Leaving behind Australia’s role as ‘US Deputy Sheriff’ through Indonesia

To secure our future strategy and economy, we must unite with our closest neighbour

Remy Wendel

International relations | Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia

20 August 2019

Australia can embrace its middle power goal with this Southeast Asian state’s support, writes Remy Wendel.

The Indonesian-Australian relationship is a key element in the debate surrounding the future of Australian strategic and economic prospects in the Asia-Pacific.

As a prominent member of ASEAN and our largest neighbour, restructuring our relationship with the democratic and increasingly prevalent Indonesia is in our best strategic interest as a nation. By revising and reinforcing previous agreements which reiterate the importance of economic cooperation and political amicability, Australia may reap the benefits of a strong bilateral relationship with Indonesia.

In March, Australia signed a landmark bilateral free-trade agreement with Indonesia, promising profitable trade and a significant improvement in political relations.

However, the Indonesia Australia-Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) does not provide any guarantees in terms of establishing an enduring and secure bilateral relationship.

While the agreement will provide significant benefits to both economies in education, agriculture, and health sectors, what the IA-CEPA lacks is a promise of cultivating a multidimensional relationship with the Indonesian administration past the limitations of a trade deal.

Historically, Australia’s political relationship with the Indonesian administration has been strained, raising concerns for regional stability if relations take a sour turn. Espionageclemency, and West Papua have caused tensions in the bilateral relationship for over a decade. More recently, Morrison’s shift on Australia’s Middle-East policy, with a proposal to move the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, almost crumbled the IA-CEPA deal that was nine years in the making.

More on this: Sensitivity to Indonesia is the pathway to Australian security

This shows the fragile platform that the Indo-Australian relationship currently stands on.

With the rise of China and consequent activities in the region, Australia cannot afford a tense relationship with Indonesia to continue. Australia is overwhelmingly dependent on its relationships with Southeast Asian nations and, by not reinforcing the importance of a complex bilateral relationship, the Australian position in the Asia-Pacific region is at a loss.

Australia requires more than just an economic and cultural partnership.

Adopting a stronger bilateral security agreement is needed if policymakers want the Indo-Australian strategic relationship to realistically last, and remain beneficial for both parties in the face of regional challenges, including the threat of Chinese hegemonic dominance.

Now is the ideal time to build a greater multidimensional relationship with Indonesia through revised agreements like the IA-CEPA, with an emphasis on improving and utilising strategic ties, rather than solely a trade agreement or cross-cultural understanding. We need this to protect not only our own economy and strategic position in the Asia-Pacific, but secure investment into Australia as a leading middle power.

By building upon, but not relying on, a strong and balanced ally such as Indonesia, it is possible to balance against China’s rise. We can survive the impending US departure in a region that is self-sustainable, without needing to be under a strategic umbrella. We require foreign policy that will strengthen prospects of both economic sectors and the political climate regionally. What is needed, is foreign policy that promotes diplomatic and strategic engagement with a growing Indonesia, rather than desperately clinging to out-dated dependency on powers clutching Cold War era notoriety.

Our relationships with China and the United States have certainly granted us with the influence and opulence that we have unquestionably reaped many benefits from, whether those benefits be the strategic position of being ‘Washington’s deputy sheriff’ in the Asia-Pacific or the economic profits that derive from our relationship with China.

However, these superpowers are not where the future of our prosperity in the Asia-Pacific lies.

Australia’s future is situated in the improvement and development of more complex relationships with complementary Asian states, to act as a collective counterweight against the Chinese and US presence in the Asian region. To prosper, Australia must dissolve our reliance on the US and most importantly, embrace our status as a middle power.

Our relationship with Indonesia is the best first step in this process.

By building an enduring and formidable strategic alliance with our Asian neighbour, we may be liberated from the obligatory nature that ties Australian foreign policy to our ‘deputy’ position. To secure our future strategic and economic prospects in the Asia-Pacific, we must consider the possibility that power lies in the collective.

That collective begins with Indonesia.

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