Australia: Background and U.S. Relations

[ excerpts see for full version and notes. JMM/ETAN]

Order Code RL33010

Australia: Background and U.S. Relations

Updated August 8, 2007

Bruce Vaughn
Specialist in Asian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade

Asian Engagement

Under the previous Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, Australia had been pursuing a policy of engagement, or enmeshment, with Asia. This initiative was not fully supported by the Australian public or regional states, such as Malaysia, which have had a difficult time accepting Australia as an Asian nation. Indonesia and Malaysia reportedly rejected Australia’s bid for membership in ASEAN.50 Despite some diplomatic differences, Australia continues to have extensive trade and security linkages with regional states.

Although Australia has increasingly recognized the need for close relations with Asia, it has tried not to emphasize these ties at the expense of its Western roots and democratic values. The Howard government, like previous Australian governments, has also sought to keep the United States closely involved in East Asia and the Pacific. Some Asian countries have welcomed the strengthened U.S.-Australian defense relationship, but others, notably China, have been critical. Beijing strategists are thought by some to be concerned that recent strengthening of the U.S. alliances with Australia and Japan may be aimed at “containing” China and preventing its rising power and influence. Some have argued that greater Australian support of the United States may undermine Australia’s efforts to engage Asia at a deeper level.51

Australia and Indonesia. Australia and Indonesia have experienced difficulty in their bilateral relationship for a number of reasons, including, most notably, tensions over temporary asylum granted by Australia to a number of West Papuans.52 Indonesian fears over Australia’s role in West Papua can be better understood in context of the recent independence of East Timor, which was formerly an Indonesian province. Australia, under the United Nations, played a key role in assisting East Timor in its path to becoming an independent nation. An April 2006 poll in Australia found 75% of Australians favoring self-determination for West Papua.53

Relations suffered as the result of a high profile criminal case in Indonesia and Australian plans for a maritime identification zone. A 27-year-old Australian, Schapelle Corby, was sentenced in Indonesia to 20 years in jail for smuggling marijuana into Bali. The Australian public generally did not believe she was guilty of the crime and became critical of the harsh sentence given to her. The Indonesian Embassy was closed for two days after a package with white powder that was thought to be anthrax was sent to the Indonesian Ambassador in Canberra.54 It is thought that antagonism towards Indonesia emanating from the Corby case motivated the sender of the package. Indonesia has opposed Australian plans for establishing a 1,000 mile maritime identification zone to combat terrorism.55

The deterioration of the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia has occurred despite cooperation in a number of areas. In December 2004, Australia pledged AD$20 million to Indonesia for counterterror assistance over the next five years.56 Australia’s generous tsunami assistance, a pledged AD$1 billion, did much to further improve relations between Australia and Indonesia, which had been recovering since Australia’s involvement in East Timor in 1999. The East Timor intervention was largely viewed negatively in Indonesia and led to the end of the Agreement on Mutual Security between Canberra and Jakarta.57 Australia and Indonesia resumed joint military exercises with an air force exercise held in April 2005. In April 2005, Indonesian President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Howard signed an agreement to create a new security pact between their two states. The agreement also provided a guarantee that Australia would not support secession in Aceh or WestPapua.58

Regional Involvements

East Timor. Australia’s commitment to regional security and humanitarian
concerns in the Asia-Pacific region was demonstrated by its involvement in East Timor. The former Portuguese colony was occupied by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999. In 1998, diplomatic intervention by Prime Minister Howard prompted the dialogue between Indonesian officials and East Timorese nationalists that resulted in an agreement to hold U.N.-supervised elections in 1999. On August 30, 1999, nearly 80% of East Timor’s electorate voted to separate from Indonesia. Following the announcement of the result, anti-independence militias launched a campaign of violence. On September 15, 1999, the U.N. Security Council authorized the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) to restore peace and security and protect and support the U.N. mission personnel in East Timor. INTERFET operated under a unified command structure headed initially by Australia. East Timor became independent in 2002.82 Australia and East Timor have reached an agreement for the exploitation of energy resources beneath the Timor Sea. It has been estimated that East Timor will receive up to $15 billion in revenue over the next 40 years in oil and gas royalties.83 In 2004 and 2005 there had been a level of Congressional concern over Australia’s position on negotiating its maritime boundary with East Timor and arrangements for joint exploitation of energy resources in the Timor Sea. Australia and East Timor have agreed to postpone final demarcation of their maritime boundary. (For further discussion see CRS Report RS22136, East Timor: Potential Issues for Congress, by Rhoda Margesson and Bruce Vaughn).

Solomon Islands. Australia’s Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon
Islands demonstrates Australia’s resolve to reassert its influence and promote stability in the South Pacific. Australia headed a multinational force to restore order in the Solomons in 2003. In April 2006 it once again sent a quick reaction force to the Solomons to quell rioting and violence following the election of Prime Minister SnyderRini.84 These interventions, when taken in the context of Australia’s involvement in East Timor and ongoing efforts to promote peace and good governance in Papua New Guinea, demonstrate Australia’s commitment to promote stability in the region in order to prevent countries from slipping into anarchy. Australia has also proposed that the smaller of the South Pacific micro-states pool their resources for their common good.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s