When Australia’s role in the Asia-Pacific comes to mind, first thoughts turn to our immediate neighbour, Indonesia, and the wake-up call of the Bali bombings. Also, to East Timor, the nation-in-need so close to Australia’s northern shores. The recent sending of troops to quell the violence in the Solomon Islands also serves as a reminder of Australia’s perceived role in the Pacific, if not Asia.
These incidences tell us that indeed Australia is here, alive and well, and acts and has an influence locally (Asia-Pacific) and is not just a mainstream friend of the US and the West.
“Australia is a Pacific nation,” says Clive Moore of the University of Queensland’s School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, also speaking for the Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies. "Our future is bound by geographic proximity to the Pacific Islands. The nations around the Pacific Ocean, in the islands and on the Asian mainland, will be most important to Australia in the future, not our older links with Europe.”
Australia behaves no differently from any other country when it comes to dependent neighbours, even though it may not bode well for our future. The treaty signed between Australia and East Timor in January is a typical example. Here’s a developed country with the know-how seeking to exploit an undeveloped country’s resources - oil and gas reserves in the East Timor Sea. The fine print in the treaty, or more likely the subsequent contracts drawn up, will reveal the true nature of the deal.
Australia needs to revamp its wimpish image when it comes to dealings with Indonesia - as in the case of granting 42 West Papuans asylum. A refugee is a refugee - political or economic. The responsible way to handle the affair is from a home base, not Christmas Island.
As to Indonesia’s claims and fears of secession by West Papua - any regional or cultural group has the right to self-rule. Such people have a right to be listened to, however, to change the situation in a positive way needs dialogue and use of the UN to achieve autonomy.
So if Australia thinks it wears big boots in the region, is it really filling them?
“Australia never has confronted Indonesia 'head on' over these issues,” says Scott Wilkie speaking for the Sydney-based Centre of Cultures. “We simply sends troops and police over to pick up the pieces after skirmishes. Our dialogue is poor with Indonesia over these issues. Indonesia claims sovereign rights to do as it sees fit, but ignores the human rights of the states that are demanding basic living conditions. Australia needs to pressure Indonesia into an 'attitude' change through trade restrictions, etc. Unless we stand up for the human rights abuses to our immediate north, we cannot, to speak metaphorically, 'fill the boots'.”
Australia could stave off the negative effects of the promises and then the realities of big money arriving on the shores of a fledgling democracy like East Timor - just two years old - by doing the deal in a transparent manner and assisting that “suddenly young” country to wisely handle the money.
Australia could be a good neighbour and still make a good profit by becoming a real friend of a nation that needs real friends and not by acting as a capitalistic short-term gold digger out for its own.
There is an interesting point when it comes to dealing with Asia and the Pacific: is Australia classed with the West (and Japan to a certain extent) in our dealings with Asia? Or, are relations better developed with Australia being seen as a regional, benign, co-operating country?
"Australia from the Chinese perspective is not an Asian country. It's a western country but close to Asia. It's a special partner, a special neighbour …" said Zhang Yun Ling, director of the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, (August 13, 2004) at the Asialink National Forum.