The Indonesia spy scandal and the future for Australia

Indonesia  for article_1_1Professor White of the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre is right in his article in The Age, on 26 November, 2013: ‘Abbott playing with diplomatic fire in Asia.’  The level of incompetence shown by the Abbott government in dealing with the Indonesian government is staggering, and it will have repercussions.  The repercussions to which I allude, will incrementally be enforced as China rises and in turn, as Indonesia becomes more militarily robust.  The objective of the Abbott government should be one of instilling stability into the region and this is not encouraged by platitudes in the parliament about who are Australia’s ‘valuable friends.’  A fundamental reason why this issue is still a vibrant one, is due to the Coalition when it was in opposition, telling the Indonesian government how it will have to regulate and/or deal with any regional problems: such as people smuggling.

To be sure, the platitudes about how borders will be ‘protected’ was to placate the domestic population of Australia and make sure Abbott was seen to be a focussed and forthright spokesman; and this would have the knock-on of reinforcing Australia’s dominance in the region.  There is no doubt that the current prime minister was hoping for the success the former prime minister John Howard had in 2001 with his message of “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” and of hoping for the same reverberation in the populace.

The grandstanding of Australia in the current circumstances however, is fundamentally and decisively flawed, as it does not recognize things are different now; and this is a most worrying aspect of the ongoing issues (and frictions) with Indonesia. Times have changed.  For the Australian population to assume that Indonesia will not, and has not, gained confidence from the rise of China—a geographically close neighbour to Indonesia—and that it will always wish to solve problems that Australia has with it, is naïve in the extreme. Indonesia has grown as a nation-state since 2001.  Moreover, for Australia to not understand this is now downright dangerous, and will be problematic in the future.  First and foremost, Indonesia is not the country it was when the (then) Prime Minister John Howard made his forthright statement.  Indonesia is now a much more politically robust nation-state, one that is keen to establish its place in the twenty-first century; and the Asia-Pacific region.  More to the point, when China begins to move into the western Pacific in a more deliberate manner, or in simpler terms, when the People’s Liberation Army Navy is able to establish an ongoing military presence in the western Pacific, its presence will change all the current parameters.

The primary issue-at-hand is, Australia should not ignore this situation.  Moreover, this is what a nation-state does when it has a burgeoning middle-class that wishes to reinvigorate their ‘place’ in the world, and it happens on many levels: political, diplomatic, strategic, and financial, to name only several key areas.  Indonesia is no different than Australia was in the 1960s.  As the middle-class of Indonesia become more and more astute and politically aware an outcome—and hence, a repercussion—for Australia will be that as Indonesia gains a ‘momentum’ there will be less reason for it to rely on Australia for imports and therefore, Australia’s industries will be impacted upon in a negative way.   One should not assume that Indonesia’s allegiance to Australia is anything beyond opportunistic—just as all countries spy, all countries are opportunistic—and it should be admitted at this point that  Australia has done little to actively promote a deeper mutual relationship with its Asia-Pacific neighbours and a belief in this is in fact, a fantasy.

In the future a peripheral of the rise of China is, Indonesia will begin to look at its Asian neighbours with a renewed interest in terms of who will benefit Indonesia most; and the notion of mutuality will also come to the fore.  Unfortunately, Australia is not enabling this process to be undertaken in the seamless way it could, and this lack of decisive action must mean Indonesia’s focus will shift toward its most powerful neighbour.  The spying scandal essentially, does nothing to invigorate Australia-Indonesia relations and actively encourages Indonesia to seek political union elsewhere.  Spying and the subsequent sharing of information with Australia’s allies—which the Indonesians are fully aware of—will impact on Australia in the future, and whilst this may not be critical at the moment, it will exponentially undermine future relations with Indonesia.  This will prove to be at its most dangerous point when China begins its strategic manoeuvrings in the western Pacific in the next decade.  The recent spying scandal vividly portrays Australia’s deep-seated attitude to its nearest northern neighbour, and it will not go unnoticed for a very long time.

