A special report on the referendum


In May 1994, the island of Bougainville was in the midst of a brutal ten-year conflict. I found myself with the rebel leader, Francis Ona, head of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), in his village above the destroyed Panguna mine site. Below us spread an industrial apocalypse – one of the world’s most advanced copper and gold mines torched beyond repair, as men scavenged materials to create homemade weapons in armouries set up next to huge, rusting mining trucks.

Ona said to me solemnly, in words I would never forget: “We are at war with Australia … but it is not our intention. We wish Australia could be neutral, but instead they continue to support the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.”

The full article is only available to subscribers.

Get full digital access to AFA back issues and three upcoming issues from just $29.99.

Login or subscribe to read.



Buy a copy of AFA7 for $17.99 (save $5)

Includes free postage within Australia
Offer open Wednesday, 4 September
Offer available until 11.59 p.m. AEST Thursday, 12 September
Australian Foreign Affairs 7  will be released on Monday, 24 October 2019



The seventh issue of Australian Foreign Affairs explores Australia’s status as the most China-dependent country in the developed world, and the potential risks this poses to its future prosperity and security.

China Dependence examines how Australia should respond to the emerging economic and diplomatic challenges as its trade – for the first time – is heavily reliant on a country that is not a close ally or partner. 

  • Allan Gyngell examines how and where Australia’s trade dependence on China leaves our economy vulnerable.
  • Margaret Simons argues that Australia’s universities are banking unsustainably on Chinese students and the money they bring.
  • Richard McGregor considers the Australia–China trade relationship and the dangers of economic coercion. 
  • David Uren probes ASIO’s expanding role in scrutinising Chinese foreign investment and asks if Australia’s fears are trumping economic opportunities.


  • Ben Bohane reports from Bougainville in the lead-up to its historic referendum on independence.
  • Melissa Conley-Tyler proposes a funding model to revolutionise the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
  • David Kilcullen offers a US perspective on Australia’s defence capabilities.

PLUS Correspondence on AFA6: Our Sphere of Influence by Jonathan Pryke, Wesley Morgan, Sandra Tarte and more


Solving Australia’s foreign affairs challenges


Euan Graham on how to plug Australia’s knowledge gap on China


“Australia must develop the intellectual acumen to see the world through China’s leaders’ eyes, in order to manage the relationship on its own terms.”

The full article is only available to subscribers.

Get full digital access to AFA back issues and three upcoming issues from just $29.99.

Login or subscribe to read.

Foreign Policy with an Australian Accent

Identity politics and Asian engagement

Next Voices

For around two decades now, Australia has been captive to a narrative that emphasises not choosing between our traditional Western allies and rising Asian powers. But there is one choice we can’t avoid: who we want to be in this Asian century. Because for all the focus on our foreign relations, questions about Australia’s “Asianness” cannot be answered without engaging in the debate around Australian identity.

Australia has a long and ignoble history of defining itself against an Asian “other”. Fears of invasion by our northern neighbours, particularly Japan, predated Federation. In fact, Federation was directly informed by the perceived need to pool defence resources and guard the continent against invasion. But with the long-overdue winding up of the White Australia Policy in the 1970s, a space opened for new definitions of our place in an Asian neighbourhood. Numerous projects of Asian engagement followed, from Whitlam to the present day.

With these projects came many questions. What does regional integration look like? How Asian do we want to be? How Asian can we be?

These questions have led to two opposing approaches. In one corner are those who argue that engagement with Asia is important, but Australian identity need not – in fact must not – change because of it. In the other are those who link growing relationships in Asia with a transformation of national selfhood. Each camp borrows from the rhetoric of the other, so that every leader since Howard seems, with varying degrees of emphasis, to proclaim our unique Australianness and our neighbourliness in Asia, and ultimately assert that we don’t have to choose between alliances with Western powers and regional engagement.

But the history of these different approaches shows us the importance of the Australian self-image to any debate about Asian engagement. For Australia, questions of “Asianness” and national identity are inextricable, and the stories we tell about who we are matter for foreign policy.

