Australia–Indonesia relations: keeping it real
23 Feb 2021|

Observers of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia can’t have missed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s declaration a year ago that the two countries enjoyed a level of ‘trust that underpins only the truest of friendships’, or Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s labelling of Australia as Indonesia’s ‘truest friend’. Such hyperbole might have been necessary given the occasion, but it’s a chimerical basis for building the kind of strategic partnership from which both countries would benefit over coming decades.

We should inch our reality closer to the rhetoric by enhancing our practical ties with Indonesia in a few areas.

Like its predecessors, the Morrison government has hardly ignored the relationship, even if its preoccupations with China and the Pacific have cast Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia somewhat into the policy shadows. It has rebuilt ties last strained by Morrison’s ruminations on moving our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and, before then, by Widodo’s old zeal for capital punishment. It deserves credit for its response to Indonesia’s need for support during the Covid-19 pandemic. And, if its claims about the gains from the Indonesia–Australia Closer Economic Partnership Agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership prove overblown, benefits are nonetheless likely to flow for both countries.

But it would be naive to believe that any of this is likely to reshape entrenched perceptions of Australia in Indonesian policy circles any time soon. Many Indonesian leaders will remain suspicious of our motives and dismissive of our capacity to be a significant economic and strategic partner, as a recent survey shows. We could multiply our leaders’ and ministers’ contacts, but whatever gains that might bring would quickly dissipate with the onset of the next bilateral spat, which is only ever just around the corner. Moreover, it invariably takes more time and effort to rebuild what’s broken than it did to break it; it’s a Sisyphean task.

That assessment doesn’t justify abandoning the quest to push the relationship up a less frustrating incline. It simply means that, no less than for Washington, we shouldn’t expect any lingering gratitude and reciprocity from Jakarta, least of all that our actions can buy us influence over its decision-making. We should do it anyway, in part because not to do so would reduce the ballast that the relationship needs to survive rockier times.

We should make more of an investment in some areas. Defence cooperation is one, irrespective of the fact that Indonesia’s military (the TNI) harbours more suspicions and easily aroused hostility towards Australia than other parts of Indonesian society. Decades of activities between our armed forces haven’t doused such sentiment, so we shouldn’t expect that merely expanding joint training will change the TNI’s institutional mindset. But it would improve the odds of disabusing Indonesia’s emerging military leaders of the fallacies about Australia’s capabilities and intent to which they’re often subjected and of building personal bonds between both officer corps that, in times of crisis, can help keep matters in a broader strategic perspective. We should be especially open to activities that Indonesia would welcome or, ideally, initiate in the maritime domain.

Another area is aid. Again, history shows that being among Indonesia’s major donors guarantees neither gratitude nor influence through ‘soft power’ when political factors strain the relationship. Moreover, the more Indonesia develops into the power it sees as its destiny, the less it wants to be defined as an aid recipient or ‘a member of a beggars’ club’. So, we shouldn’t expect greater aid flows simply to translate into more power, but nor should we imagine that continuing to run down our aid won’t have consequences.

Ideally, we should restore aid flows closer to where they used to be by means of a ‘Southeast Asia step-up’ beyond what the government has announced. Failing that, the only way to mitigate this risk is to concentrate on those areas most likely to resonate with Widodo and the wider Indonesian public. We should prioritise aid that meets what Indonesia identifies as its primary development needs rather than programs aimed at longer term social objectives. That’s likely to mean refocusing the program to cleave more closely to Widodo’s own second-term development goals as enunciated in his inauguration speech, especially his aim to endow his country with a human resource base more skilled in sciences and technology. This would offer both practical support and a potential soft-power dividend.

One element of this should showcase Australia’s scientific and technological excellence in the health and agriculture sectors. We can do this through our aid program as well as our commercial promotion activities. To a degree, this is already happening. Adjusting the aid program would allow it to happen more.

Another element should turn on getting more young Indonesians to study in Australia, particularly in civil engineering and the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This is a multidimensional problem demanding measures that in many cases lie beyond any Australian government’s reach. That said, the government could do far worse with its aid funds than expand the Australia Awards program significantly and should review how closely its current priority fields of study marry with Jokowi’s.

As some of Australia’s most consistent Indonesian critics have proved, granting someone an award to study here doesn’t guarantee even a balanced appreciation of Australia’s flaws and virtues, let alone a readiness to privilege it. But many recipients have come away from the experience understanding Australia better and valuing it more, and some have risen to senior levels of government and business. More to the point, reducing the number of awards—or even simply maintaining the same number while competitors like Beijing increase theirs—will guarantee that Australia’s chances of influencing Indonesian decision-makers will diminish commensurately and relatively to others’ at precisely the time when our interests will lie in improving our odds.

In that event, however, the government should avoid simply increasing the proportion—or even the number, beyond a certain point—of Indonesian government recipients. Since Indonesia’s private sector (more specifically, its young entrepreneurial class) appears on course to influence and even define the country’s political economy, raising the proportion of both long- and short-term awards to non-government applicants may offer a better chance of exposing Indonesia’s future opinion-shapers to what Australian science, technology and education have to offer.

These proposals offer a far from perfect answer to the dilemma of doing less with less. They’re likely to have implications that run counter to Australian values, such as equity, and for our attractiveness to some Indonesians (a theme to be explored in a future Strategist post). But until we have the means to do more with more, they may be the least imperfect option from a national interest perspective.