20 July 2022
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.