The new nationalism

How has Australia talked about itself in Asia since the end of the White Australia Policy?

Labor prime ministers Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating all saw Asian engagement as being underpinned by a willingness to wrestle with, and even reshape, national identity. For these three leaders, Asian engagement was one aspect of a larger project of transforming what “Australian identity” meant.

Asian engagement formed part of Whitlam’s project of “new nationalism”. By the 1970s the phrase had been around for some time, but Whitlam gave it a central place in his political vision. In his view, “an authentic Australianism” underpinned all policy, both domestic and foreign. It was internationalist and multicultural, but based on “a secure and distinctive national identity”. Whitlam never outlined clearly what this distinctive national identity looked like, beyond the fact it was modern, progressive and independent of British and American influences. Embracing Asia was to be, for him, part of this updated Australian identity.

In policy terms, this involved putting the nails in the coffin of the White Australia Policy, finishing work that his predecessor, Harold Holt, had begun. Whitlam also intensified engagement with the region, including diplomatically recognising the People’s Republic of China, gaining dialogue partnership with ASEAN and fostering relations with Indonesia. Whitlam’s influence on foreign policy was so great even the conservative Fraser government that followed Whitlam largely maintained this emphasis on Asian engagement. 

Hawke embarked on regional engagement with perhaps less grandiose aims. But while he largely focused on the economic potential of the region, he did not dismiss the relevance of questions about our national identity. It is telling that in a 1987 speech in Singapore, Hawke declared: “I can say with confidence that the era of Australian complacency, of postponing the task of adjustment, is now behind us.” What is remarkable about this claim is that Hawke was talking about economic protectionism. Yet he presented Australia’s economic transition as a question of national character – of “complacency” being replaced by proactive engagement.

Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating, took this linking of Asian engagement and national character further. For him, a productive engagement with Asia went hand-in-hand with issues such as an Australian republic, Indigenous reconciliation and enhancing multiculturalism, to create a more independent, confident and outward-looking Australia. Importantly, Keating believed that government “has a role in shaping and expressing the values of our community”. He was willing to take on this challenge, in relation to Asia as well as more traditionally “domestic” concerns.

It’s important to note that all three governments were wrestling with these questions of national identity in a postcolonial setting. As new South-East Asian and African states emerged through violent convulsions and bloody nationalist movements, Australia too had a colonial history to confront. Hence Keating’s claim that engagement with the region had to come without “the ghost of Empire about us”. He believed that changes such as Indigenous reconciliation and the achievement of an Australian republic, with an Australian head of state, would project Australia’s own postcolonial status abroad. In turn, this would help foster friendly relations with regional states such as Indonesia.

The reception of these government efforts to engage more closely with Asia was mixed, in Australia and abroad. Hawke’s great achievement in foreign affairs was the creation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) – a regional forum for Australia and its Asian neighbours that remains relevant today. Yet in the lead-up to the creation of APEC, figures such as then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad argued for Australia’s exclusion from a proposed alternative organisation, the East Asian Economic Caucus, because Australia was not culturally “Asian”. Within Australia, some sections of the community were not ready to let go of a racially and culturally “white” national identity just because their leaders argued for it. Pauline Hanson, with her vitriol against “Asian migrants”, and John Howard, with his comparatively more restrained focus on Anglo-Australian history and “values”, tapped into this fear.

Nonetheless, the legacy of Whitlam, Hawke and Keating cannot be overstated. Every government from Whitlam onwards, and particularly after Hawke and Keating, has recognised the importance of Asia to Australia’s security and prosperity. Not all leaders have been interested in projects of national reinvention, but all have been influenced by the reinvention that came before them. From Kevin Rudd’s personal fascination with China and emphasis on “Asia literacy” to Malcolm Turnbull’s affirmation that Australia’s regional vision has “ASEAN at [its] heart”, each leader at least pays lip service to Asia’s importance to Australia. Our contemporary foreign policy would have been unthinkable before Whitlam dismantled the idea that Asia was only a region from which Australia had to be defended.

