Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:47 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:47 | SYDNEY

The 'pivot' in Australia-Indonesia strategic relations

4 July 2012 11:03

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia's foreign policy.

'One cannot understand major developments in Australian-Indonesian relations unless we see them in the context of Australian-American relations' argued Australian historian and political biographer Peter Edwards. He characterised Australia's relationship with Indonesia as a 'triangular relationship' with the US comprising the third angle.

Edwards is correct, of course. Australia's strategic approach to Indonesia has been fundamentally shaped by its ANZUS alliance with the US. Alone and vulnerable on the southern flank of South East Asia, on occasion where policy differences have emerged over Indonesia, Australia has in the end deferred to US interests.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies acknowledged as much in justifying Canberra's volte face on Indonesia's sovereignty over West New Guinea. 'The hard facts of international life' mean Australia has to act 'in concert with our great and powerful friends', he conceded.

Once again, it seems, shifts in US grand strategy appear to be having a catalytic effect on Australia's strategic calculations about Indonesia. The US 'pivot' towards the Indo-Pacific has led Australia's strategic planners to reappraise Indonesia's centrality in regional security dynamics and its moderating influence on major power tensions.

This is a welcome development, if a perplexing one. After all, where did Australia's near neighbour disappear to over the last decade? Nowhere of course, but land wars in the Middle East sucked the attention of defence policy-makers and overshadowed the consequence of shifting power constellations in our own region. In other words, what should have been an abiding strategic interest for Australia – the centrality of Indonesia in Indo-Pacific politico-security dynamics – fell victim to Edwards' 'triangular relationship'.

So, how do we now define our relationship with Indonesia vis-à-vis the US pivot? The answer is 'carefully'.

Although America's strategic 're-engagement' with Indonesia, evident since the 2004 tsunami, is a largely positive development for Australia, it should inform, but not dictate the fundamentals of our strategic engagement with Indonesia. There is no substitute for a dynamic and well-crafted bilateral relationship with Indonesia, no matter how closely US and Australian policy approaches align.

Australian defence attaches and diplomats in Jakarta intuitively understand the need to keep an apparent distance from Washington when engaging with Indonesia. Being too closely identified with the US risks being labelled as the 'deputy sheriff', impeding independence of action and policy autonomy. Moreover, Indonesia's enduring sensitivity to external power interference engenders suspicion that Australia and the US are engaging in 'collusion' or containment strategies.

It should also be understood that beyond the 'white noise' of bilateral spats over Australian drug offenders and asylum seeker policies, Indonesia is focused on much bigger stakes in preserving regional harmony and prosperity in the face of the rise of China and India. Indonesia considers Australia an important partner in this endeavour and will continue to do so. The fact that we don't always like each other should not derail broader cooperation on strategic issues.

Developing a deeper understanding of Indonesia's foreign policy fundamentals in the context of Indo-Pacific developments is essential for Australian policy-makers. Much like Australia, Indonesia's expansive economic engagement with China belies persistent ambiguity about Beijing's longer term strategic intentions. Furthermore, Indonesia's authority in ASEAN and its historical role as a regional 'honest broker', including in the South China Sea dispute, are enduring elements of Indonesia's foreign and security policy that will survive far beyond the SBY presidency.

Australia has unique attributes to offer Indonesia. Its resident status in the Indo-Pacific and the smaller scale and approach of its strategic planning processes are more relevant to Indonesia than those of a behemoth like the US. Partnering with and facilitating Indonesia's shaping of inclusive regional mechanisms, investing in and expanding our highly-valued Defence Cooperation program with the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), and building Indonesia's maritime capabilities are vital areas for bilateral cooperation.

At present, the triangular relationship is providing a much-needed fillip to Australia's strategic relationship with Indonesia. Defence Minister Smith's announcement that TNI will be included in combined military exercises with Australian and US forces early next year has mitigated some of the risk for Australia inherent in the US pivot. First, it ensures Indonesia's military, still highly influential politically, shares in the training and interoperability benefits provided by the US Marines deployment. Second, by leaving the door open to later participation by China, Smith's announcement allays Indonesian concerns that US regional troop rotations would result in an escalation of Cold War-style tensions.

But seasoned observers of American foreign policy know that its interest in Indonesia will inevitably wax and wane. Australia's should not.

What Australia should do in response to the US pivot is market a unique 'Australian identity' in the context of our bilateral relationship with Indonesia. China, for example, has done this very astutely and successfully by appealing to its developing country solidarity, common historical experience and shared Asian consciousness with Indonesia. A clear narrative on the strategic importance of Indonesia that resonates both with Indonesian and Australian domestic constituencies would serve Australia well.