Australia needs an entente cordiale with Indonesia over nuclear propulsion and non-proliferation
29 Nov 2021|

However relaxed and comfortable Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto might be about Australia’s plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), the visit to Jakarta of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has probably validated the very different view of Le Drian’s counterpart, Retno Marsudi. And whatever Le Drian may have intended to achieve on this theme in Jakarta, he may well have compounded the Australian government’s problems with Indonesia over this central plank of the AUKUS agreement while stoking Jakarta’s suspicions of Canberra’s trustworthiness.

Le Drian ostensibly visited Jakarta last week to mark the 10th anniversary of the France–Indonesia strategic partnership. The Quay d’Orsay’s official pre-visit announcement noted that Le Drian would ‘address the implementation of French and European Indo-Pacific strategies in support of a free, open space based on the respect for international law and multilateralism’, and that the visit came as France was preparing to assume the EU Council presidency and Indonesia the G20 presidency. Both sides’ priorities in these roles were to be on the agenda in his meeting with Marsudi, along with bilateral issues.

One of those issues was undoubtedly Indonesia’s interest in possibly procuring Rafale fighter aircraft, which would add to why Le Drian also separately met Prabowo. The Rafale option looks to be among the most appealing to Prabowo, though only time will tell whether French jets patrol Indonesia’s skies rather than the alternatives that he’s also been conspicuously exploring, such as the latest US F-16 variant. Securing a significant defence sale was presumably at least as big a motive for Le Drian’s visit as any ‘tin anniversary’, especially given that the relationship is unlikely to rank among France’s most important.

Details of what Le Drian discussed with his interlocutors, who included President Joko Widodo and Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Panjaitan, are sketchy. The French foreign ministry stated that, inter alia, the ‘principle of joint meetings of foreign affairs and defence ministers (2+2 format) was endorsed’. This, it added, made ‘France the third country—and the first non-Asian country—to benefit from this dialogue format with its Indonesian partner, commensurate with joint cooperation ambitions’ (which is presumably a ringing French endorsement of the notion that Australia is an Asian country, since Canberra already has such an arrangement with Jakarta).

Official Indonesian statements are sketchier. Prabowo’s defence ministry at least has announced that ministers discussed defence cooperation such as training and education, science, technology and industry issues, terrorism, and ‘defence research and development, including joint production’. And the two foreign ministers reportedly signed an ‘action plan’ to strengthen the strategic partnership and improve ties in defence and maritime affairs.

As for Le Drian’s courtesy call on the president, Jokowi reportedly raised ‘five main points’ relating to the bilateral relationship. Most were typically focused on economic issues, including Jokowi’s hopes that negotiations for a comprehensive economic partnership agreement with the EU would be accelerated and ‘bring concrete results’. He also thanked France for providing 4.8 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine.

From the perspective of Australia’s interests, the most striking moment of the visit came during Le Drian’s address to Indonesia’s leading international affairs think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). While his speech focused on issues such as multilateralism and the EU’s position on the Indo-Pacific, his response to a question on ‘minilateralism’—specifically, AUKUS and the Quad—took on a very different tone.

Ignoring the Quad, he levelled his remarks at AUKUS, stressing four points. The first two reiterated the theme of ‘betrayal’ in terms of both being ‘cheated’ out of a deal and being deceived by NATO allies and, in Australia’s case, a historical ally. He talked about American efforts to restore trust through various US commitments to France. He didn’t mention Australia in this context.

More significantly, his third point was that AUKUS was about ‘pressing a sense of confrontation with China’ (as the simultaneous translation put it). He said that, while France was not oblivious to China’s military threats and risks, he believed that the best way to respond to these threats was to ‘develop an alternative model rather than to first of all oppose’.

Perhaps his most significant point for Australian interests was his fourth, which went to the transfer of nuclear technology for submarine propulsion. He pointed out that until now no nuclear-weapon state had done this. But ‘if tomorrow Australia has some nuclear-powered submarines, why not, some other countries could ask for similar technology, it could be Indonesia, why not?’ He continued that, even though this technology was not covered by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the risk the arrangement posed of starting a trend was nonetheless of concern.

Irrespective of Le Drian’s intentions in answering the question in this manner—and it’s noteworthy that he didn’t cover AUKUS in his formal address—he would surely have known that his words would resonate powerfully with his audience, both at CSIS and more generally among Indonesia’s foreign policy establishment. While his depiction of Australia as duplicitous was evidently personal and heartfelt, it would also have struck a chord with those Indonesians who have characterised Canberra the same way over such issues as East Timor, Papua and spying allegations, irrespective of how justified that judgement might be.

Le Drian’s last point went directly to concerns about nuclear proliferation—issues that Indonesia highlighted in its official statement on AUKUS and the planned submarines. It corresponds closely ‘in spirit’ with subsequent official commentary to the effect that Indonesia was considering advocating a change to the NPT aimed at preventing non-nuclear-weapon states from acquiring SSNs.

Le Drian did not imply France’s support for any such move in his public remarks. But given the correspondence between the sentiment he conveyed at CSIS and Indonesia’s expressed position, it’s easy to speculate that the subject got an airing during the foreign ministers’ meeting.

Unsurprisingly, the Morrison government seems a long way from changing Le Drian’s mind on AUKUS and the submarines, irrespective of the best efforts of Australia’s highly capable ambassador in Paris and her team.

But whoever governs in Canberra now and into the future should at least make a priority of assuaging Jakarta’s worries on this subject, however overstated and unbalanced they are. While Indonesia’s prospects of changing the NPT and precluding Australia from having SSNs look remote at best—not least because several of its ASEAN colleagues do not share its views of Australia’s ambitions—the sooner the two countries can put this latest irritant to rest the better.

In the circumstances, the onus for doing so must primarily rest with Canberra. But if Jakarta is serious about treating Australia as a ‘comprehensive strategic partner’, it might weigh up how conscientiously Australia has pursued the goal of nuclear non-proliferation over many decades and meet it halfway. Our shared strategic interests are too important to do otherwise.