The Howard backlash

Whitlam, Hawke and Keating understood that dramatically changing foreign policy orientation requires careful internal management too – deeper engagement with Asia cannot but impact upon our national self-image. Their legacy has reflected the size of the transformations they sought.

Although the inheritor of this transformation in vision, John Howard espoused an alternative view. He articulated the now-ubiquitous “we don’t have to choose” line, about embracing the economic opportunity posed by growing Asian economies while also maintaining close ties with a still-powerful United States.

The problem really lies with how he extended this idea. Back in 1995, shortly before he became prime minister, Howard claimed that building a lasting and productive relationship with the region involved synthesis between a comfortable acceptance of Australia’s past, a confident assertion of its ongoing values and traditions, and a readiness to understand, accept and embrace new associations. He warned of the danger for Australia in “disavowing its history or disowning its institutions” in the name of regional engagement. 

Under this worldview, regional engagement isn’t a process of integration so much as of “different but nonetheless wholehearted” partnership. Trade, educational exchanges, tourism and Asia literacy can all grow and grow without the fundamentally British heart of Australian identity changing – that is, with our white Anglo-Australian history and values remaining intact.

Ultimately, the belief that Australia need not exclusively align itself with one particular centre of global power was conflated with the idea that we can change how we engage with the Asia-Pacific region with little debate about who we are as a nation. What we are left with is this: Australia emphatically spruiking the values we share with our liberal democratic, Anglophone friends while seeking to engage productively with China and South-East Asia. No choosing, and no changing – or even debating – national identity. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Asia Society Australia about the “vitally important” partnership our nation holds with China, while arguing that “being true to our values and principles” will always be in Australia’s national interest, he demonstrated his acceptance of Howard’s line of reasoning. It is telling that his examples to support his claims included Australia’s defence of the British Empire in the “Great War” and its joining of the US-led coalition in Iraq. 

The issue with this reasoning is that the way a country engages with the rest of the world and the way it sees itself are inextricably linked. National stories shape how we see ourselves and our interests, and in turn, our self-image informs how we project ourselves to the world. That includes Asia. 

From ANZAC to Afghanistan, we like to tell ourselves stories about pitching in and helping Britain or the United States, often in the Middle East. This is the legacy of Howard’s skill in weaving yarns of Australian “heroic achievement” – stories that reinforced the “acceptance of Australia’s past” he valued. The inheritors of his legacy might not be so emphatic on this, but all contemporary Australian foreign policy is touched by some form of the “we don’t have to choose” view he espoused.

But stories should not be stagnant, nor should they work to police an exclusive vision of Australian identity. Many of the forms of economic engagement Australia pursues with Asia, such as education, create people-to-people links. As these links strengthen, often reinforced through growing diaspora communities, different identities mix and shape one another, and eventually the national character itself changes. Our national stories should reflect this.

Australian stories

We can trade with Asian countries, foster tourism and education, interact diplomatically and join regional institutions to our heart’s content. But if schools, the media and politicians repeatedly tell the parts of our history that clash most with our geography, understanding and trust between ourselves and our neighbours must suffer. We also won’t feel very secure in our region.

What we need is a more-inclusive narrative, a broader sense of national history. Perhaps we should be telling, more often, the stories about Whitlam setting off to China to discuss the future, before he was even elected prime minister. Or of Keating looking for the nexus between “mateship” and the communitarianism valued in many Asian nations, instead of jumping straight from “mateship” to “Gallipoli”. Perhaps our leaders could talk about the ways in which Chinese-Australians have been part of our community since before we called ourselves one country.

Ultimately, building deep relationships in our region requires a willingness to foster a national conversation about who we are as Australians. We can only practise “foreign policy that speaks with an Australian accent”, as Opposition leader Bill Shorten termed it, if we know what an Australian accent sounds like.

What Whitlam, Hawke and Keating knew is that deep, lasting foreign policy change is also about national selfhood. Howard, in his own way, understood this too, though he was loath to support a transformation of Australian identity. 

