’s annexation of East Timor, the Ford and Carter Administrations fretted about deepwater naval routes through the Ombai-Wetar straits.

It was declared ‘essential’ for the passage of ballistic missile submarines between the Western Pacific (and Northeast Asia) and Indian Ocean that these straits be ‘controlled by states with which the United States maintains good relations and working modus vivendi, and which have and probably will continue to permit passage for submerged U.S. submarines’:

The two Indonesian straits, Lombok and Ombai-Wetar, might be closed to unannounced underwater passage of U.S. SSBNs in any case because according to Indonesia’s interpretation of the archipelago principle of enclosed waters, they are considered internal rather than international waters.

On the other hand, the United States seems to have a working arrangement with Indonesia for passage of SSBNs through its straits though the Indonesian government has argued that the archipelago principle does not infringe on innocent passage, it requires prior notification of transit by foreign warships and has raised questions about the innocence of supertanker passage because of the danger of pollution.

In spite of Indonesian jurisdictional claims, the United States maintains that the Indonesian straits are international. According to press accounts and Indonesian sources, however, the United States routinely provides prior notification of transit by surface ships and presumably (if only as a practical convenience) relies on some special bilateral navy-to-navy arrangement for submerged passage, consistent with the requirements of concealing the details of SSBN passage from foreign intelligence.

Although this modus vivendi is rather contingent, it satisfies America’s needs as long as an Indonesian government as friendly as that of Suharto is in power.

In August 1976 Australian newspapers reported that US State Department officials had impressed such concerns upon the Australian prime minister, by way of a ‘blunt warning’, on his visit to Washington.

Indonesia maritime chokepoints

The decisive element in Australian strategic thinking on East Timor had not changed by 1989, 1999 or 2006.

The overarching concern remains to protect the security of property rights of Woodside Petroleum and Santos, and with luck to broaden the reach of domestic firms against competitors like ConocoPhillips, Total, ExxonMobil and now Petrochina.

The only change has come in the language in which such calculations are couched: now it is ‘failed states’, the ‘responsibility to protect’, ‘support for democratic aspirations’, etc. And the chief agent of such rhetorical changes was the man who is pictured below, sharing a toast with Ali Alatas as they fly over the Timor Sea in 1989.

Neglectful of such realities, the Australian Greens will electorally absorb any popular anti-war sentiment in ways that allow the local state to continue its unpopular military expeditions without provoking any domestic crisis of confidence or sapping the legitimacy of the political system and its basic institutions.

The proper vehicle for anti-war opposition, the Greens will explain at rallies and on hustings, must remain federal parliament and the electoral system.

The upshot? In return for the ALP’s agreement to the Greens’ demand for a parliamentary debate on the war in Afghanistan, the party recently promised to support the war’s funding for the next three years.


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8 Responses to “The role of the Australian Greens in Asia-Pacific strife”

  1. Nick Says:

    Today The Australian publishes an extract from Robert Kaplan’s new book on the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. Kaplan rarely has anything startling to say, but through his involvement in various thinktanks and defence advisory bodies he has a role in articulating (if not actually formulating) US strategic and foreign-policy goals. His remarks thus deserves some attention. Burma’s importance is recognised:

    “THE Indian Ocean is where the rivalry between the US and China in the Pacific interlocks with the regional rivalry between China and India, and also with America’s fight against Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, which includes America’s attempt to contain Iran.

    Whenever US Navy warships have bombed Iraq or Afghanistan, they have often done so from the Indian Ocean. The US Air Force guards Iraq and Afghanistan from bases in the [Persian] Gulf, and from the island of Diego Garcia, smack in the centre of the Indian Ocean.

    Any American strike against Iran — and its aftershocks, regarding the flow of oil– will have an Indian Ocean address. The same with responses to any upheaval in Saudi Arabia; or in the teeming, water-starved tinderbox of Yemen, home to 22 million people and 80 million firearms.


    While China seeks to expand its influence vertically — that is, reaching south to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean — India seeks to expand its influence horizontally, reaching east and west to the borders of Victorian-age British India, parallel to the Indian Ocean.

    Chinese President Hu Jintao, according to one report, has bemoaned China’s sea-lane vulnerability, referring to it as his country’s “Malacca dilemma”, a dependence on the narrow and vulnerable Strait of Malacca for oil imports from which China must somehow escape.


    In Burma, where the Chinese have given billions of dollars in military assistance to the ruling junta, Beijing is building and upgrading commercial and naval bases; constructing road, waterway and pipeline links from the Bay of Bengal to China’s Yunnan province; and operating surveillance facilities on the Coco Islands deep in the Bay of Bengal. A number of these ports are closer to cities in central and western China than those cities are to Beijing and Shanghai.

    Such Indian Ocean ports, with north-south road and rail links, would help to economically liberate landlocked inner China. China is reaching south and west, evinced by a seemingly improbable railway it hopes to construct linking its western-most provinces across some of the highest terrain in the world to a copper-producing region of Afghanistan south of Kabul.


    [What] is interesting and bears watching is China’s desire for access to modern deepwater ports in friendly countries along the southern Eurasian rimland, where it has invested considerably in economic aid and diplomatic outreach, thus giving Beijing a greater presence along Indian Ocean sea lines of communication. Guarding these lines makes for a significant bureaucratic sales argument in Chinese power circles for a blue-water oceanic force.


    Concomitantly, India is expanding its military and economic ties with Burma to the east. Democratic India does not have the luxury of spurning authoritarian Burma because its neighbour is rich in natural resources and threatens to be taken over by China if India stands aloof and does nothing.

    In fact, India hopes a nexus of east-west roads and energy pipelines will ultimately give it soft power dominance over the former territorial India of the Raj, which encompassed Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma.


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