Nurturing a Better Indonesia-Australia Bilateral Relationship is Crucial for Both Countries

Nurturing a Better Indonesia-Australia Bilateral Relationship is Crucial for Both Countries iStock

Since the 2022 Australian Federal Election, Australia has made it clear that its strategic theatre is very much in Asia. Something that is often forgotten about in policy circles within Australia is, how do our partners within our operational circle view our decisions on the biggest stage. Throughout the AIYEP 2022 program, I have learnt of the strong person-to-person bonds that tie Australia and Indonesia, as well as our joint priorities for improving health, social wellbeing, and regional security. However, Australia and Indonesia’s defence and diplomatic ties have not always been as rosy as portrayed. Given a somewhat murky history, Indonesia has every right to view Australia’s current strategic posture with a watchful gaze. Throughout this piece, I will be analysing three of Australia’s key pivots towards Asia, firstly diplomacy, followed by counterterrorism, and finally conventional conflict preparation.

Since the election of a Labor government in May 2022 Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, has been on a comprehensive tour of Southeast Asia. This is in response to great power competition, and in particular, the security pact that was signed between China and the Solomon Islands which was viewed with great panic within Australia. Throughout the election campaign, Anthony Albanese committed to greater engagement with Southeast Asia, and currently this election promise is being fulfilled. However, some Indonesian policy circles are viewing this diplomatic pivot with some level of suspicion and perceive Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia as somewhat tokenistic. Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia has been criticised as inconsistent, only engaging when they feel an emerging threat is apparent. This is supported by Australia’s strategic culture, which views Indonesia as the single most important state for Australia’s survival. I believe the view of Indonesia as a “buffer” state between Australia and Asia has been a key driver in Australia’s inconsistent prioritisation of engagement of Indonesia, making our partners sceptical of just how committed Australia is to develop stronger bilateral ties outside of engaging for pure realist national interest. However, capacity building projects that Australia has engaged on with Indonesia are looked favourably upon by Indonesian national security analysts, as it is a way for Indonesia to develop their own sovereign defence capabilities.

The ’Preventing and Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism 2022-26’ report that was published by the Australian government indicates a strong change in how it seeks to prevent violent extremism and is looked favourably upon by Indonesia. Within this report, Australia outlines how it will transition from overseas operations to limit violent extremism, to capacity building in partner nations to strengthen Police, Intelligence and Defence agencies. Not only does this reduce Australia’s requirement to focus operational energy on counterterrorism, but it increases bilateral relations through interoperability, and increases the ability of parties to enforce laws multilaterally. Indonesia should view this change in policy as a massive win for them. Not only does this change in doctrine limit the perceived intrusion of western security agencies into the domestic issues of partners, but also builds the capacity of Indonesian security agencies at a time when Indonesia attempts to build its own sovereign capabilities. The reality is Indonesia is much more important for Australia’s national security than Australia is for Indonesia’s, not taking account Australia’s two-decade long experience through the war on terror. This move towards sovereign self-reliance is shown through Indonesia’s significant increase in defence expenditure. This will be an issue for Australia moving forwards, as its (along the USA’s) worst case scenario is a truly neutral Indonesia during the contemporary cold-war in Indonesia.

Indonesia should view Australia’s build towards competency in conventional contemporary conflicts with both scepticism and optimism. Much like its interpretation of Australia’s changing approach to counter-terrorism, Indonesia should be happy that it continues to develop its sovereign capability through training with the US and Australians in exercises like Garuda Shield. Most importantly, Indonesia should be particularly happy to learn techniques in logistics and administration from the US military, given Indonesia may struggle to employ its significantly expanded military initially due to logistical and supply pressures. On a more troubling note, Indonesia could be sceptical of Australia’s commitment to the AUKUS agreement. For one, this commitment re-establishes Australia’s overarching allegiance to its two old allies, which may suggest a continued underutilisation of regional partners like Indonesia. Additionally, Indonesia may be concerned with Australia’s ability of force-projection, which is significantly increased by the purchasing of nuclear-powered submarines. Indonesia may view these new assets as beyond pure self-defence realism, but instead perceive them as a way for Australia to intervene or meddle in issues in Southeast or East Asia. Indonesia’s commitment to Southeast Asian states solving Southeast Asian issues has been shown through its commitment to ASEAN. Additionally, Indonesia deep-down knows that Australia’s strategic culture would rather see an Indonesia on its side than an Indonesia with full autonomy over decisions, therefore this expansion in force projection is bound to keep some Indonesian analysts awake at night.

In my piece, I have attempted to examine how Indonesia views Australia’s changing strategic posture in the worlds of diplomacy, counter-terrorism and conventional military preparedness. In my opinion, the relationship between Indonesia and Australia is one of the most crucial relationships regionally. Indonesia will soon be the world's largest economy, while Australia is a democratic, prospersers state with an overwhelming western pivot. To me, the relationship between Australia and Indonesia in the coming years will be a microcosm of how the contemporary cold war will play out. Will Indonesia recede into isolationism, with a large and well-structured military built off scepticism of the west, or will it be a key regional and strategic ally, and superpower in its own right, for Australia.

SGPP-Intern, Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP) 2022-2023

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