Of course, leaders don’t stand for policy in a vacuum. Change is always a process of push–pull: Howard tapped into a vein of uneasiness about the transformations Keating and his predecessors sought. We are a democratic nation, and part of the debate about Australian identity is about what our population wants. How Asian do we want to be?

Australia in the next decade probably won’t end up looking like Whitlam’s, Hawke’s or Keating’s ideal, if they had imagined the nation into the 2020s. Progress is messy, and rarely adheres to any singular vision. And expanding the repertoire of national stories beyond those we know so well takes time. But Australia must engage with our region in the awareness that questions of foreign policy are also questions about who we are, and who we might become, if only we are open to it.


Isabella Ostini is an undergraduate student at the Australian National University with an interest in the places where storytelling and policymaking meet. Read our interview with Isabella here.

Can Australia fight alone? Image Credit: Sgt. Sarah Anderson

Can Australia fight alone?

The cost of the military’s US dependency


Over the next decade, Australia is preparing to invest almost A$200 billion in defence capability. This includes plans for new warships, submarines and fighter jets, as well as long-range rockets, drones and various armoured vehicles for the army. The outlay is substantial, and will add to the country’s military edge and see it among the world’s top fifteen defence spenders. But there is one thing this outlay will not achieve: a self-reliant military.

Despite an increasingly uncertain strategic environment, with challenges ranging from the North Korean missile crisis to tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea, Australia’s growing military spending won’t give us an ability to defend ourselves independently. We will continue to rely on larger and more powerful friends to supply us with military technology and help out with logistics, and, in the case of a conflict with a major power, to come to our direct assistance. In addition, though it’s not often explicitly discussed, we will continue to shelter under the US nuclear umbrella.

The full article is only available to subscribers.

Get full digital access to AFA back issues and three upcoming issues from just $29.99.

Login or subscribe to read.

Indonesia Calling

Reimagining the relationship between Australia and its largest neighbour

Next Voices

Days after returning to Melbourne from Jakarta, my flashcard app’s collection of Indonesian words seem to have curdled: the ks in place of cs are suddenly jarring; previously neutral-sounding syllables – kan, meng, ter – look inexplicably alien. A modest daily goal, 500 flashcards, once a pleasant exercise before breakfast, becomes a chore. Learning a language requires motivation, but something about my surroundings drains my commitment to Bahasa Indonesia: in Australia, I cannot convince myself of the exercise’s worth.

From Australia, Indonesia looks ugly. Images of it in the media show grubbiness, seediness, smog, chaos; it is not a rapidly transforming and endlessly diverse country, but small, stolid, uniformly nasty. Australian writer and translator Max Lane implored in 1983 for Indonesia to be “[made] alive to Australians”. Thirty-six years later, this hasn’t happened. More than any individual policy failure, the basic inability to see the archipelago in all its complexity remains the most significant obstacle to Australia’s relationship with Asia.

In a morning newspaper, the word “Indonesia” appears above a photograph of a wispy-bearded terrorist. Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, is the best-known Indonesian in Australia. On the evening television news an Australian minister chats, in unselfconscious English, with Joko Widodo. “Jokowi”, as he is known, whose English is imperfect, grins uneasily and gives brief, bland replies. Indonesia’s seventh president, and his troubled implementation of a sprawling reform agenda, fade from view; the voice-over reduces him to a man who wants an Australian university campus in his country.

I open a map of Indonesia, to remind myself of cities, regions and islands that in the Australian consciousness barely exist. In Australia, cosmopolitan port city Surabaya – the cocky, slangy speech of its youth, its reformist female mayor, its hundreds of public parks – shrinks to an image of a bombed church. Sulawesi, parts of which are seeing 15 per cent economic growth, becomes muddy rubble. Sumatra and Borneo appear as conflict zones over palm oil and orangutans – leaving aside the struggles of Indonesian environmentalists and local communities whose older, typically more sustainable ways of using the land are also threatened by corporate agrobusiness. Jakarta, dubbed “The Big Durian” to identify it, with reason, as the New York of South-East Asia, shrivels into a dystopia of slums, bad air and anti-Israel rallies.

A partial fix: I log into Twitter. Here, Indonesian activists and agitators gleefully mock conservative militants and mediocre politicians, demonstrating how many in the nation are thinking bigger things, dreaming bigger dreams, than Indonesian party politics suggests. To a politician’s hypocritical condemnation of corruption, someone writes, “Wow, super-late.” Commenting on a male preacher’s misogyny, a woman says: “Why doesn’t he discuss men?” One Twitter user aspires to “make Indonesia suck less” – demonstrating that Indonesia doesn’t suck at all, only its political class.

Another partial fix: I go to YouTube. Two preachers appear on a popular Indonesian television show, employing Islamic thought to counsel tolerance, humility, wisdom – and the joys of music. Jokowi makes deadpan jokes before a jostling press pack, then addresses a rowdy ballroom of supporters, mocking the conspiracy theories spread by some of the groups opposing him. “Balita PKI … Lucu banget kan,” he says. Toddler communist … what a joke, right? The crowd roars approval. A sense of the passions that drive Indonesian politics, and the stakes, filters through. Bahasa Indonesia comes alive again.

When I’m back in Jakarta, Indonesia’s complexity, and attractiveness, hit as powerfully as the heat. Young men sit at the counters in diner-style eateries with tea, spicy meat and rice. Female professionals call taxis by app beneath giant tropical trees. A congregation streams from a mosque at night like a white-uniformed football crowd. Newcomers arrive continuously from across the archipelago, seeking their fortune, new networks and communities, freedom from rural hierarchies and roles. Jakarta is a melting pot, a hybrid society. “I’m half-Sumatran and half-Javanese,” someone says in a twenty-four-hour café. “My father’s Muslim, my mother Chinese,” I hear in a rendang restaurant.

Posters of xenophobic Islamic militia leader Rizieq Shihab are plastered to highway overpass supports: rising intolerance is coming less from traditionalism than from rapid change. But that intolerance is being resisted. At the annual conference held by Islamic organisation Muhammadiyah, the ulama discuss ways to foster civility. Graffiti artists paint, in public places in the city, murals of different cultures coming together. Foreigners are here, as they have been for centuries, though as visible as Westerners are arrivals from the Global South: African textile merchants, Bollywood producers recruited to Jakarta’s film industry. Here, Bahasa Indonesia is the epitome of cool. “Rapi, dong,” says a late-night television host, calling attention to the awesomeness of his new suit, and winks. 

While I am in Jakarta, a presidential debate is televised. Curious about my nation’s coverage of it, I check Australian news websites. The focus is on an explosion heard outside the venue. It was fireworks: nobody was injured, the debate was uninterrupted. But it has become the story. This, in Australian eyes, is Indonesia.


Economic growth is shifting from North-East to South-East and South Asia – from ageing China to still-young ASEAN and India. But the pattern of growth is different. In Indonesia and India, largest of the new “rising” nations, there is no mass industrialisation, fewer good-quality jobs, more unemployment and underemployment. Lacking China’s iron political control, these countries’ reform efforts are more ponderous, habits of protectionism and other state intervention in economies more entrenched – while projected to keep growing steadily, their economic growth is unlikely to reach the 10 per cent China achieved at the height of its rise. They also have surfeits of nationalistic pride, histories of thumbing their noses at Western powers.

China’s forty-year industrialisation has overwhelmingly shaped Australian attitudes and approaches to Asia. It’s been an economic bonanza. But China between Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, “open” to globalisation, prudently “hiding its claws” in foreign relations, and craving iron ore, could constitute Asia’s low-hanging fruit. While Indonesia and India both contain economic opportunities, vastly increased trade with Australia in the near term is unlikely.

Australia might usefully respond to the prospective Indonesian- and Indian-led phase of Asia’s rise by moving beyond the narrow transactionalism that has dominated its Asian responses – so pervasive that Australian schoolchildren want to learn Mandarin but not Indonesian because they associate Mandarin with financial gain. Australia might prioritise fostering a wide curiosity about, knowledge of and engagement with South-East and South Asia: to think of these nations as more than “markets”. Deeper economic relations will depend on cultural knowledge. More importantly, South-East and South Asia have things to offer beyond export flows. If Australia shifts from seeing in Indonesia only jihadism to seeing only a land of middle-class supermarkets selling milk and meat, that too will be a reductive vision.

Governments set the tone for society, and the Australian government’s narratives about Asia have for twenty years been colourless. Speaking about Indonesia, Australian politicians awkwardly mix utilitarianism and sentimentalism, mentioning a limited set of issues – sea lanes, transnational crime, border security – listing trade volumes with near-Trumpian mercantilism and sprinkling in “good neighbour” sops. There’s little reference to how the energies of South-East Asia’s youth are remaking the region, and the broader ways engagement could enrich – little resembling Barack Obama’s description of South-East Asia as “filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people” and plea that “if we [aren’t] here, interacting and learning … [w]e’ll miss an opportunity”.

To secure public support for continued ties with Indonesia, Australian politicians have taken a damaging shortcut. They praise Indonesia as “a democracy” and a purveyor of “tolerant”, “moderate” Islam. Julie Bishop was representative of this trend in 2018 when she said that Indonesian democracy had since 1998 “gone from strength to strength”, and that “Indonesia sets an example for the region, indeed globally [for] its inclusive, multicultural and multi-faith society”. This type of characterisation, given without elaboration, is disingenuous, and breeds cynicism – for Australians know, if only in broad strokes, what this narrative omits: that Indonesia’s democracy is highly flawed, and that it has a severe religious tolerance crisis. Because politicians’ fantastical, simplified version of Indonesia strikes Australians as implausible, pleas for “friendship”, too, land leaden.

Australia has not always imagined Indonesia so reductively. The 1946 documentary Indonesia Calling – shot by Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens on the streets of Sydney, featuring Indonesian exiles and Australian unionists cooperating to support the Indonesian National Revolution against Dutch colonialism – is to modern eyes startling. White, working-class, middle-aged Sydney men cheer the revolutionary speeches of young Indonesians. They work with these men to halt Dutch ships bound for Indonesia. 

If there’s no talk of narrow utility, neither is there laboured sentimentalism. It is complementary visions for the future that bring the Indonesians and Australians together. The Indonesians, the voice-over explains, speak “a language workers in every country understand”: frustration with an inequitable status quo, aspirations for something better. In the 1940s, amid disorder, economic depression, subjugation and war, the idea of cooperating across borders to challenge injustices – on the belief that specific inequities were components of a universal struggle, which would be pursued more powerfully together – was widespread. Indonesia Calling was popular when it screened in Sydney initially, and then in other Australian cities, and ultimately in the new Indonesian Republican capital of Yogyakarta, to which it was smuggled.

Ben Chifley’s cabinet watched Indonesia Calling, and resisted conservative demands to ban the film. The Chifley government subsequently moved to support Indonesia’s revolutionary aspirations. The late 1940s, and the postwar reordering of international affairs that took place, was a singular period in history. Yet Gough Whitlam offered a similar vision of Australia’s engagement with Asia thirty years later when he told South-East Asia that “your hopes, your problems, your future are necessarily and forever part of our own future”. 


Australia must see Indonesia more clearly, above all as an endlessly complex country, neither exemplary nor malign, but possessed of demons and better angels, and wrestling both during a time of transformation. Indonesia contains many people within and beyond government who are working to create a better, more just society. That includes not only the socially and politically “progressive”, by Western standards, but also many among conservative, pious sections of Indonesian society – among traditional Islamic schools, within memberships of Muslim organisations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama. Others are being seduced by nastier, reactionary visions. There’s nothing extraordinary in Indonesia’s complex moral landscape, as demonstrated by Australia’s own struggles with intolerance and human-rights violations.

But Australia also needs a new narrative of Australian–Indonesian relations, a new story about the purpose of engagement between our two nations. Reimagining what Australia and Indonesia – as well as the other ASEAN nations and South Asia – can potentially do together is a vital prerequisite to shifting Australian foreign relations from China-centrism and transactionalism. 

