Indonesia: From paradox to partnership

Australia needs to stop taking Indonesia for granted

Peter Bright

Politics, International relations | Asia, Southeast Asia

2 June 2017

Whilst Australia and Indonesia have shared strategic challenges in the past, we are now seeing a convergence of interests that should see cooperation, rather than rivalry, defining bilateral relations.

Of course a convergence of strategic interests is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for cooperation. Australia and Indonesia will need strong leadership, long-term policy making, and a concerted shift in strategic thinking.

As it stands today, Indonesia represents a paradox in our defence planning. It is potentially one of our greatest strategic assets or greatest future threats. Indonesia forms the first line of defence between Australia and any intrusive hostile power. However, Indonesia will also be the major power with its military assets closest to Australia.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Indonesia will be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050. It is highly likely that this economic strength will gradually translate into comparable military strength.  We must move quickly to ensure that a rapidly strengthening Indonesia will be a solution rather than a problem for Australia. Unfortunately, we have not yet recognised the important role Indonesia will play in our strategic future.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and our defence planners continue to see Australia’s defence as relying primarily on American power in Asia. Admittedly, receding US primacy is not a certainty, but with the rise of China, a far more contested Asia is. This will have significant implications for both Australian and Indonesian defence planning. We must both consider new answers to the same old question: How do we best prevent the intrusion of a potentially hostile power into maritime South East Asia?

It is in the answer to this question that Indonesia and Australia find the most common ground. In a contested Asia, both countries will need to look closely at the sorts of strategic alignments that will best serve to prevent a hostile power intruding into maritime South East Asia.

For Indonesia, ASEAN is no longer the answer, due to a geographically driven divergence of common interests in the face of a rising China. For Australia, we need to seek security partners aside from the US. It should be acknowledged that Indonesia, simply as a consequence of geography, is our most logical security partner. It certainly presents greater advantages than the other oft-proposed options of Japan or India.

Indeed, the time could be right for a deeper partnership, whether it is formal or informal. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) appear to be cultivating a close personal relationship. That being said, during Jokowi’s February 2017 visit to Australia, bilateral defence cooperation was a far second to trade and investment on the list of priorities.

It was only in an interview given before the Australia trip that Jokowi drew attention to shared security issues. Jokowi suggested joint patrols in the South China Sea, only to backtrack as a result of domestic disapproval and outright rejection by Bishop and Turnbull. But perhaps this slip of the tongue does open up the question of what deeper cooperation could look like, and what it might achieve.

Australia would benefit significantly from a more capable Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), Indonesia’s equivalent of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). A more balanced TNI force structure, in favour of naval and air capabilities, would more effectively protect Indonesia’s air and maritime approaches. This would consequently better protect Australia’s approaches.

Jokowi has clearly prioritised Indonesia’s transformation into a maritime power with his announcement of a ‘global maritime axis.’ Though admittedly a vague set of policies, Jokowi’s maritime vision signals clear intentions, and Australia has an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to this transformation.

To make the most of this opportunity Australia needs to go beyond the simple staff exchanges, military aid and joint military exercises that have made up our partnership in previous years. We must transition into a relationship of equals and pursue deeper cooperation that might include the much tougher areas of defence procurement, capability planning, joint maritime surveillance, and increased force interoperability.

Australia is currently uniquely placed with its air and naval ‘capability edge’ to help shape a TNI rebalance. However, this window of opportunity is closing fast. Over the next 15-20 years, the contribution Australia could make to a partnership would be comparatively small based on current defence procurement and force structure. Certainly, 12 undelivered submarines will not make a meaningful contribution to any future partnership in the event of regional conflict.

Unfortunately, Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper does little more than acknowledge Indonesia’s long-term importance to Australia. It fails to outline the sort of ambitious steps that would be required to see the full potential of this relationship realised. And that is exactly what we need on both sides, ambitious steps.

For too long we have focused our attention on the little issues and pitfalls that loom so large in our bilateral ties. There has been seemingly endless tit-for-tat diplomacy involving the recalling of ambassadors and unilateral suspension of everything from live exports to military cooperation. This prevents us from looking at the bigger picture and making meaningful progress.

To progress we need to stop taking an increasingly powerful Indonesia for granted. Instead, we must start laying the groundwork of a relationship that could support a meaningful and effective future security partnership.

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