Smith’s Euphemism and the Need to Focus on South East Asia

ImageNOTES ON THE NEWS: When a Cabinet Minister resorts to euphemisms to disguise reality, you know something is going badly wrong.  Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s use of the expression “advanced aerial aviation” in order to avoid having to utter the word ‘drones’ is a case in point. (And since when has aviation not been aerial?)

This came up before and after the defence talks in Perth between United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Pannetta with our Foreign and Defence Ministers.  There were talks about comprehensive defence arrangements between the US and Australia, but the prospect of leasing the Cocos Islands as a base for American drones was, according to Smith, not on the agenda. The subject of “advanced aerial aviation”, he told the ABC, “is down the track”.

That, of course, does not mean it was not discussed in private.

In the aftermath of this meeting all parties went out of their way not to upset the Chinese as the Communist Party passed the leadership baton from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping.

Secretary Clinton stroked Australian egos by suggesting the relationship between Australia and the US could also “help foster strong healthy relationships with China… the entire region will benefit from the peaceful rise of China”.

Foreign minister Bob Carr had his own message for Beijing, pointing out that the communiqués after the talks (which told us precious little) contained “no language of containment”.

In Beijing, the China transition was also calm, characterized by Xi Jinping stressing continuity and stability, promising “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

And if we perceive those characteristics as large-scale corruption and vast income inequality, Xi listed them as among the many problems that would have to be resolved, and appeared determined to do so.

In his speech introducing his all-male, slimmed-down Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s new leader seemed both collected and determined – the same qualities we have seen from President Barack Obama, whose decision to visit South East Asia this coming week is especially welcome.

There are many Asia observers, including this one, who fervently hope that the re-election of Obama, and the elevation of Xi, coupled with sensible leaders in South East Asia, will lead to the advance of prosperity in the Asian region. There are elections pending in South Korea and Japan, and the outcomes of these will also have a bearing on the next decade.

But there are some who believe, like Kevin Rudd, that Australia can play a significant role in all this, and the former foreign minister’s speeches on this subject deserve more attention than they have been given, either in our parochially-minded media or in political circles and think-tanks. Compare, for instance, the lack of attention paid to Rudd’s tracts with the excessive attention to Professor Hugh White’s thesis on Australia being caught between its security relationship with the United States and its economic relationship with China.

And then there are those, like former prime minister Paul Keating, who believe the Rudd and Gillard governments eroded Australia’s influence in Asia by acquiescence with United States’ policies. Australia, he argued in the Keith Murdoch Oration, should be developing its own foreign policy, with its principle emphasis on South East Asia, especially Indonesia.

This speech was misreported by many elements of the media as being anti-American. It was not. Keating stressed the importance of a good US relationship.

Paul Keating discussed his speech Asia in the New order on ABC TV’s Lateline. “We should not be taken for bunnies” he said.  “Our policy should not be suiting China… our natural stamping ground in South East Asia, the effort we should be making is with the Association of South East Asian Nations”.

I urge readers who have not already done so to listen to the 20-minute interview Keating gave the ABC’s Tony Jones.  It has a strong historical perspective, and shows up the inadequate reporting of other media outlets, including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and the ABC’s own 7pm News.

What lessons can we draw from the past week?  The first is that we need a proper open debate on the forthcoming Australian white paper on defence, like we had on Australia in the Asian Century.  Defence Minister Smith needs to come clean on what the government sees as the US military relationship, down the track, and on what resources are needed. At present the debate is mostly confined to private discussions with a few selected think-tanks, and with officials.  There needs to be a debate in Parliament.

Secondly, as Keating suggested, there needs to be a greater focus on ASEAN. There is the key ASEAN meeting this week, which President Obama will attend. We need better media coverage than the usual sound bites from the prime minister and foreign minister, designed for domestic consumption.

Thirdly, we should endorse the proposed 50-year lease of land in the Ord River in the Kimberleys to a Chinese company. For so long the Ord project has limped along as a potential white elephant, because Pitt Street and Collins Street have been slow to recognise the potential of  investing in Australia’s north, and because the only people who seem to want to go there are overseas backpackers.  It is good that the Chinese want to take the project on, and to build a sugar refinery, no matter what Barnaby Joyce may say.

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