Beyond Words: Revamping Australia’s Indonesia Policy

Why both nations must move past words like “strategic partnership” and embrace each other.

Over the past year Australia has been paying greater attention to Indonesia, as evident from the more frequent official engagements, as well as  new diplomatic and defense initiatives. Stronger ties are already reflected in the language Australian leaders have been using to describe Indonesia, with officials like Defense Minister Stephen Smith referring to Indonesia as a “strategic partner.”

But it appears that there’s some way to go before “strategic partner” becomes more than just a term of endearment. For instance, Australia's 2009 Defense White Paper (for the time being still the government’s defense strategic policy) displays a curious ambivalence towards Indonesia. According to the White Paper, Australia has a “fundamental interest in controlling the air and sea approaches to our continent” (paragraph 5.5). But in reference to a secure immediate neighborhood, it says Australia should prevent or mitigate “nearby states [from] develop[ing] the capacity to undertake sustained military operations within our approaches” (paragraph 5.8). There’s a contradiction there, as Hugh White notes in his Security Challenges essay (PDF): it may very well be those same capabilities Indonesia requires to ensure its own security in its northern approaches that could be instrumental in helping both Indonesia and Australia secure their mutual strategic interests.

In short, the language of the 2009 Defense White Paper simply doesn’t match Australian leaders’ characterization of Indonesia as a strategic partner. And although there are asymmetries in the two sides' capabilities, a strategic partnership means encouraging Indonesia to grow in a way that complements Australia's strengths and compensates for its weaknesses so that the two sides can work together. Actively seeking to mitigate or prevent Indonesia from acquiring particularly capacities will not allow it to play an important role in Australia's strategic future.

To be sure, this might have been justifiable in white papers released after Konfrontasi (during which Australia and Indonesia found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict), or shortly after the 1999 East Timor intervention, during which time Australia's relations with Indonesia were more fractious and the latter's military (TNI) was only just exiting Indonesian politics. But times have changed.

On the domestic front, Indonesia is a much more stable, democratic state. In economic terms Indonesia is now starting to flex its muscles, with an annualized GDP growth rate of 6.4% in the second quarter of 2012, an economy that is larger than Australia’s in purchasing power parity terms, and a middle class that is larger than Australia’s entire population. Furthermore, the Indonesian armed forces no longer exert the same level of direct influence on politics and there’s a greater commitment to crack down on corruption.

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In regional terms, Indonesia enjoys greater clout and has attracted the attention of international partners such as the United States, the United Kingdom and China. Recent participation in the RAAF-hosted Exercise Pitch Black 2012 shows Indonesia’s willingness to engage with partners such as Australia by sending their newest aircraft to build person-to-person ties and to dispel any doubts about their military intentions.

Barring a significant change in the trajectory of Indonesia's growth and domestic transformation, this is likely to become an enduring externality for Australian policy. Nonetheless, it’s worth thinking through the factors that could cause problems for Indonesia down the road. These include: reduced economic growth, a more internally-oriented leadership, and a deteriorating domestic stability. The pertinent question, however, is whether these eventualities would adversely affect the Indonesia–Australia relationship over the long term, or merely slow the engagement temporarily? It seems clear that the relationship between Indonesia and Australia is irreversibly charting upward over the long term. A nationalist President of Indonesia would be a concern for Australia, but wouldn’t necessarily require a radical rewrite of Indonesia’s place in Australia’s strategic interests. In any case, as one RSIS commentator notes (PDF), currently nationalism is not a cause for concern.

Likewise, Australia can cause ructions over livestock, people smuggling or the incarcerations of Australians, but the two countries’ share some fundamental interests that should ultimately prevail over these obstacles. In terms of shifting regional geopolitics, Australia and Indonesia have much in common as both countries try to navigate China’s rise and the U.S. rebalance. A Defense Cooperation Agreement signed recently between Australia and Indonesia provides a framework for practical cooperation on common security matters like these, but it’s time to explore the bigger, more long-term strategic questions about the region.

Indonesia demands different handling in the next Defense White Paper, which is as much an opportunity as the Asian Century White Paper to correctly recognize Indonesia’s place. Language matters, because it sends a strong signal to both the Australian and Indonesian people about how leaders see each country’s place in the region. And while the majority of everyday people in each country may not delve into the pages of the White Paper, setting the tone for political interaction as well as doing away with ambiguous language remains important. Hopefully the 2013 White Paper will articulate Indonesia’s importance and elevate it to partner status rather than treat it as a subordinate. That sort of constructive language would remove the disparity between the language of the 2009 White Paper and the increasing importance of close defense relations and alignment of strategic interests between the two nations.

The White Paper might start by recognizing how Indonesia complements Australia's capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. Or it could, as Hugh White suggests, address Indonesia separately from the rest of the “our neighborhood” section to recognize the important role it plays in Australia’s strategic environment. While there’s no prospect of a formal alliance between the two sides for the foreseeable future, it would provide a more robust basis in Australia's national policy to give a broader context to new initiatives such as the recently signed Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Defense Minister Smith assures us that he is “committed to regular, open and transparent discussions with Indonesia on the development of Australia’s 2013 Defense White Paper.” Let’s hope the final cut pays them the same due respect.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist, where this piece first appeared.