Now to the dangers for Australia. Are there any further dangers for Australia in the future as the relationship with Indonesia (a land of 250million+ people)  continues to incrementally deteriorate?  The short answer to this is ‘yes’!  This can manifest in many ways, especially if Indonesia uses the spying issue to strengthen its ties with China, and with this backing decides to enforce its sovereignty within its nautical boundaries.  This will create ongoing problems and tension.  Sounds far-fetched?  Nation-states have a tendency, when backed by other powerful state actors, to enforce their sovereign rights in a more decisive way.  North Korea utilizing China’s support, and currently Japan accommodating United States (US) B-52 fly-overs of their disputed islands are just two examples of this happening.   What if the frictions continue and eventually there is a military clash?  This is where the US enters into the scenario.  To be sure, there remains a widely-held assumption that the US will come to the aid of Australia should there be a force-on-force collision with Indonesia.  Assuming this would take place in current times is debatable however, as tensions inevitably rise—especially in the next decade as China exerts its influence on Indonesia—it remains a possibility, though I would argue within the next half-decade not a probability.  Nevertheless, ‘mistakes’ are often made, as the South Korean Navy (SKN) will attest, with the (2010) sinking of a SKN Vessel in the Yellow Sea by the North Korean Navy.

Would the US come to Australia’s defence should an escalation of tensions between Australia and Indonesia take place? The answer to this is ‘no’! Why? The answer neatly  returns to the element of opportunism.  The Indonesian aircraft that were ordered by their president to cancel joint-exercise Elang Ausindo and fly back to Indonesia were US-built F-16 ‘Fighting Falcon’ strike fighters.  The question that begs is, would the US immediately and unequivocally come to Australia’s aid at a time of crisis if, for instance, the Indonesian government threatened to curtail its defence budget (which would impact on the sales of US strike aircraft), or sent signals to the US that is may seek to spend its defence money elsewhere?   Once again, to automatically assume that the US would defend Australia is also naïve in the extreme, as the US is, it is safe to argue, by definition a very opportunistic nation-state.

Australia would be wise to exit from its past practice/s of near-contempt for Indonesia; and also of its assumptions about the US, and its role in Australia’s defence. The dynamics of the Asia-Pacific are changing rapidly and a re-assessment on the part of Australia in the milieu of geo-political preponderance is of the utmost necessity. Australia may within the next decade, get caught between a China-US struggle for primacy in the western Pacific; commensurately find that Indonesia has sided with China; and Australia can no longer depend on US assistance.  Decisive and perspicacious thinking is required by the Australian government–and quickly.

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On the boil: Australia, China and the Western Pacific

Photo: Strobe Driver

Photo: Strobe Driver

There has been much debate, indeed sparring, recently about whether the coming decades will be the ‘Asian Century’ or a renewed ‘American Century’ as has been shown in The Age.  With America progressing down the road of a more energy-sustainable future and China being tied to an energy-related growth cycle, the jury is still out on who will be the most successful at meeting their respective challenges and who will not.  Professor Hugh White has been very tactful with regard to the issues that will face Australia in giving an broad overview of the coming problems Australia will face with regard to defence, whilst in turn ex-prime minister Malcolm Fraser has hinted that the ANZUS treaty should be reviewed.  In  turn Clyde Prestowitz has suggested that America’s demise—what some have equated as  America being  the ‘new Rome’—is vastly overrated.  America, he suggests, is on the rise and will continue to be this way for decades to come.  All this debate is well and good but where does this really leave Australia?

Whichever way the two major players, America and China, are perceived by the commentators one thing that is certain is that the western Pacific will be the next epicentre of the world in terms of geo-strategic, economic and political machinations, and Australia will be thrust on to centre stage.  As China pushes further and further from these three pivotal angles there is no reason to believe that the Chinese Communist Party  will  behave any differently than those who have gone before it—the prime examples being the Soviet Union and the US.  Both of these political actors during the Cold War years demanded to know which side others were ‘on’ and of course, the most recent dictum of this attitude came from President George W. Bush in a somewhat undiplomatic, yet forceful approach to the ‘war on terror’ and countries either being ‘with’ or ‘against’ the US.  The danger therefore, resides in whether the CCP over the next two decades—which will be two dangerous decades—demands the same decision from Australia and takes the same hard line approach.  Martin Jacques in his book When China Rules The World, suggests that China is determined to take its ‘rightful place’ in the world and that in fact the last two centuries have been an aberration rather than the norm—that is, the Western European powers ruling the oceans and regions of the world without significant input and influence from Asian nations-states is not a situation that is ‘normal.’  China is on a pathway therefore, to restore the equilibrium and moreover, it will achieve this in any way in which it needs.  Where does this new ‘attitude’ leave Australia?

There is no reason to think that China will not pursue its geo-strategic place in the world starting with a contained and focussed dominance over the western Pacific.  A resurgent People’s Liberation Army Navy has since the late 1990s been evolving into an effective ‘blue water’ navy and as one of its first operational tasks  took part in anti-piracy measures off the coast of Somalia during the late-1990s as part of a multi-lateral force.  Interestingly, it differed in its approach to the situation by refusing to take orders from the US Navy which was effectively in control of the effort, and whilst the PLAN remained a meaningful part of the international task force, the stance it took was a signal to the international community: China had arrived.  As the western Pacific heats up as a zone-of-contention between a superpower and a regional power it will without doubt place Australia in a very difficult position, that of having to deal with a non-Anglo force in the neighbourhood.  China, in the process of its geo-strategic stretch will demand clear-cut decisions from Australia with regard to the western Pacific; and the Asia-Pacific region.  China will without doubt, want to know where Australia ‘stands’ and will be prepared to back up any perceived or actual infringements on what it sees as its newfound role in the region with military might.  Why would it be any different than other powerful nation-states when it has the US Navy’s presence in the Persian Gulf, the British military’s presence in the Falkland Islands, and the recent storming of the Mavi Marmara by the Israeli Defense Force as examples of what can be achieved when politics is backed up by military force.   The unfortunate reality of the situation at hand is military threat-of-force followed by a kinetic phase of operations has been the norm and therefore the reasons for China not to take this line-of-reasoning is an arid argument.

The point being, there is increasing dangers for Australia as the Asia-Pacific region becomes a much more highly-contested space and whatever approach Australia takes in the future will have more drastic and direct consequences for Australia than what has gone before.  To ignore this fact will be at Australia’s peril.  In accordance with this doomsday forecast, to suggest for instance that China will eventually and actually react militarily and/or economically to the rotation of US marines through Darwin is not too long a bow to draw.  Nor should it come as a surprise if China demands that Australia cease forthwith from this practice in the yearly Australia-China meeting, that ex-prime minister Gillard set up, as stated in her Summers’ interview.  For Australia, the brutal truth is as the Asia-Pacific becomes the global hotspot in the near-future with this newfound space will bring demands upon Australia that will be not dissimilar to those placed on it by the US and the British, at the beginning of the Pacific phase of World War Two.  To think that China will step back from turning the western Pacific from a zone-of-contention into a zone-of-control is folly in the extreme, as is the notion that if a limited military collision between Australia and China took place, the US would immediately and unequivocally come to our defence.  Time is short and Australia needs to be more cosmopolitan in its regional outlook and be more pro-active in undertaking regional diplomacy, Indonesia notwithstanding. Friendship with China will take hard work and more importantly a change of approach from what has always been to what will be,  is in order.

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Abbott and the Archipelago

Indonesia_1_1_1The recent lecturing of the Abbott government to the Indonesian government about what Australia will do about asylum-seeker boats is an affront to Indonesian sovereignty on several levels.  Firstly, we (that is Western Europeans) forced the concept of sovereignty on to Asia and for us to then impose our ideals on another sovereign nation-state is arrogant and dismissive of that state; and the laws we insisted they accept.  Secondly, it reflects Australia’s contempt of Indonesia in that we insist they adopt our policies unquestioningly, meanwhile Australia slashes its international aid budget to ‘rub salt in the wound.’   Thirdly it reflects an ongoing contempt Australia has for a nation that should be respected as a powerful regional actor, one that is fast becoming an assertive neighbour.

What message is this decidedly non-cosmopolitan attitude by the Abbott government sending the Indonesians?   Is it that Indonesia should remain obsequious to Australia’s political and regional requirements? :not unlike that of Australia to the United States (US).   This is a very dangerous move by Australia which will have consequences both politically and militarily.

