By: Ross B Taylor AM
Subject to any extraordinary challenge, Joe Biden will be the next president of the USA, so what will that mean for the Indo Pacific region, including Australia?
A Biden administration will almost certainly bring a more stable and reliable diplomatic environment to the Indo Pacific, much to the relief of many governments and also Australia. He is also likely to maintain pressure on China although seeking opportunities to create a more consistent US-China bi-lateral relationship, including improved trade opportunities.
But Donald Trump has left behind a divided and angry nation with Covid-19 now overwhelming many states and communities. There is also widespread ‘foreign fatigue’ amongst everyday people, having endured, and now questioning, wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. With massive debt and a probable declining defence budget, the expansion of US activities and commitments in our region may prove – in the medium term at least – difficult, leaving Australia to increase further its relationships and leadership with key partners in our region, particularly in south-east Asia, as China continues to expand its influence.
Politically, both Indonesia and Australia – as very different societies – do currently share one significant issue of how best to handle the relationship with China. Both nations have a huge dependence on Chinese trade and investment, yet both Jakarta and Canberra also have a shared concern about China’s role in our region. Where we have differed however, is in the handling of this issue. Whilst Australia’s relationship with China has soured dramatically over recent months, Jakarta maintains relatively cordial relations with Beijing, despite the ever-present anti-ethnic Chinese sentiment domestically, their strong stance over the sovereignty of the Natuna Islands, and also the then Maritime Minister Ibu Susi Pudjiastuti, who spent much of her time blowing-up hundreds of Chinese fishing boats caught poaching in Indonesia waters.
Australia has just provided Indonesia with a much-needed $1.37 billion standby loan as their economy is ravished by the impact of Covid-19. But we must move more decisively to expand and build upon our major trade opportunities starting with the recently signed IA CEPA trade agreement that has also been impacted significantly by Covid-19. Both Australia and Indonesia must also join with other regional nations to develop a stable balance-of-power in the region, by encouraging a more visionary and stronger US presence in the Indo Pacific region under the Biden presidency.
Meanwhile, China continues to be very irritated with Australia over numerous issues, led by our very public – and questionable – call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. China is right to feel offended over Australia’s crass handling of this issue, but it was also a self-serving opportunity for Beijing as it has allowed them to send a clear message to other nations in our region, many who are currently dealing with their own issues with China. The old Chinese idiom comes to mind: ‘Sometimes you must kill the chicken to scare the monkeys.’ The only problem for Australia is that our greatest ally may, in the short to medium term, be pre-occupied with its own and significant internal problems, leaving Australia to reflect on this idiom, that it is the chicken that always ends-up in a very uncomfortable place.