Australia and Indonesia need to trust each other if they want to get closer
10 Feb 2020|

There’s much to be excited about Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s visit to Australia this week, where he was the first Indonesian president in 10 years to address parliament.

Despite ups and downs in the Australia–Indonesia relationship in the past several years, overall it has been improving. The two countries’ navies, for example, have agreed to organise more joint training and exercises. And both the Australian and Indonesian parliaments have ratified the long-awaited Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

There are many reasons for the growing closeness between Indonesia and Australia. Two of the most important, however, are the growing assertiveness of China and the fear among many ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, that the United States is no longer that committed to helping maintain the stability of the region, especially under President Donald Trump.

With the regional strategic situation becoming more and more unstable, it’s not surprising that Australia and Indonesia see their interests converging.

Both Indonesia and Australia are wary about China. In Indonesia’s case, the recent standoff with China in the Natuna Islands has squandered Beijing’s strategic capital in Jakarta, even though Indonesia might not want to push the issue further due to its desire for Chinese investment and its own lack of military power.

For Australia, China’s interference in its domestic affairs combined with aggressiveness in Australia’s South Pacific backyard raises a lot of concerns.

At the same time, both Indonesia and Australia have much work to do in order to strengthen their relationship, notably in building trust between the two countries.

A 2019 Lowly Institute poll of Australians shows that only 1% think of Indonesia as Australia’s best friend, only 34% think that Jokowi will do the right thing in world affairs, and a surprising proportion (63%) don’t have confidence in the Indonesian president.

In fact, the same survey also suggests that Australians don’t trust other foreign leaders in general. Those mentioned in the survey, Chinese President Xi Jinping, US President Donald Trump, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, are all viewed negatively in the poll. Only New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has a net positive in the survey.

On the flipside, in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ The state of Southeast Asia 2020 survey of a pool of respondents from the research, business and finance, public, civil society and media sectors in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Australia doesn’t perform that well either.

Among Indonesians surveyed, only 3.4% have the confidence that Australia could provide leadership to ‘maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law’. In contrast, 47.3% have confidence in the European Union, located half a globe away, and 19.6% chose Japan.

While most respondents think the US is no longer reliable, only 10.2% would choose Australia as a strategic partner to replace the United States, while 30.7% would pick the European Union and 29.5% would select Japan.

Despite their proximity, both Indonesians and Australians don’t see each other as either that close or reliable. Instead, both countries look further afield for their main strategic partners.

In essence, both countries don’t see each other as that important. A significant number of Australian universities have dropped the teaching of Indonesian language and very few Indonesian institutions teach anything about Australia.

As a result, even though the Australia–Indonesia relationship is improving, it’s clear that it is based on very slender reeds: trust between Australia and Indonesia remains lacking and the two countries certainly don’t think of each other as their most important strategic partner.

It will be problematic when push comes to shove that both Australia and Indonesia may not be able to rely on each other due to lack of trust.

Jokowi’s visit to Australia will be dominated by the trade agenda, as he has shown a rather laser-like focus on economic issues. That’s unfortunate as there is more to the relationship between Australia and Indonesia than just economics.

It might be a good idea for the Australian government to try to push for a much broader agenda, notably intensifying cultural and educational exchanges. At the same time, Australia might be wise to intensify its various other engagements with Indonesia. Today’s announcement that Monash University will be the first foreign institution to be allowed to operate in Indonesia is a good first step.

Indonesia is Australia’s closest large neighbour. Both countries should and can do a lot more to rely on each other.