The simple notion of respect aside, surely the continuing rise of China means that Australia should be seeking Indonesia’s active and equal involvement in the region in a diligent and inclusive way and not asserting its authority as a bygone regional colonial master.  Those days are long gone and it would be helpful for future regional strategic stability if the Abbot government thoroughly understood this concept.  Moreover, the rise of China should encourage Australia not to antagonise the Indonesian government as the stark reality is that China-Indonesia relations will improve exponentially if Australia continues to act in this way.

What are the possible outcomes of such a situation?

  • Indonesia will exclude Australia from input into the region as it grows into a much more active participant in the region;
  • Indonesia will more likely side with China as it moves to establish who is ‘with it’ and who is ‘against it’; and
  • China will favour Indonesia–and come to its aid militarily–if there is conflict in a ‘boat tow back’ situation.

Bearing in mind that the aid China provides to Indonesia is now four times that of what the US once donated to the country, it is not difficult to assess who’s  side Indonesia would take if the situation deteriorated, and whilst linking these two seemingly far-apart aspects might seem problematic, Australia should be aware that other country’s are also free to do what they wish.  Take the recent president of Afghanistan’s statement that his country would side with Pakistan, if Pakistan went to war with the US.  A statement like this reflects an attitude by developing countries that they will not be dictated to by developed countries anymore.

The Abbott government should recognize how insulting its attitude to Australia’s nearest Asian neighbour is, and quickly move to appease it. The western Pacific is rapidly heating up as the epicentre of future conflict and therefore, time is short.

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An open letter: a response to America’s Broken Cities – Time Magazine

The following letter was written in response to an article in Time Magazine on the 5th August 2013 entitled America’s Broken Cities. The letter was emailed to the Editor – as yet I have had no response.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I read with some considerable interest your recent edition on America’s ‘broken cities’ and whilst I have some considerable sympathy for the City of Detroit I think your reporters completely missed the fundamentals of why the city is broke; and why the people of that city fear for their future.  The reporters I felt treated the issues of how the city got into the mess as–what Sociologist’s call–an a-historical event, that is, the breakdown just ‘happened,’ without warning, and was immediate.  Whilst this may be what some people wish to believe there, is much more to the events that lead to the fiscal destruction of a city and to suppose there were no economic call-signs and signals that astute administrators could have observed and then acted upon, is folly in the extreme.

The truth must surely be consecutive administrations chose to ignore these critical indicators and what rubs ‘salt in the wounds’ for citizens of cities such as Detroit, is that some of these administrator’s would have been highly-paid ‘experts’ in their field.  Who then is to blame for the fiscal destruction of the City of Detroit?  Surely not the residents who were not ‘productive enough’ and now have their pensions at risk? The simple truth is the administrators are to blame for their lack of foresight which was without doubt, closely followed by a subsequent deficiency in proactive abilities and moreover, for your reporters to not stipulate that these people would have had access to a swathe of information which if they were actually dedicated to their positions, could have been used in a timely manner.  To suppose otherwise is ludicrous, and worse, it let’s these incompetents ‘off the hook.’  Once again and perhaps the saddest and most unpalatable component of this ‘broken cities’ debacle is the non-admission by your reporters that, at its very core, the administrator’s of Detroit lost their duty-of-care to, and for, their citizens a long time ago.

To be sure, there should have also been the admission that in process of the city going broke the administrators did not lose their appetite for their high-paying jobs, only for the responsibilities that came with them.  An all too common a problem I would say, as Athens and Madrid have without doubt also become examples of this disgraceful and negligent behaviour by those whose care is merely, a pretence.


Strobe Driver

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China, the Pacific and the waves it will create for Australia

At the present time for Australia the rise of China is not yet complete, but that is not to say Australians should be complacent to the challenges that its rise will bring.  Nothing is more certain however, than as China rises it will draw Australia into regional political dynamics in a more comprehensive way.  The impact will be akin to the way that Australia was essentially dragged into acknowledging that it existed in the sphere of Asia rather than Europe, by the advance of the Japanese in World War II (WWII).  China, as its rise and influence become exponentially greater, will at the end of the day, demand responses from Australia that show whether we are ‘with’ them or ‘against’ them.  This is what powerful nation-states do as they seek to establish their maximum potential and sphere of influence in geo-strategy, and they have done it since time-in-memoriam. China’s demand with regard to alliances in the region, will not be dissimilar to what the Americans demanded of Australia and many other Western nations in the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster.  Whilst the decisions that will be required by China will surely not have the suddenness that the Americans demanded under the Bush/Cheney stewardship, they will over time however, want decisions and actions that offer proof of Australia’s immediate and future intent.

