There’s been talk lately about building our relationship with Indonesia beyond the usual military exercises and defence engagement. But while government statements like the National Security Strategy have emphasised building security ties via the Lombok Treaty, developing the overall relationship (as called for in the Asian Century White Paper) might begin to include more discussion on economic matters. In fact, that’s something that both Australian and Indonesian leaders have flagged at past summits, and the direction in which Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (amongst other Indonesian voices) would like to see the bilateral relationship go. So if we’re serious about moving the relationship forward, then why not a 3+3 dialogue?
The 2+2 dialogue is a newish forum held annually between the Australian foreign and defence ministers and their Indonesian counterparts. A 3+3 could broaden the agenda by adding the Trade Minister (a natural inclusion given DFAT’s structure) or the Treasurer. While the foreign minister bears responsibility for raising trade issues in the context of the 2+2, having a trade minister in person means the ability to address the specifics of ideas and discussion around the table. But while there might be appetite for more bilateral cooperation opportunities, the test of whether it’s worth adding more acronyms (or numbers) to the alphabet soup is really weighed up in terms of process and substance.
In terms of process, aligning six busy ministerial schedules will be no easy feat. The 2+2’s precursor, the Australia–Indonesian Ministerial Forum (AIMF), which lasted from 1992 to 2008, had to muster around 11 or 12 ministers at a time. But the logistics toll can be eased when you think of the number of smaller, more focused meetings that could be held along the sidelines of a larger forum. And there’s diplomatic mileage to be gained by expanding the 2+2 in a way that more meaningfully reflects our aspirations with Indonesia. In the coming years, there’ll be a lot of business sector as well social and cultural initiatives flourishing under the auspices of the Asian Century White Paper but it’s still crucial for high level talks to grow in symbolic terms.
Turning now to substance, a 3+3 might mean cutting back on the time spent talking about strict foreign affairs and defence matters, and discussion might become rather formulaic. But discussion of trade security challenges with the presence of all three ministers more adequately reflects the intertwined nature of our strategic interests, our respective national security plans and the evolving nature of economic linkages in our region. There’s a natural overlap between issues of security and trade; illegal fishing—an issue high on Indonesia’s agenda—is an example where defence capability and trade imperatives intersect. The Lombok Dialogue, after all, was a product of the AIMF.
It doesn’t even have to be confined to the Trade Minister. Perhaps the Minister for Defence Materiel could explore greater defence industry partnerships, especially in light of Indonesia’s push to revitalise its arms industry. The Minister for Education could sound out options to work with Indonesia to help it compete better regionally (it’s something ANU’s Indonesia Update Conference looked at in detail last year). In the opposite direction, Indonesia could help address our apparent Asian language literacy deficit.
Similarly, the Attorney General or Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries or Forestry could add plenty of value. On the Indonesian side, the Coordinating Minister for Legal, Political and Security Affairs could attend. Whatever the configuration, it’s about appraising the ends and means and deciding what would bring both partners the most dividends. And most of all, it’s about getting closer to a comprehensive bilateral partnership.
Of course there’ll be challenges in trying to coordinate three ministers a side, let alone four or five. And with the collapse of the Australia–Indonesia Ministerial Forum after 2008 and the 2+2 just off the ground, there’ll be, understandably, bureaucratic reluctance about going down that path again. But with both sides expressing great willingness to work together and so many areas of potential high-level cooperation, there are good odds of survival for this kind of configuration, if it’s given half a chance.
Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs.