Thursday, January 06, 2005

China, Australia and the Indonesian Power Play

As the tsunami disaster continues to unfold, the opening acts of another drama are also beginning... Australia and China are beginning an epochal conflict. China's plans to dominate Pacific Asia are at stake. But for Australia, the stakes are national survival, with a cohesive Indonesia--an Islamic nation of 270 million controlling the Straights of Malacca--as the critical bulwark against Chinese expansion...

Indonesia is a fiction of Dutch colonial cartography, a huge archipelago separating the political spheres of China and Australia and the West: a hodgepodge of hundreds of ethnic and tribal groups, separated by a divisive geography of 16,000 islands cobbled together for one purpose: control. In the post-colonial aftermath of World War II, the US set up a the modern nation, and ensured the nation's cohesiveness by backing a series of powerful military dictators.

Now, in the wake of a devastating tsunami, Indonesia's cohesion will be stretched to the breaking point--it is already home to multiple, separate independence movements and insurgencies. A strong, unified Indonesia stands as a safeguard against Chinese advance, with the potential to cut off China's access to Gulf Oil. A fractured, collapsed Indonesia provides the ideal opportunity for a new wave of Chinese expansion--the opportunity to play one enclave off against another, just as the British did in India a hundred years ago. The stage is set, and the ability of Indonesia to recover from this tragedy could tilt the tables of Geopolitics in favor of either China or Australia. So what do the "charitable" reactions of the two nations tell us?

Australia has pledged $1billion Australian Dollars (~$750 Million USD) -- by far the largest contribution in the world, and even more dramatic when compared to the relatively small population and economy of Australia. Australian military forces comprise the largest part of the international presence. In fact, the Australian Minister of Defense commented this morning on BBC that Australia views stability and peacekeeping operations in Oceania to be a top national priority. No surprise in light of their concern over Chinese expansion.

Similarly, Japan has much to gain by containing Chinese influence -- and they have pledged $500 million.

What is China doing? They recently upped their aid pledge to $35 million, but only in order to match the pledge from Taiwan. It just wouldn't do to have a renegade province show up the world's most populous nation in this contest of international charity. It is yet to be seen exactly how China will attempt to influence the recovery. This struggle is just beginning, but I will be watching closely--it is an opportunity to observe the turning gears of geopolitics in real time.


PSoTD said...

Interesting reading. I had similar thoughts when I saw how much Australia had pledged. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Indonesia was during Suharto, the 'Primus inter pares' of Southeast Asia. It had a robust economic growth and stability. But it went to a phase where it was feared to be hovering as a 'failed state.'

When Indonesia, as an imagined community and the Idea of Indonesian nationality, becomes dysfunctional; there could be all sorts of worst case scenarios for the Balkanization of Southeast Asia. Luckily, Indonesian unitary nationalistic ideas prevailed.

China's growth and its subsequent wooing of Southeast Asia must court Indonesia to gain a firm grip over the East Asian Powerplay
It is afterall a pragmatic bulwark against Chinese domination over the region.

Indonesia's foreign policy has always been consistent in its neutrality and a hint of ambtion towards projecting influence for third world leadership that is neutral, tolerant, nationalistic, while representing the world's largest Muslim population. This ambition can be achieved if it consolidates to the pre-crisis 'primus inter pares' status.

Resistance and affection to nationalist and or anti-imperialistic ideals has made it enjoy an identity that is rather unbending to dominant powers, while subtly being non-confrontational.

These cards are played to thwart China's influence or the US-Japan-Australian pacific alliance for that matter.

At another note, I would like to reject the notion that the Indonesian nationhood is a US construct.

Although Indonesia's independence is supported at the international level by the US and Australia, its armed struggle against the Dutch also showed its determination to become independent from the Dutch.