To be sure, China will increasingly want to know where Australia stands on contemporary issues that the region is beset with such as immigration, global warming, supply of resources and food bowl issues to name but a few.  These however, will only be the tip of the iceberg.  Most importantly, China will, without doubt, want to know where Australia stands on strategic alliances.  This is what nations give the utmost importance to when they become ‘developed’ and amass the capabilities to influence and then act extramural to their own borders, which China is now undertaking in a focussed and determined way.  China will claim its place in the debates, whether they are one-off or develop into bigger concerns in the coming years, and interact with and/or object to happenings when they arise and it will do so with the power that the situation requires.  Why would it not?  All of the powerful nation-states prior to it have and in the past two hundred years the Americans, French and English have excelled at it.

In the grand scheme of things, whilst all of these issues are relatively simple to deal with in the face of what is to come for Australia the really big ticket issue that China will incrementally demand of Australia—and want forthright and decisive decisions about—is where does Australia stand with regard to the western Pacific?  China will particularly want to know how its expansion from being a localised power to a regional power is seen by Australia, and in particular how Australia would re-act given any American re-entry into the region after China’s initial push for influence. These are the two most pressing questions China will want to know and will exert corresponding pressures to gain answers, not unlike what the Americans did in Southeast Asia during the 1960s.  This time of reckoning is fast approaching for Australia and it is pertinent to ask, are we prepared?

The simple answer to the major question that is being posed is ‘No.’ Taking a step back in time to the beginning of the Pacific phase of WWII is provides an insight into what happens when a country is not prepared for a coming storm.  For Australia, in the first instance, with regard to WWII, this was a relatively distant event—a war in Europe—which amounted to a problem that was to develop but was thought not to be of an immediate danger.  Then came an attack on Pearl Harbor, and not long after that an attack on Darwin.  This thrust Australia into the thick of things and signalled the beginning in earnest of the Pacific theatre of WWII: Australia was shocked and dumbfounded by the velocity and cascade of events.  Which brings us to the point of what did Australia have to offer at this point in the war?  Australia had personnel and little else, no weapons of real worth or infrastructure to meet the needs of a coming war.  The palpable fear of the time centred on the very real possibility in the minds-eye of Australians, and moreover due to the ferocity of the attacks on Darwin which comprised 200-plus raids, that Australia had little available to defend itself should the Japanese press their advantage.

The coming storm for Australia is that as China rises, it will clash with America in one way or another in the Pacific.  America will not accept China’s ‘intrusion’ into the region and China will no longer accept the status quo of America strategically ‘owning’ the region.  An example of the animosity the China-America situation reflects in the international arena can be seen in the reaction to piracy off the coast of Somalia in which the People’s Liberation Army Navy refused to fall under the command of the Americans.  Whilst this remains a small insight into the frictions, it is nevertheless a telling sign—and a sign of things to come.  To not acknowledge that these frictions exist is folly and Australia will be incrementally involved in the machinations of the region.  It is up to Australians to be aware that there is a coming storm, and it will be due to the frictions between the uncompromising stance between China and America in the Asia-Pacific.  Because of the Australia’s geographic location it has to live with this, but not be a slave to the forthcoming conditions.

There is little doubt, based on what both the parties have said, that Prime Minister Rudd is much more aware of the need for regional dialogue, more cosmopolitan in his outlook, and understands to a much greater degree than his opposition the shockwave that China will bring, as it moves extramural to its current boundaries.  The western Pacific is the next friction point for the world and Australia needs someone at the helm who understands this and will be able to manage the pressures that a China-America predicament will bring to Australia.

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There is Trouble in Paradise

According to SBS World News (29, July, 2013) Fiji’s foreign minister ‘launched an acidic broadside against the [Australian] governments plan to send asylum seekers [to] Papua New Guinea’ and further warned that it ‘could alter the social fabric of the Pacific Islands.’