Australia and Indonesia both face rapidly expanding cities and depopulated rural areas; rising inequality; uneven access to opportunity depending on region, class, age and race; and environmental catastrophes. Nations often respond to such challenges not with international engagement but with its opposite: stereotyping other countries and peoples, or simply walling them off. Brexit, Trump’s wall, US–China trade wars and tension between parts of the Western and Muslim worlds all confirm the temptations of such conceptions of world affairs.

But those Indonesians and Australians of the 1940s show the wiser course. Individuals, organisations and governments who seek to make the world better can reach across national boundaries in ways that are mutually strengthening – ways that provide inspiration or knowledge, new approaches and actions, or new sources of assistance.

Within Indonesia is a universal desire for development and prosperity. Its citizens, particularly its youth, seek education and jobs. Such aspirations clearly mesh with Australia’s economic needs – together with trade and increased investment, Australians might enter more business co-ventures in the archipelago, especially in food production.

Significant numbers of Indonesians, meanwhile, seek things beyond gross domestic product: human rights, environmental protection, an end to xenophobia. Australia might simultaneously develop links with as many of those citizens as possible through boosted engagement with Indonesian civil society.

Australian government attention and resources might focus more on Indonesian NGOs working to bring about a better democracy, a healthier environment and increased rights for minorities. There has, especially in the last decade, been an emphasis on government-to-government ties at the expense of partnership with these actors. Beyond government, Australian and Indonesian civil society activists might come together more often, through workshops, fellowships and other exchanges, and in coordinated campaigns. The natural environment – destruction of our countries’ rainforests, pollution and bleaching of our oceans and reefs, and climate change – particularly suggests itself as an issue on which Australian and Indonesian civil society might work together. Cooperation can strengthen those in both countries who seek progressive change, the better angels of both our national natures. 

Religious engagement could stimulate Australians and Indonesians trying to build more tolerant, genuinely multicultural societies. Last decade, the Australian government decided to channel, via AusAID, large-scale assistance to Indonesian pesantrens, a means to improve the quality of religious-based education – $A167 million flowed between 2002 and the mid-2010s, according to Australian National University associate professor Greg Fealy. That might restart. But it is not simply a question of money; intellectual exchange is also crucial. While Indonesian and Australian Muslims could meet in greater numbers, connections might be encouraged across as well as within religious lines. Pesantren students and the ulama could teach Australians much about the Islamic faith in all its diversity, reducing Australian Islamophobia.

Vital to a reimagined relationship will be for Australian cities to be more open to young Indonesians – and Indonesian cities to Australians. This would mean streamlining cumbersome entry requirements for Indonesians visiting Australia. It would also mean policy change to facilitate more Indonesians migrating to Australia as workers, as Sam Roggeveen argued in a recent issue of Australian Foreign Affairs. There is no political will, it will be said. Yet the cultural melting pots of big cities are where people meet and collaborations occur. If Australians and Indonesians – and Indians – are to come together more, large cities will be the setting.

In Indonesia Calling, Indonesians – “fellow townsmen” – ride trams, buy newspapers, hold concerts in Martin Place, walk with Australian and Indian seamen across the Harbour Bridge. In 1940s Sydney, proximity enabled people to perceive common ideas and aspirations – that “their struggle is our struggle”, as an Indian sailor says on the docks. Proximity also facilitated that vital precondition of engagement: substantive knowledge of the other. “Here in Australia,” the film’s voice-over declares with confidence, “we know the Indonesians well.” Seventy years on, a different generation of Australians would be wise to attempt the same.


David Fettling is a writer whose work focuses on South-East Asia, and deals with the ways people of different cultures and countries meet. Read our interview with David here.

 Can Australia be one of us? Image Credit: Philippe Teuwen / Wikimedia Commons

Can Australia be one of us?

