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20 July 2022

With Grant Wyeth

Indonesia livestock diplomacy


An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Indonesian cattle has become a pressing concern for the Australian government. First detected in May in the provinces of Aceh and East Java, the disease has spread to twenty other provinces, including Bali. The fear is that holidaymakers returning from Bali could transmit the disease to Australian livestock, costing around $80 billion over a decade.

Despite the potentially devastating nature of the disease, the government has resisted shutting down travel between Australia and Indonesia. Doing so would create the perception that Indonesians are being punished by Australia while struggling with the damage to their own livestock industry, causing unnecessary tension with Jakarta.

Instead, Australia has responded with a $5 million technical support package for Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea to seek to manage and further prevent the spread of the disease. This package will include sending one million doses of the FMD vaccine to Indonesia. While Australia doesn’t manufacture the vaccine because the government considers it too risky to keep live samples of the virus in the country, it maintains a vaccine bank in the United Kingdom that it will draw from.

The Australian government understands that biosecurity is an issue that requires regional cooperation and shared responsibility. There is an obvious self-interest in helping Indonesia manage and eradicate the disease to prevent its spread to Australia, but there is also a strong incentive to demonstrate that Australia is an all-weather friend to Indonesia.

Telstra in the Pacific

Telstra has finalised its acquisition of Digicel Pacific after receiving a US$1.33 billion financing package from the Australian government. The funding, provided through Export Finance Australia, was an extraordinary measure driven by Australia’s concerns about Chinese activity in the Pacific.

Digicel is a Jamaican-based telecommunications company that operates primarily through the Caribbean, Central America and the Pacific. Since launching in the Pacific in 2006, it has risen to become the largest mobile phone carrier in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Nauru, Tonga and Samoa, and second to Vodafone in Fiji. It currently has 2.8 million customers across the region.

However, by 2020 the company had fallen into considerable debt and was looking to offload some of its assets. In response, China Mobile launched a scoping study to assess whether it should take over Digicel’s Pacific operations. This spooked the Australian government which saw China Mobile as a “high-risk vendor” similar to Huawei, due to Article 7 of China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law stating that Chinese companies must “support, cooperate with and collaborate in national intelligence work” when asked to do so.

Communications companies are seen as an obvious target for Chinese intelligence gathering. Yet Telstra’s purchase of Digicel Pacific could also enhance the Pacific’s essential infrastructure to facilitate growth and development. Financing the purchase was a way to demonstrate Australia’s commitment to the Pacific beyond its fears about China.

Sinn Féin visit

Australia has had a curious visitor to its shores this week in Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Ireland’s republican opposition party, Sinn Féin. McDonald is in Australia to encourage international support for Sinn Féin’s primary objective: to reunite the island of Ireland. Australia’s significant population of Irish background is seen as an influential constituency for Sinn Féin to court.

Due to the party’s links to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Féin politicians were banned from entering Australia until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which committed the signatories to oppose “any use or threat of force … for any political purpose” on the island of Ireland or the British mainland.

The Good Friday Agreement provided an opportunity for Sinn Féin to become a regular – non-violent – political party, but it also threatened to rob it of its driving force. An island of Ireland that functioned as a single economic zone, where residents of Northern Ireland could choose whether to be British or Irish, diminished the need for structural Irish unity. 

It is a great irony that Britain’s departure from the European Union has breathed new life into Sinn Féin. Brexit has made the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic a contested issue again, providing Sinn Féin with considerable political capital. The party is now the largest in the Northern Ireland assembly, and equal largest in Dáil Éireann, with current polling placing it well ahead of Ireland’s other major parties. The next time McDonald visits Australia it may be as Taoiseach (prime minister), a prospect that would have been deemed extraordinary – if not impossible – over the past century. 



