Modi courts Japan; thinking local in Indonesia. By Hamish McDonald.

A polite meeting, but clearly not of the minds

Tony Abbott and US president Barack Obama meet in the White House’s Oval Office this week.

Mission Accomplished. That’s what Tony Abbott’s minders and the dutiful scribes and amanuenses at News Corp would have us believe as he strode down the steps of the VIP jet and into the fray at Parliament House this week: absolute nonsense and a Fairfax furphy that he and Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper were forming an alliance to thwart carbon pricing; and everything was hunky-dory when Abbott went on to meet Barack Obama.

But the Americans were never going to embarrass an Australian prime minister making his first official visit to Washington, and turned on all the usual trappings. But the awkwardness was all too apparent in the Oval Office, captured in the wonderful photo by Andrew Meares of Fairfax, of Abbott winking and Obama looking away, clearly wishing it would soon be over. Strange, too, that Abbott managed to meet up with Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor of hanging chad fame, brother of George W. and possible Republican candidate for the presidency in 2016, while only getting a phone call to Hillary Clinton, the likely Democrat candidate and frontrunner at this very early stage. Clinton was meanwhile launching her latest book on her time as secretary of state, making a lot of Julia Gillard’s “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man” put-down of Abbott. The Iraq crisis helped paper it all over.

Back in Canberra it can be expected that officials are now quietly popping some of the Abbott thought-bubbles during his trip, notably sending the SAS to find the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and buying the jump-jet version of the F-35 to convert the navy’s two new amphibious transport ships into aircraft carriers. The navy has always had this in mind, opting to keep the ski-jump launcher for such aircraft on the ships and putting its helicopter pilots through fixed-wing jet training, but the strategic case and the budgets are not there yet.

Modi courts Japan

An axis of another sort is forming, however. The new Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, will shortly make his first major foreign trip to Japan, signalling an interest in pursuing a strategic partnership to counterbalance China. 

This partnership could have both economic and military dimensions. Modi has already shown some insouciance towards Beijing by inviting Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister in the Tibetan government-in-exile at Dharamsala, to his swearing-in, along with the Taiwan trade representative in Delhi. The Chinese made a dutiful protest, but are courting Modi, too. Premier Li Keqiang called him after his sweeping election win, and sent Foreign Minister Wang Yi for an early visit this month.

As well as hosting Modi, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will be heading south for an official visit to Australia in July. Having lifted a longstanding ban on arms exports, Abe is thought to have coaxed his own defence establishment into sharing the technology of Japan’s new Soryu class of submarines, which are the only conventional subs in operation that match the size and specifications for the Australian navy’s replacement fleet for its present Collins class.

Modi is already invited to Canberra, which would complete the triangle. Unlike the US, Australia never had Modi on its persona non grata list over the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, and brought him here on at least one visit while he was the state’s chief minister. He and Abbott should get on famously, in a way recalling the unlikely rapport between Malcolm Fraser and Morarji Desai, the Indian PM famous for drinking his own urine as a tonic. If Abbott spent time in a Catholic seminary and dosses in a police barracks while in Canberra, Modi has led a monk-like existence since a formal intra-caste marriage as a teenager, devoting himself to work as a celibate swayamsevak (volunteer cadre) in the Hindu-nationalist camp.  

Thinking local  

Down to the wire in Indonesia, both candidates for the presidential election on July 9 are beating the drum of economic nationalism, which doesn’t augur well for foreign investors if it’s more than campaign ephemera.

Joko Widodo or “Jokowi”, the frontrunner leading the Sukarnoist party, suggested the country’s bureaucracy should be encouraged to create obstacles for foreign businesses. This was in response to a question by rival Prabowo Subianto, during a televised debate, about the planned south-east Asian free market, which is supposed to start next year. “The government should strike first,” Widodo said. “Our domestic market should not be dominated by foreigners … As to matters related to permits, we will ease and process local investors quickly. Those from overseas, they can be hindered for a bit. I don’t have to give [explicit] instructions. We can have it this way: we are open, but covertly, we will build up our regulations.”

Prabowo was Mr Responsible on TV, but a wild demagogue on the hustings, as Indonesia scholar Liam Gammon has noted on the Australian National University’s New Mandala website. At a rally in Medan, Prabowo opened up with the usual verities of creating a prosperous nation, respected by others, and some well-documented points about rising income inequality and the concentration of wealth in Jakarta.

Then he lets rip, linking his experience as a special forces soldier in Timor-Leste to his fight against those “selling out” Indonesia. “My commander died in my arms, saudara-saudara [brothers and sisters]. Took his last breath in my embrace, saudara-saudara. Because of this, all you that want Indonesia to remain poor, all of you who steal the people’s money – I will not waver in the face of you! … If you all say that the Indonesian nation can be bought, I say it cannot be bought! … Beware all you foreign stooges! All you who can only slander, can only insult people, but have never never defended the people, never gave thought to the people, never gave thought to the poor, who only at election time pretend to care for the people … 

“Beware all you who are used to stealing the Indonesian people’s money – I don’t need to name them one by one, but when the time comes, if necessary, I will name them, saudara-[inaudible]… beware all of you who have a vision of an Indonesia broken apart, of a poor Indonesia, we say: no! This time, NO! Indonesia wants to rise up, saudara-saudara … the Indonesian people want justice, the Indonesian people want a leader who is clean, who doesn’t pretend to be merakyat [of the people, down to earth] yet steal the people’s money.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "A polite meeting, but clearly not of the minds". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.