Time for unity: Indonesia and Australia's relationship post trump



The election of Republican candidate Donald Trump to the US Presidency on 8 November 2016, came as a surprise to many Australians. A Clinton presidency, which had seemed the most likely outcome according to opinion polls, would have signalled a continued strengthening of US involvement in the Indo-Pacific region, following on from the strategy of the Obama Administration’s “pivot” to Asia. Instead, Trump’s negative stance on international trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could potentially see the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) take over as the leading trade agreement within the region, thus cementing China’s hegemony within the Asia-Pacific.

It is not a scenario that comes without some reservation. Securing China’s influence within the Asia-Pacific region might lead to some domestic unease within countries such as Indonesia, which hosts a chequered history with regards to the prospect of Chinese influence. Anti-Chinese and anti-Communist sentiment has been strongly present in the riots in 1965-66 and 1998, and there has been a resurgence in this rhetoric recently with the Christian-Chinese Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjajaka Purnama - popularly known as “Ahok” - targeted for allegedly blasphemous comments. A possible solution could see Australia strengthening its bilateral ties within the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN countries, providing influence that may counter the Chinese threat and give Indonesia further reassurance by continuing the presence of Western liberal democratic values in the region.

Despite Indonesian President Joko Widodo's postponement of his visit to Perth earlier this month due to the increasing domestic tension and riots in his country’s capital, there is firm commitment to strengthening the bilateral relationship between the two countries. The Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), which has recently completed its fifth round of negotiations in Bandung, Indonesia, is a promising step towards securing and building economic ties between the two countries. The Indonesia-Australia Business Partnership Group (IA-BPG) report, released in August 2016, is a window into the current impediments to trade and investment, and highlights the potential strategic models for partnership that the IA-CEPA could help facilitate. Aside from traditional perspectives such as discussing the opportunities for infrastructure, energy, food security, education, and health, time has also been given to exploring tourism expansion and acceleration of the digital economy, e-commerce and creative industry.

Indeed, closer focus on building the Indonesian-Australian relationship through increased Australian investment into Indonesian financial services, infrastructure, and logistics could help increase Australia’s global competitiveness. However, much of Indonesia’s strengths as a partner for Australia lie in its young and tech-savvy workforce, which may be dialled in to more global and international trends. According to a September 2016 industry report, Indonesia has over 88.1 million active Internet users and 88 million active social media users; in comparison, Australia has 21.2 million active Internet users and 15 million active social media users. For Western Australia in particular, which has seen an increase in unemployment from 6.1% to 6.5% due in part to a downturn in the resources industry, attracting alternative industries is a priority and there is strong potential in partnerships with Indonesia to facilitate the growth of the “start-up” space and mentality.

Along with the economic potential for Indonesia and Australia in the wake of a Trump victory, the issue of regional and national security must be discussed. The withdrawal of US influence from the Indo-Pacific could see a shift in regional dynamic, and signal a weakening of Australia’s capacity for defence, which would furthermore leave space for a stronger Chinese territorial claim for the islands in the South China Sea. In terms of Australia’s national security, however, a Trump Presidency may serve as the red flag to re-direct focus inwards by building the resilience and strength required for the country to become an international actor. Development of stronger security agreements with Indonesia’s military, which is currently ranked 14th globally in terms of military capabilities and available firepower, may provide another avenue forwards for greater cooperation between the two countries in the future.

Cat Slack is currently studying a Master of International Relations at the University of Western Australia.

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