From AFA15: OUR UNSTABLE NEIGHBOURHOOD

A free extract from “Red Flags” by Sebastian Strangio

“On a humid morning in early December, a group of suited dignitaries gathered on the platform of a recently completed train station in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. A scrum of press photographers rattled away as the officials, most of them from Laos and China, filed past a row of Buddhist monks seated on a dais under a large billboard that featured an image of two Chinese-made bullet trains, painted in the colours of the Lao national flag: red, white and blue.

The ceremony was held to inaugurate a new high-speed railway line connecting Vientiane to the southern Chinese city of Kunming, some 1035 kilometres to the north. After the officials made offerings to the monks, Lao prime minister Phankham Viphavanh lit sticks of incense at a nearby shrine and struck a brass gong nine times, symbolising the nine virtues of the Buddha. The monks then sprinkled blessed water against the flank of one of the snub-nosed Lane Xang electric multiple unit (EMU) locomotives – named after the precolonial kingdom which once ruled much of the expanse of modern Laos – that had recently rolled down the line from China.”CONTINUE READING

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Weekly round-up

Australia–China climate cooperation can thaw the diplomatic ice

“Australia and China’s interests in climate change and energy cooperation are actually converging. There is significant potential for climate and energy cooperation in fossil fuel and renewable sectors, investment and technology. Some of these opportunities for cooperation will not require much preparation, as long as both governments do not stand in the way.” Xunpeng Shi, Qinhua Xu & Zha DaojiongEast Asia Forum

Australia’s new government seizes the international bully pulpit

“The introduction of ‘strategic equilibrium’ as Australia’s north star for South-East Asia is notable. While it marks a more inclusive, values-neutral position than Morrison’s ‘strategic balance that favours freedom’, it is not yet clear precisely what ‘equilibrium’ entails.” Hugh Piper,The interpreter (lowy institute)

A view from afar – Australia and the Arctic

“Not only do security challenges originate in the Arctic that shape the Indo-Pacific but shifts in the Indo-Pacific feedback to shape the Arctic. Environmental challenges, rising sea levels, and threats to crop harvests are just a few of the ecological shifts driving Indo-Pacific states like India and China to the Arctic.” Elizabeth Buchanan,Australian Outlook (AIIA)

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Time to shift the narrative on China

“Clearly there are those who have no interest in achieving such a balance and who will continue to talk up the China threat. But if Foreign Minister Wong’s words about seeking to resolve issues calmly in accordance with our national interests are to be implemented, then the narrative must change.” Colin Heseltine,asialink insights

Geopolitics looms larger than ever at Pacific Islands Forum Summit

“The Suva summit was talked up as the friendliest ever (with leaders posing for selfies with Albanese), and it issued a communiqué that didn’t push Australia on coal or what Fiji calls ‘the fossil fuel addiction’ … Alas for the island status quo, expanding power systems always expand and the history of the South Pacific over the centuries since it was a Spanish lake is that the big powers always come to play.” Graeme Dobell,the strategist (ASPI)

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New from The Quarterly Essay

Sleepwalk to War

Hugh White

Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America

In this gripping essay, Hugh White explores Australia’s fateful choice to back America to the hilt and oppose China. What led both sides of politics to align with America so absolutely? Is this a case of sleepwalking to war? What tests might a new government face?

White assesses America’s credibility and commitment, by examining AUKUS, the Quad, Trump and Biden. He discusses what the Ukraine conflict tells us about the future. And he argues that the US can neither contain China nor win a war over Taiwan. So where does this leave our future security and prosperity in Asia? Is there a better way to navigate the disruption caused by China’s rise?

This is a powerful and original essay by Australia’s leading strategic thinker.

“Canberra’s rhetoric helps raise the risk of the worst outcome for Australia: a war between China and America, in which we are likely to be involved. Over the past decade, and without any serious discussion, Australian governments have come to believe that America should go to war with China if necessary to preserve US primacy in Asia, and that Australia should, as a matter of course, go to war with it.”—Hugh White, Sleepwalk to Warread more

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