Australia’s strategic security: beyond the great and powerful
19 Jun 2013|

A Jakarta skylineAs Indonesia pursues a policy of ‘a million friends and zero enemies’, Australia needs to ensure that it stands out from the multitude; that it isn’t merely a close acquaintance or an amicable neighbour, but as close a friend of Indonesia as possible.

The changing dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region mean that Australia’s traditional reliance on a ‘great and powerful friend’ could entail far greater risks and less overall security. After all, being an ally of a nation competing for primacy is vastly different to being an ally of an unchallenged power. There are greater demands, risks and costs—and a finer diplomatic line to walk given that our major ally has ceased to be our largest trading partner.

In the coming decades, and in the face of potentially destabilising Sino-American antagonism, Australia may feel compelled to rely more on regional relationships (PDF) to strengthen its security environment. Should this be the case, Indonesia would prove a prime candidate. After all, the geography of the two island nations will remain unchanged and the Indonesian archipelago has long been recognised (PDF) in Australian defence planning as an important land and sea barrier between the Australian mainland and South East Asia, making relations with Indonesia a crucial element of Australian strategic policy.

Territory aside, Indonesia is by many crucial measures big, and getting bigger. Boasting a relatively young and fast-growing population more than ten times the size of Australia’s, economic projections (PDF) suggest Indonesia will boast one of the top ten largest economies by 2050 (and at least twice as large as Australia’s).

And while there may be financial and demographic dissimilarities, there are important shared values and beliefs. Lowy Institute polls indicate that a similar proportion of Australians as Indonesians believe that democracy is preferable to any other form of government and also show that substantial majorities from each nation support the central democratic values of freedom of expression, the right to vote in national elections and the right to a fair trial.

Yet Australia’s efforts to build a relationship with Indonesia have been wanting on many levels. Strategically, Indonesia is undervalued as a security partner. Politically it’s portrayed as a neighbour Australia can call the shots to. Economically it’s almost entirely bypassed by corporate Australia. And in the public mind Australia’s northern neighbour is seen as a struggling and divided democracy. Taken together, it’s little wonder that Fergus Hanson has characterised Australia’s half-hearted overtures to Indonesia as ‘one of our greatest foreign policy failures’.

Which leads us to a long list of improvements Australia has to make to the current rudimentary Australia-Indonesia relationship. As a first step, a more positive public understanding would help to drive political will. In the public mind, the link between Australian government policy and Indonesia shouldn’t be limited to people smuggling, live cattle exports or aid provision. Effort must be made to highlight the drastically undervalued strategic importance of Indonesia to Australia. According to last year’s foreign policy poll by the Lowy Institute, 2% of respondents ranked Indonesia as Australia’s most important security partner and just 6% as the second most important. New Zealand managed to rank as a more vital security partner than Indonesia. It’s little wonder then that Australian leaders have only limited enthusiasm for pursuing a serious strategic relationship with our northern neighbour.

Along with a fuller understanding of where Australia’s national interest lies, must be recognised and sought. Closer economic ties will naturally result in the convergence of Australian and Indonesian interests, and present an opportunity for fostering a closer, long-lasting relationship. Building an Australia-Indonesia partnership means building trade and elevating Indonesia above its present status as Australia’s 13th ranked (PDF) trading partner (a lower ranking than the far smaller economies of New Zealand, Malaysia and Thailand).

And at the political level, to properly ground the future of the relationship, Australian political leaders must acknowledge that Australia is in need of friendship much more than Indonesia. After so many decades of being the region’s biggest player, Australia must accept, and very quickly adjust, to no longer being the default regional power. As Hugh White wrote in the Jakarta Globe last year, Indonesia will soon be the biggest kid on the block and this is a fact Australia can’t afford to deny or ignore.

Indonesia is moving ahead in leaps and bounds and time isn’t on Australia’s side. Divergent national interests and cultural misunderstandings will be easier to negotiate in the future if the foundations for a strong relationship are laid now.

If, in the future, reliance on a ‘great and powerful friend’ is no longer a viable or sufficient strategic option, then Australia might have to look to a more diverse set of friends. But this will mean little if there isn’t a friend to call on.

Jessica Smith is currently completing a Graduate Diploma in International Affairs at ANU. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.