Love thy neighbour as Canberra flatters Timor-Leste; Indonesian assassination case still unresolved; all eyes on the Scottish ayes. By Hamish McDonald.

Abbott always faithful to US Marine Corps

José Ramos-Horta, with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove last Sunday, is made an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia.
José Ramos-Horta, with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove last Sunday, is made an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia.

Funny how Barack Obama has not quite asked Tony Abbott outright for help in bombing the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and perhaps Syria, much as Abbott would like to be asked. 

Of course, strictly speaking it should be the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who Abbott should be consulting, just as Obama is doing. But Obama and the Pentagon have every reason to be happy with Abbott. They are expecting him to pick up the tab for the US Marines’ annual “rotation” through Darwin, according to close observers.

The marines, numbering about 1150 during this year’s dry season deployment, will build up in two years or so to a full-scale Marine Air-Ground Task Force of 2500 personnel and perhaps even more in future years. The cost of this deployment was put at $US1.6 billion in a preliminary assessment by the Marine Corps to a US senate committee in October 2012, over what period was not made clear.

Abbott and Obama made a new bilateral “force posture agreement” at their White House meeting in June this year, signed by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister David Johnston at the annual talks with US counterparts last month. It covers the marine rotation, plus more visits to Australian bases and airfields by US ships and aircraft.

“Under the agreement, costs will be shared on the basis of ‘proportionate use’, with the details to be negotiated between the parties,” says a Defence Department spokesperson in Canberra. “To date, the cost of the initiatives to defence has been limited. The US Marine Corps contributed to costs incurred to support the rotations that occurred in 2012 and 2013, with defence absorbing minimal costs.”

Not clear how much the leathernecks contributed for the fairly small deployments in those years, and how much will fall on the Canberra budget when the full force starts coming. But observers, such as Professor Bates Gill, head of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, are on record as saying they expect Australia to pick up most of the tab.  

For a new take on Australia’s role in the US “pivot” to Asia, read an article on by Vince Scappatura, a Deakin University PhD candidate working on the US–Australia alliance, in which he argues the distinction between “rotation” and “basing” has become almost meaningless.

1 . Love thy neighbour

Noticed how Canberra has been laying on the flattery with Timor-Leste? 

Last Sunday, its former president José Ramos-Horta was made an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia at Admiralty House in Sydney by Governor-General Peter Cosgrove. Next weekend, Timor’s current prime minister, Xanana Gusmão, will be in Melbourne for a two-day conference on the International Force East Timor (Interfet) operation that went in 15 years ago to restore calm to the shattered territory after its independence vote. 

Cosgrove, who commanded Interfet, will be there with former brass from participating countries, as well as the general who handled Indonesia’s withdrawal, Kiki Syahnakri. The Timorese are grateful for Australia’s role, but still incensed at Canberra’s later hardball negotiations over the maritime boundary and undersea petroleum resources.

They are still holding out for an adjustment of the maritime border to the median line between the coasts, instead of one based on a seabed trench close to Timor, and for Woodside Petroleum to land its gas from the huge Greater Sunrise field on Timor, not process it on a floating liquefaction plant. 

Things could have got nastier this month, as hearings were due to resume at the International Court of Justice next Wednesday on the case brought by Dili over the revelation that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service had bugged Timor’s cabinet room, apparently to listen in during maritime border negotiations. The court was expecting Australia to allow the former ASIS whistleblower, known as Witness K, to travel to The Hague to testify. 

However, this week it was announced the hearing had been suspended for six months to allow a settlement “amicably”. A separate case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in which Timor seeks to annul the current temporary boundary agreement was also adjourned for six months.  

Speaking at the UNSW’s New College on Monday, Ramos-Horta said his nation valued its excellent relationship with its vastly bigger and more powerful neighbour Australia. “But life is not only how large we are − in size, in wealth,” he said, “but the way we treat our neighbours, the way we treat weaker neighbours, weaker peoples.” 

2 . Assassination case still unresolved

Last Sunday was a sad anniversary in Jakarta, when human rights activists gathered to mark the 10 years since their respected fellow, Munir Said Thalib, was murdered while flying with the national airline Garuda to Amsterdam, by agents of the State Intelligence Agency, known as BIN. 

The off-duty Garuda pilot doubling as a BIN operative who gave Munir arsenic-laced orange juice and two other Garuda staffers got jail terms, but a trail of their mobile phone calls and text messages back to BIN officials has not been satisfactorily followed. The then deputy BIN chief, former army general Muchdi Purwoprandjono, was also convicted of the murder conspiracy but acquitted on appeal. 

The WikiLeaks trove of US embassy cables includes second-hand reports that Indonesian police found a witness who allegedly attended two meetings inside BIN chaired by its then chief, former general A. M. Hendropriyono, at which Munir’s assassination was planned. The witness allegedly told police that “only the time and method of the murder changed from the plans he heard discussed; the original plan was to kill Munir in his office”. Hendropriyono is now an intelligence and security adviser to incoming president Joko Widodo. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry, for one, has reminded outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that when he started his presidency later in 2004 he said credible resolution of the Munir case would be a key test of Indonesian democracy.  “That is still true today,” Kerry said. “We support all efforts to bring those who ordered Munir assassinated to account.” Not a word out of Canberra reported.

3 . All eyes on the Scottish ayes

It’s voting week ahead across the Commonwealth, in the far-flung dominions of Fiji (Wednesday) and New Zealand (Saturday). 

But rather than focusing on the fortunes of the recycled commodore, Frank Bainimarama, or the competent conservative, John Key, the world is looking towards the independence referendum in part of the “old country” itself on Thursday. From being a speculative joke, Scottish independence is a real possibility according to the polls.

It seems the hearts are winning against the heads north of the border, with First Minister Alex Salmond’s “Yes” campaign apparently persuading many Scots that full ownership of the dwindling North Sea oil and unleashed national identity will allow them to keep the welfare state now threatened by Tory stringency in London, plus the Queen as head of state and sterling as the currency. 

Readers of Ian Rankin may have a more jaundiced view of Scottish politicos, who come across as similar to their state-level counterparts here. As a lot of British savings have long been managed by the bankers and brokers of Edinburgh, the tartan threat is causing financial jitters that can only get worse if “Yes” gets a majority vote, or a narrow loss.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 13, 2014 as "Abbott always faithful to US Marine Corps".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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