Whist this statement specifically refers to the asylum seeker issue and Australia’s role in it, there is more that underpins the issue than the asylum seeker debate.  Australia’s policy toward asylum seekers and the consequences for Melanesia  in this instance was the major portion of the specific complaint and Foreign Minister Kubuabola backed it up by accusing Australia of using its ‘economic muscle’ to solve its own domestic political problem, that of boat-arrivals.  Whilst this may be true, the minister then outlined the definitive point of contention from Fiji’s standpoint, however there is much to be read into the statement than its actual utterance.

By expressing the opinion in such a forthright manner a strong signal is being sent: Fiji will not be dictated to by Australia, and it will offer an opinion on the region regardless of whether its ‘place’ in the region is dictated to by a regional major power. By ‘place’ I also mean Australia dictating that Fiji must have an acceptable form of government and governance which must adhere to being a just liberal-democracy, and conform to the principles therein.  To be sure, since the military takeover of Fiji’s government in 1996 Australia has—along with New Zealand—been a solid voice in the region demanding Fiji return to its liberal-democratic status sooner rather than later.  Fiji for instance, would be right to question why Australia has dealt with Singapore—which is effectively a dictatorship—for decades and not objected to its government and governance.

Having established the direct message of its discontent Fiji has, in a sense also expressed an independence-of-thinking that cosmopolitan nation-states are wont to do regardless of their regional status, and the sign Fiji is sending is that there are changes afoot and Australia would be foolish to ignore them.  There has I would argue, always existed in Australia a feeling that Oceania, whilst it may at times have its troubles, will always remain loyal to its two major neighbour and regional powers:  Australia and New Zealand. The statement of Minister Kubuabola is no doubt underpinned by an historic and sometimes deep resentment of Australia, whether it be with regard to not assisting the region enough, or of having mismanaged aspects of regional needs, and moreover it does show a significant discontent with Australian attitudes and policies.  This is not unlike the types of resentments Caribbean nations harbour toward their powerful neighbour the United States.

Oceania therefore, is signalling it will not remain what it ‘was’ in terms of being a passive observer and this is what Australia needs to understand.  Fiji speaking out against Australian policy signals it has found a new voice and this is something that Australia will need to tolerate in the future, especially as the Asian Century comes to fruition and Fiji, within the region, will play its part in the regional balance-of-power stakes.

As the region begins its ‘drift’ into the ‘Asian century’ there will be more of the same and whether or not Fiji returns to be a liberal-democracy will not diminish its commentary on the region.   The comment regarding Australia’s action stems from, I would argue, the minister detecting there is change in the air: the rise of China has given a new found confidence to his nation which has largely been at the behest of Australia’s attitudes and policies.  The current tempest will pale into insignificance as Fiji’s ‘recalcitrance’ toward Australia and New Zealand increases as China incrementally and then exponentially, influences Fijian policy toward Australia.  In simpler terms, Fiji will come to favour China over and above Australia’s regional geo-strategic needs and the shifting of asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea (PNG)—and the perceived taking advantage of one of Fiji’s Melanesian neighbours—will generate a political wedge which Fiji will be able to utilize to its advantage when dealings with its neighbours.

The power-balance in the Asia-Pacific, including Oceania and Melanesia will change drastically in the next decade, and Australians should be acutely aware of this; and be much more considerate of their neighbours when undertaking foreign policy objectives.  At the present time PNG remains on friendly terms with Australia, however Australia would be foolish to think that in the twenty-first century, without a more articulate input into the region, that things will remain as they are.  This does not suggest PNG would become an enemy of Australia, only that it too will develop more options, especially with regard to issues such as aid, infrastructure and policing/military supplies.

Australia should desist from making decisions in the region with the same intent and mindset that it had in the post-World War Two era and late twentieth century.  Times not only are changing rapidly they will continue to do so, and Australia would do well to consider the difference the ongoing shrinkage of time and space (read: Globalization) that is being experienced by regional neighbours will bring in relative terms.  It is not too long a bow to draw that a seismic shift in allegiances from the current Australia-United States stance to a more focussed China-Indonesia (and possibly with the inclusion of India) will take place by Australia’s neighbours.  What this means is, unless Australia’s neighbours are treated with the utmost respect and dignity, regardless of whether Australia agrees with the form of government and governance, their needs must be taken into account as the rise of China in the region will offer country’s such as Fiji, an alternative Australia-free vision of their future.

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