Australia’s strategic outlook: the view from Indonesia

Australia’s Defence White Paper comes at a challenging time in world politics. When I assumed the Indonesian Presidency in 2004, globalisation was the issue of the day—free trade, economic integration, emerging economies, global financial crisis, the G20.

But as I left office a decade later, it was geopolitics that consumed international affairs. Major powers relations, after a decade or so of relative stability, were unravelling. Territorial disputes, suspicion and tension, zero sum rivalry for access and influence, brinkmanship—all  are assuming centre stage again. I believe we are stuck with this situation at least in the short to medium term.

This volatile strategic landscape provides the backdrop for the strategic outlook in the Defence White Paper. There are a number of points in the White Paper’s strategic outlook which I highlighted. The White Paper points out that by 2050, a predominant share of the world’s economic output is expected to come from the Indo-Pacific. The maintenance of peace and stability is absolutely critical to ensure the growing prosperity and the rules-based global order in the Indo-Pacific region.

Another point in the strategic outlook that I highlighted is the complex interplay, the roles and the relations between the US and China which will continue to be the most significant factor in the Indo-Pacific region towards 2035. In Australia’s view, the US will remain the preeminent global military power, and will continue to be Australia’s most important strategic partner.

The White Paper also recognises that terrorism will continue to haunt Australia at home and abroad. Instability in our immediate region could have strategic consequences for Australia. And your White Paper acknowledges new and complex non-geographic security threats in cyberspace and space. Indeed, they will be an important part of our future security environment.

In my view, these are strategic viewpoints that are shared by many countries in the region, including Indonesia. I see a world abundant with opportunity but also one that is becoming more dangerous. The interplay between geopolitics and geoeconomics will be even stronger in the 21st century. I believe that economic transformation will be the greatest force changing the lives and fortunes of billions of our citizens, creating a huge middle-class, liveable cities, expanding markets, jobs and opportunities. Getting our geostrategy right helps our common efforts to secure shared prosperity.

As Australia seeks to shape her strategic environment, the evolving partnership between Indonesia and Australia presents a good case of a trans-formed relationship that solidifies common security. To be honest, in the past, there was a lot of baggage between  Jakarta and Canberra.

There was mutual distrust, and mutual discomfort in our relationship. The East Timor issue was a major source of friction. In the eyes of many Australians, Indonesia was seen as an authoritarian state with human rights problems, and a troubled country politically and economically after the fall of President Soeharto. In the eyes of many Indonesians, Australia was seen as intrusive, and harbouring negative intention on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Indonesia.

I would say that Jakarta-Canberra relations were similar to many conflictual relations that we see among states today. But, together, we reversed that situation. We not only normalised the relationship: we elevated and transformed it.

When I came to office in 2004, changing Indonesia’s relations with Australia became my foreign policy priority. In 2005 I visited Canberra where Prime Minister, John Howard, and I signed the first Comprehensive Partnership between our countries. Not long after, we signed the Lombok Treaty, which transformed the security relationship between our countries. Indeed, our relations with Australia is among the most extensive, involving an annual Joint Ministerial meeting participated by a good line-up of Ministers covering different sectors. Indonesia rarely has this kind of relationship with a foreign country, and it is a good sign of how close we have become.

Indonesia’s defence attaché told me yesterday that since arriving in Canberra five months ago, he has been kept busy with endless engagements throughout the country with his counterparts in the Australian Defence Force. The spirit of military-to-military cooperation is very high. This is the way it should be: politicians come and go. As the relationship between our leaders and politicians have their highs and lows, the relationship between our militaries should be kept constant and cooperative. This is also true for people-to-people relations which serve as one the critical pillars for our relationship.

I am particularly pleased that, here in Canberra, when it comes to relations with Indonesia, we can count on bipartisan support. As a friend of Australia, I ask that this positive bipartisan support towards Indonesia is maintained for the long-term.

In today’s world, we are faced with a number of strategic unknowns. The unknowns include the outcome of the US elections, arguably the most consequential elections in terms of its impact on international affairs. And there are other unknowns: what will happen in the efforts to roll back ISIS; whether or not terrorism will intensify on global scale; what will happen to the migrants crisis in Europe; what will happen to US-China relations; whether Arab Spring countries will hold or fall; and how much further will China keep pushing its gains in the South China Sea.

In facing these unknowns, we always hope for the best, but we need to also prepare for the worst. Especially considering the international community seems to be frequently caught off-guard by where and when the next incidents will come.

From Australia to Indonesia, China to India, Japan to The Philippines, we see many nations undergoing simultaneous military modernizations—some more ambitious than others. I do not call it an arms race, because that’s not what it is. But what worries me is this: in general, the rise of armaments has not been coupled with the rise of strategic trust. Indeed, the rise of armaments has been marked by the reduction of strategic trust.

