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Australia’s Self-Indulgent Indonesian Misconception

Policymakers consistently stress the need for deeper, more meaningful engagement with China. Politicians extoll the economic virtues of closer links. Media coverage is consumed by debate surrounding Chinese FDI. Yet, Australia’s relationship with Indonesia hardly registers the same level of intensity or importance. The disparity in diplomatic focus is marked. Our tendency to look far beyond our borders rather than take into account that which looms on our periphery is not unique to Australia. Our tendency to disregard Indonesia, however, is.

Like any savvy operator, Australia gravitates towards and cultivates relationships with key regional players. China, with vast financial resources, burgeoning military strength and the heightened political status of ‘hegemon’, is an obvious target for a charm offensive. It is a necessity drilled into us by the reality that China is our largest trading partner and the aspirant power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Such an instinctive desire for mutually beneficial relations has never characterised the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Whether the issue is asylum seekers, live cattle exports or capital punishment, Canberra has operated from a position of self-assurance in its dealings with Jakarta. Politically stable, with celebrated civil liberties, strong economic growth and an enviable international reputation, Australia has comfortably lain in stark contrast to its immediate northern neighbour. This dynamic no longer prevails. The scales have shifted, decidedly in Indonesia’s favour.

Indonesia is now the world’s third largest democracy, one of the fastest-growing economies and possessed of a large, young population (the age of your average Indonesian is 28 years, compared to the 37.3 years for an Australian). So what prompts Australia’s continued conceit in the face of a rising Indonesia?

Perhaps the answer is rooted in psychology. The ‘Semmelweis reflex’ refers to the natural tendency of human beings to reject new evidence or knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms. In the words of Hugh White, “Indonesia’s growing wealth and power fits neither our image of it as a poor country, nor Australia’s image of itself as relatively rich and strong”. Confirmation biases have no place in the practice of foreign policy or in the clinical evaluation of national interest. Channeling former Lowy analyst Fergus Hanson, Australia can no longer treat Indonesia “like a miscreant Pacific atoll [but rather as] a country fundamental to Australia's future prosperity and stability”.

In pursuing stronger ties with Indonesia, Australia can exploit a number of common interests. None are new ideas, but are worthy of fresh consideration as we move into the coming decade faced with the most problematic bilateral relationship of our time.

1. Strategic potential

Faced with an increasingly complex global security environment, Australia and Indonesia should set about building upon the 1995 Australian-Indonesian Security Agreement. Guided by realistic expectations – chief amongst them respect for Indonesia’s core principles of national unity and territorial integrity – strategic mutuality shouldn’t be written off. Australia guards the southern approaches to the Indonesian archipelago, which also represents the northern frontier for Australian defensive interests. A frank and open discussion of hypothetical security scenarios affecting the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar Straits is a primary example of the benefits to be derived from a closer strategic partnership.

2. Military collaboration

Military cooperation is a natural extension of any strategic bond. Even if political sensitivities preclude cooperation, there exist avenues for coordinated involvement. For example, joint naval patrols could be conducted in the Timor and Arafura Seas, facilitating the sharing of information on navigation and coastal geography. In an ideal political climate, a joint Australia-Indonesia-US military exercise similar to Exercise Kowari could be undertaken.

3. Economic interchange

With heightened domestic consumption, an expanding young workforce and a slump in commodities exports, the Indonesian market is a perfect storm of opportunity if Canberra chooses to see it. The Australian 2015-2016 Budget suggests that our aid to Indonesia will total $366.4 million: 0.03% of Indonesia’s GDP. Clearly, our impact is negligible. We should seek Jakarta’s investment, rather than their gratitude. In 2014, Australia’s investment in Indonesia was $8,126 million; nearly eight times that of the comparative Indonesian investment ($1,455 million). Evidently, two-way trade needs to be rebalanced, which will only occur as the Indonesian economy diversifies and develops. As ASPI’s Amelia Long points out, the Widodo Government’s current five-year infrastructure plan provides opportunities for Australian companies such as Industry Super Australia, who have experience in such sectors, to deepen linkages between the Australian-Indonesian business communities.

It is not so much the tone of the Australian-Indonesian relationship that has to change, as it is the entire belief system upon which the relationship is built. The question driving the interaction can no longer be one of demand, but rather of offer: What can Australia do for Indonesia? As we wade further into the Asian Century, we must remember it is exactly that: Asian.

Nicholas has recently completed a Bachelors of International Relations at Bond University.

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Image credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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