The view from Asia


In October 2010, the eighth Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit in Brussels was a significant moment in the longstanding debate over Australia’s place in Asia. When it was formed in 1996, this cross-continental grouping required a clear delineation of Asian and European countries. The latter were relatively straightforward to pinpoint: members of the European Union. Identifying Asian countries was more complicated. The then seven member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with China, Japan and South Korea, were, naturally, considered Asian. But framing Australia and New Zealand as Asian was more contentious. Their attempts to join ASEM when it was first established failed following Malaysia’s opposition over doubts about their Asian identity. In 2010, however, Australia and New Zealand were formally admitted.

Identity is a tricky thing. It is fluid, often contested and notoriously difficult to pin down. In this part of the world, the notion of regional identity is particularly challenging because competing classifications – “Asia”, “East Asia”, “Asia-Pacific”, “Indo-Pacific” – offer different interpretations. But perception is important in international affairs: it drives states’ behaviour. Whether Australia is viewed as Asian or non-Asian by its neighbours affects, in part, how Asian countries approach it and their responses to its foreign policy initiatives.

The full article is only available to subscribers.

Get full digital access to AFA back issues and three upcoming issues from just $29.99.

Login or subscribe to read.

The changing face of Australia Image Credit: Bmra73 / Wikimedia Commons

The changing face of Australia

Completing the shift to a Eurasian nation


One of the intriguing chores of newspaper journalism involves finding a case study to accompany a broader story about who we are as a nation. The family or individual selected to illustrate the piece carries a heavy burden: to embody a social trend.

When the 2011 census revealed that our national identity was evolving from Anglo-European to Eurasian, I had little trouble convincing my editors at the Australian to illustrate that shift with a Chinese family. I thought – wrongly – that it didn’t really matter when our avatars migrated to Australia. The key point to my mind was that they lived in Sydney, where the data showed the Chinese-born were poised to replace the English-born as the city’s largest migrant community. Nationally, Mandarin had already overtaken Italian as the second-most common language spoken after English. Our front page scoop, published in 2012, featured a Chinese Australian family from Epping, in Sydney’s north-west. It was a gorgeous image: the Chinese parents and their Australian-born children getting ready for their day. The two girls, in their private-school uniforms, were finishing breakfast as Mum and Dad shared a joke with them. This family’s journey from China to Australia’s cosmopolitan heartland seemed to reaffirm the essential virtue of our migration program. “The Sydney couple moved from China to Australia in 1990 with little money to start with, and for the next four years both worked up to 90 hours a week in various jobs until they had saved enough to buy their own business,” the article read. “More than two decades later, the couple run a successful chain of health food stores across the city, and employ 23 Australian workers.”

The full article is only available to subscribers.

Get full digital access to AFA back issues and three upcoming issues from just $29.99.

Login or subscribe to read.

 Spies, China and megabytes Image Credit: Jason Tong / Wikimedia Commons

Spies, China and megabytes

Inside the overhaul of Australia’s intelligence agencies


Intelligence is of the greatest value where it informs decisions – from the strategic choices facing ministers in government to the tactics employed by operational commanders in war. It is this value that justifies the considerable expenditure on intelligence, and its covert activities … Forthright, high-quality and objective intelligence can challenge the foundations of existing policy.

Philip Flood, Report of the Inquiry into
Australian Intelligence Agencies, July 2004

The full article is only available to subscribers.

Get full digital access to AFA back issues and three upcoming issues from just $29.99.

Login or subscribe to read.

Response to Tim Lindsey’s “Retreat from Democracy” Image Credit: Pixabay

Response to Tim Lindsey’s “Retreat from Democracy”


Tim Lindsey’s excellent essay lays out clearly just how much the political climate in Indonesia has changed over the past decade. The optimism about extending democratic reform is gone, as is the hope that systemic corruption might be wound back, and there is an increasingly conservative mood as religious chauvinism is fanned by Islamist hardliners.

Such changes are a cause for genuine concern. But the picture is not all bleak. Perspective and expectations make a difference. Compared to Indonesia’s recent past, the picture is depressing. But compared to the experiences of other young democracies, it is less so.

The full article is only available to subscribers.

Get full digital access to AFA back issues and three upcoming issues from just $29.99.

Login or subscribe to read.