Sensitivity to Indonesia is the pathway to Australian security

Grasping culture for strategic ends

Adeline Tinessia

International relations | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia

26 July 2019

Is it possible for Australia to improve its security with the rise of China looming over the region? Adeline Tinessia writes.

Perhaps the answer is right in front of our eyes, or more specifically, north of the Timor sea.

Indonesia holds the key to the future of Australian security, yet it seems that we are yet to acknowledge the important role our closest neighbour has to play.

As Hugh White said, as China looms in the Australian foreign policy thinking, Indonesia hardly seems to be registering. This is surprising considering that Indonesia’s economy may be the fourth largest in the world by 2050.

A strong economy is the base for a strong country with a strong military.

It is therefore in Australia’s interest to improve its policy and institute changes to develop its relationship with Indonesia, beyond that of economic relations, and towards security relations.

Australia must come to terms with its obsession for being a Western outpost in Asia, as this will soon lose its attractiveness for other countries. With many of its allies taking an increasingly inward-looking view, it is time for Australia to look for other ways to strengthen its security, especially in the wake of a rising (or perhaps, risen) China.

Australia does not want China to dominate over its immediate region of Southeast Asia: there is therefore no alternative but to work with Indonesia.

But how can Australia achieve a more comprehensive relations with Indonesia?

Firstly, Australia must shift its view of Indonesia from that of a potential threat to one of a potential strategic asset. Indonesia hasn’t shown a tendency of attacking Australia; in fact, the recent signing of the trade partnership between the two nations demonstrates that there is potential for Australia and Indonesia to work together.

The two countries also share a strategic interest: both Australia and Indonesia are uncomfortable with the rise of China. Australia should use the momentum following the signing of the trade partnership to start a comprehensive strategic partnership with Indonesia.

More importantly, Australia would gain from improving its cultural intelligence about Indonesia.

As George Megalogenis argues, ‘it has become the habit of every prime minister, since Howard, to view Asia through the wrong end of the telescope, placing domestic concerns above all else and assuming that our neighbours will forgive our insensitivity when we ask them to play along.’

The case of Australia towards Indonesia is no different.

Just think of Gillard and the cattle trade saga, Abbott and the handling of the phone tapping of Indonesia’s president, and more recently, Morrisson and the proposed change of the Australian embassy to Jerusalem.

In every case the relationship was strained for the domestic gain of the politicians. To maintain a healthy relation with Indonesia, Australia must learn to effectively balance domestic politics with its relations with Indonesia.

A complete understanding of Indonesia, through its culture and language, will also improve Australia’s relationship with Indonesia and the study of Indonesia and its language should be promoted.

We cannot bank on the support of a small Indonesian diaspora to provide Australia with a comprehensive understanding of the neighbouring state. After all, if Asia is described as being dynamic, a mixture of cultures, religions and languages, Indonesia is no different.

In fact, Indonesia embodies that definition. Australia is faced with the fact that one of its closest neighbours is fundamentally different in culture. We cannot expect Indonesia to to forgive its every misstep in diplomacy, but rather try  hard to understand the Indonesian way of conducting oneself.

Minimising tension is imperative for improving the relation and for that, Australia must be aware of cultural sensitivities with Indonesia and able to display such awareness through its leaders and diplomats.

Bouncing off the achievement of its trade partnership, Australia should take its relationship with Indonesia a step further: a future security relation.

However, taking this step will require Australia to become more sensitive of the differences between the two countries, and improve its understanding of the culture.

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