The Four Compass Points of Australia – Indonesia Relations

 In China, ASEAN, Defense, Indo-Pacific, Australia, Local, Indonesia

‘Indonesia and Australia are des­tined to be close neigh­bours. We cannot choose our neigh­bours. We have to choose to be friends. Australia is Indonesia’s clos­est friend.’

— Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Address to the Australian Parliament, 10 February 2020

Two blokes in a golf cart, one Australian, one Indonesian, go out to look at kan­ga­roos.

No casual sight­see­ing trip, this. The cart has a crown on its front bumper, and both men are wear­ing suits.

Governor-General David Hurley is at the wheel of the vice-regal buggy, show­ing Indonesian President Joko Widodo the local fauna hop­ping around the grounds of Canberra’s Government House.

The roo-spot­ting is a whim­si­cal moment in the friend­ship between two neigh­bours that are des­tined but deeply disparate.

At the state lunch that fol­lowed, Hurley deliv­ered his speech in Bahasa Indonesia, ending: ‘Bapak Presiden, itu yang ter­baik yang bias saya lakukan’ (‘Mr President, that’s the best I can do’).

Jokowi returned the lan­guage effort with a ‘G’day mate’ to Australia’s par­lia­ment.

The president’s state­ment that Australia is Indonesia’s clos­est friend is remark­able because, of course, it’s not true. Yet …

Nowhere in the world are there three neigh­bours more dif­fer­ent than the extraordinary triangle of Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

So Jokowi offers geostrate­gic and geoe­co­nom­ic aspi­ra­tion expressed in the most human terms.

The friend­ship call is an ambi­tious exam­ple of what lead­ers must do: shift real­i­ty towards the vision they describe. ‘Closest friend’ sits beside Paul Keating’s declaration 25 years ago that ‘No coun­try is more impor­tant to Australia than Indonesia.’

Jokowi’s Canberra visit lit up the map of the Oz – Indonesia rela­tion­ship. The two coun­tries zigzag around the chart, climb­ing Mount Incomprehension and sail­ing the Sea of Dissimilarity. This is a volatile friend­ship, prey to shocks and shakes. As Indonesia’s pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said in the Great Hall of Australia’s par­lia­ment on 4 April 2005:

Over the years, our rela­tions have expe­ri­enced many twists and turns, highs and lows. We know from expe­ri­ence that our rela­tions are so com­plex and unique that it can be pulled in so many dif­fer­ent direc­tions, and it can go right as often as it can go wrong. Which is why we have to handle it with the great­est care and coun­sel.

Noting SBY’s cau­tion and Jokowi’s ambi­tion, lift your eyes from the map to con­sid­er the four com­pass points of the rela­tion­ship.

The first con­stant, the north star, is geog­ra­phy. As Indonesian people-smug­glers demon­strat­ed, we’re only a short boat ride apart.

For Oz strate­gists, a friend­ly Indonesia ‘acts as a strategic shield to the immediate north of Australia’ while an unfriend­ly Indonesia is a sword above our head. Here’s a statement about geography as true today as it was in 1986:

In defence terms, Indonesia is our most impor­tant neigh­bour. The Indonesian arch­i­pel­ago forms a pro­tec­tive bar­ri­er to Australia’s north­ern approach­es. We have a common inter­est in region­al sta­bil­i­ty, free from inter­fer­ence by poten­tial­ly hos­tile exter­nal powers. At the same time, we must recog­nise that, because of its prox­im­i­ty, the arch­i­pel­ago to our north is the area from or through which a mil­i­tary threat to Australia could most easily be posed.

Keating paints this vividly: ‘How things go in the Indonesian arch­i­pel­ago, in many respects, so go we. Indonesia remains the place where Australia’s strate­gic bread is but­tered.’

Australia wants an Indonesia strong enough not to be porous, but unin­ter­est­ed in using its strength for any­thing nasty.

The second com­pass point is that rel­a­tive power is shift­ing steadi­ly to Indonesia. It’s the same rel­a­tive power loss Australia faces across Asia. Indonesia just brings it close to home. Our giant neigh­bour is on track ‘to pass Australia in eco­nom­ic size in the 2020s and even­tu­al­ly in mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties by the 2040s’. That pro­jec­tion is from Kevin Rudd in his memoirs.

If Indonesia main­tains its 5% growth rate for the next two decades, by 2040 it will be the world’s fifth largest econ­o­my. In that future, Hugh White muses, Indonesia is as impor­tant to Australia as China, ‘because while it will not match China’s wealth and power, it is much closer — and that could make all the dif­fer­ence. Never under­es­ti­mate the impor­tance of prox­im­i­ty.’

Indonesia sets the tem­per­a­ture and frames Australia’s approach to the rest of Southeast Asia (just as PNG does in the South Pacific).

The Oz role in ‘region­al archi­tec­ture’ always has an Indonesian ele­ment, even a Jakarta veto. Suharto brushed away Gough Whitlam’s region­al­ist ambi­tions, just as his sup­port helped Bob Hawke and Keating build APEC. Jakarta’s nod was needed to get Australia into the East Asia Summit when John Howard held the top job.

Indonesia’s cen­tral­i­ty to Australia is cen­tral to my argu­ment that Australia should join ASEAN.

In what I think of as his testament, the sage Jamie Mackie advised: ‘We should endeav­our to ensure at all costs that our broad­er region­al and global poli­cies diverge from Indonesia’s as little as pos­si­ble — and ide­al­ly should follow essen­tial­ly con­ver­gent tra­jec­to­ries.’

The third com­pass point is Australia’s con­stant focus on cre­at­ing diplo­mat­ic, eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary part­ner­ships with Indonesia. And get­ting the two peo­ples to see each other clear­ly.

The com­pre­hen­sive eco­nom­ic part­ner­ship agree­ment finalised during Jokowi’s visit is the trade twin of the 2018 comprehensive strategic partnership, which itself is built on the 2006 Lombok treaty.

Jokowi told parliament the two coun­tries can be ‘anchors for devel­op­ment’ in the South Pacific and help ASEAN trans­form the Indo-Pacific ‘trust deficit’.

The effort, always, is to build more weight and depth, to get bilat­er­al align­ments that serve region­al aims. The joint statement from Indonesia’s pres­i­dent and Australia’s prime min­is­ter devot­ed 10 of its 45 points to Indo-Pacific ‘sta­bil­i­ty and pros­per­i­ty’, 10 points to shared region­al inter­ests and 9 points to mar­itime coop­er­a­tion.

The fourth com­pass point adds a great caveat to the state­ment that Indonesia and Australia have noth­ing in common.

We now share some­thing vital and defin­ing: democ­ra­cy.

As usual, Australia and Indonesia do democ­ra­cy in dis­parate ways; the north and south faces of Mount Democracy are vastly dif­fer­ent, yet we share the peak and the view. Democracy — along with geog­ra­phy and power and part­ner­ship — can draw two peo­ples togeth­er, to achieve Jokowi’s vision of Australia as Indonesia’s clos­est friend.

The fact of a demo­c­ra­t­ic Indonesia should help Australia adjust to its rel­a­tive decline com­pared with the grow­ing wealth and strength of its giant neigh­bour.

Source: Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Recommended Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search