This is clearly evident in the South China Sea, where a solution to the overlapping disputes are still elusive. As we attempt to manage this flash point, all claimants need to constantly reaffirm their commitment to peaceful solution through consultation and dialogue, and do it in ways that adhere to international law.

They must refrain from provocative acts that would lead to conflict escalation, and do all they can to avoid miscalculations that could again destabilize the region.

The strategic deficit is also visible in the larger picture of international relations. If we take a look at major power relations, we now see many fractured parts. Between the US and Russia. Between Europe and Russia. Between China and Japan. Between South Korea and Japan. These are critically important relationships that had been in better shape before. When they go sour, world affairs becomes volatile.

For middle powers like Indonesia and Australia, it is therefore important for us to promote policies that do not perpetuate this worrying state of affairs: indeed, we can help to mitigate it. Indonesia and Australia can work together to ensure a dynamic equilibrium in the region where seismic power shifts will not lead to new conflicts, greater tension and the return to the harmful division of the Cold War era.

Just as Jakarta and Canberra seized the chance to reinvent our relationship, we can also work together, and work with other nations, to promote international peace and cooperation. I know in de-fence and security meetings we are constantly assessing threats and challenges. That is how we are trained to think. But that is only half the equation.

The other half is called : strategic opportunities. And while they are not always easy to come by, they do come around. Remember that Indonesia and Australia worked closely together to realize the G-20, instead of the competing option of a G-13. It took some late night phone calls back and forth between myself, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and President George W. Bush. But,  Alhamdulillah, in the end, the G-20, not the G-13, became a reality, and today has become the premier forum for international economic cooperation.

That is only a small sample of what we can do for a better world. Both Jakarta and Canberra are seeing more and more of their interests converging : in economics, regional security, combating terrorism, and others.

There is plenty of space to build a stronger partnership between us. Indonesia and Australia can work together to promote a rules based world order. But rules-based does not mean preserving the status quo. We need to constantly improve our region’s architecture, where we still see criss-crossing security, economic and political structures that resemble a spaghetti bowl.

We need to ensure that the architecture can keep up with the evolving situations on the ground, and can help to increase cooperation, resolve conflicts and increase confidence and trust. I personally wish to see the IndoPacific Treaty of Amity and Cooperation come to life one day –something  that I tried to promote during my term as President.

As the geostrategic chessboard moves, I must also say that it is important to maintain strategic transparency. In any situation where Australia or her allies decide to deploy larger forces, especially in the northern part of Australia, with considerable weapon system and equipments, it is critical to communicate with Indonesia and other countries. If you allow me to be candid, I remember well that the first time I heard about the decision to deploy of US marines in Darwin was when I was asked about it by reporters during an APEC Leaders meeting in Hawaii. It was a surprise to me. Eventually, things cleared up, but communication is important to avoid misunderstanding and build confidence and trust.

Our cooperation also include the efforts to deter the rise of extremism, radicalism and terrorism worldwide, especially in this digital era which provides a unique new battleground in the struggle between tolerance and hatred.

The Bali bombing of 2002 reaffirmed the compelling case that our national security are inter-related. Since then, our law enforcement officials have been working closely and effectively to deter terrorism. Both Indonesia and Australia also serve as models of open and free multi-cultural nation which respects freedom of religion, while embracing 8 tolerance and moderation. I know that muslims in Australia feel free, respected and welcomed, and this is an inspiring example to a world troubled by growing Islamophobia.

To fight radicalism and terrorism, we need a new mindset, new approach, new solution. I believe that the fight against radicalism and terrorism is connected to other parts of the puzzle. This includes advancing socio-economic progress. You see, the greatest threat to world is the fact that hundreds of millions of people are trapped in a condition of insecurity, ignorance, injustice, marginalization, which leads to helplessness, and hopelessness. In some of these areas, fertile minds can become corrupted, and become easy prey for radical manipulation.

This is why I believe we need to work together to promote Sustainable Development Goals so that more poor will graduate to middle class and become owners of a dignified life. There is a direct link, I guarantee you, between a more prosperous world and a more peaceful world that we want for our children.

In the final analysis, 2 years after leaving office, I still believe that the geopolitics of cooperation is possible. I am realistic enough to know that the affairs between countries will always involve rivalry and competition at some level, as it has been for centuries. But I am also convinced that little by little, the space for cooperation and trust and goodwill can continue to expand in world politics.

This is how Southeast Asia changed a divided region of enmity and violence, into a peaceful community of ASEAN family today. This is how the European Union expanded from 6 to 28 member states in ways which unimaginable several decades earlier. This is how the relations between the United States and Cuba evolved today, and how the relations between the western world and Iran may be changing for the better.

In short, geopolitics of cooperation is possible.