A wealthy country that should be well placed to prosper as global power shifts toward Asia, Australia is stumbling into a crisis of relevance in the region.
The old Australian posture as an affluent outlier in Asia with the stature to do as it pleases — a country that could switch from being a regional bully on refugee policy to being a neighbor’s best friend without being punished for its double standard — is no longer viable.
This is a crisis largely of our own making. A decade of political self-indulgence at home risks leaving us without a credible voice in Asia.
At a time when China, our major trading partner, is ascendant and our traditional allies in the North Atlantic are in retreat, Australia should be stepping up as a champion of openness. But our politicians are turning inward, and now the beleaguered conservative government of Scott Morrison is threatening to reduce immigration, our main engine of growth.
Scaling back the number of immigrants we let into the country may bring us into line with the United States and Britain, but the politics of insularity sends a dangerous message of disengagement to our neighbors, as they begin to rewrite the rules for the international order.
For now, Australia remains a role model in the 21st century. We are a magnet for skilled migrants from across the region, and we enjoy large trade surpluses with the big four economies of Asia: China, Japan, India and South Korea.
But our tawdry domestic politics undermines these natural advantages by corroding our global standing. Australia has changed prime ministers five times since 2010, four times in party back-room coups and only once at a general election.
Yet for all the churn, Parliament remains whiter, and more blinkered, than the increasingly Eurasian nation it serves. Only one of the last six prime ministers had any serious experience in foreign affairs before becoming leader.
As power shifts to Asia, Australia can no longer afford the indulgence of a self-absorbed political class. Will our politicians rise above their volatile and trivial domestic agendas to remain a regional leader? The evidence is not encouraging.
We are reminded of our ambiguous place in the Asia-Pacific each time we change leaders. Each new prime minister seems to blunder into a diplomatic spat with our nearest neighbor, Indonesia, the new rising economic star of Asia and the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Each unnecessary argument raises the risk of a more serious rupture between Canberra and Jakarta, as the politics of both countries are coarsened by their respective nationalist fringes.
Mr. Morrison, who became prime minister following the latest party coup in August, fell into this trap when he floated the idea of moving the Australian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Indonesia was embarrassed by the timing, and outraged that it wasn’t consulted. The Palestinian foreign minister, Riyad al-Maliki, happened to be visiting Jakarta on the day of the announcement.
In previous disputes, Indonesians did not have the clout to harm Australia’s interests. This time, however, the Indonesians are flexing their economic leverage — and Asia is watching.
Mr. Morrison had hoped to use the summit meeting of Southeast Asian nations in Singapore last month, his first outing as leader on the regional stage, to sign a free-trade agreement with the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo. But that deal is paused until the prime minister clarifies whether he intends to move the embassy.
Mr. Joko has his own election to fight next year and cannot afford the perception at home that he has compromised the Palestinian cause. And so the history of these two Asian neighbors repeats in stalemate as short-term politics in both democracies prevents an easy resolution to the dispute.
Australia has a direct stake in Indonesia’s success. Our overriding interest is for Indonesia to remain an ally in the fight against regional terrorism, and to become an active partner in helping check the unilateral impulses of China.
The key to this engagement is openness and mutual respect.
Mr. Morrison displayed neither quality in his handling of the embassy dispute. At home, it might have been excused as a rookie error. But in the region, it reaffirmed a pattern of Australian insensitivity and unreliability.
Five years earlier, it became public that Australia’s intelligence agency had tapped the phone of the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his wife, Ani Yudhoyono. The prime minister at the time, Tony Abbott, refused to apologize.
It took the better part of two years, and the replacement of the abrasive Mr. Abbott with the cosmopolitan Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, to restore a full working relationship between the countries. That work was undone by Mr. Morrison.
Australia’s political class remains haunted by the sins of its founding fathers. When the nation was formed in 1901, the first significant piece of legislation was the White Australia Policy, which banned immigration from Asia. High tariffs were added to its cocktail of national self-harm, and it took decades to undo the economic and reputational damage. The last vestiges of racial selection in immigration were removed in 1973, and the tariff wall dismantled over the course of the 1990s.
The present generation of members of Parliament has known only the open economic and social model. Only a handful have any experience of the last recession, which ended in 1991. Many believe that slashing immigration is an antidote to problems of congestion in the big cities. In New South Wales, for example, the conservative government is calling for a halving of immigration to the state.
But any gratuitous cut in immigration threatens to cause a recession at home, and would be a reminder of that older Australia that thought it could have it both ways: as an exporter to the region who didn’t want its people in return.
George Megalogenis is an author and a commentator. His latest book is The Football Solution.