Indonesia–Australia cooperation: a key to stability in the Indo-Pacific
13 Nov 2019|

Indonesia and Australia have a vital role to play together in guiding the diverse nations of the Indo-Pacific towards a future of peace and stability.

This is a region of accelerating economic power with over 60% of global trade and plays a significant role in the economy, politics and security of the world.

During the high-level dialogue on Indo-Pacific cooperation in Jakarta in March, Indonesia’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, noted the region’s potential for prosperity as the home to 60% of the world’s population with a total GDP of nearly $US52 trillion.

But he stressed that meaning, stability and inclusive cooperation were indispensable to ensuring continued economic growth and prosperity. Having the right regional architecture to negotiate that future was crucial to its becoming reality.

The first challenge our region faces is the lack of agreement on how to deal with common threats. We need to determine what those threats to all of us are and establish guidelines for policymaking and strategies to deal with them cooperatively.

We must focus on finding solutions to more immediate threats and issues such as global warming, terrorism, natural disasters, illegal fishing, smuggling, environmental pollution, drugs, cyberspace and the need to care for refugees; even if that means setting aside, temporarily, those which are more difficult to resolve as in the South China Sea and on the Korean peninsula.

Another challenge is the process for consultation and problem-solving negotiations in the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN will maintain a central role in developing a regional architecture as set out in its more open and inclusive declaration, ‘ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific’.

This important work can be shared among bodies such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN+1, the Asian Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus.

Together, Indonesia and Australia should look for ways to more effectively engage India in the region.

The future is uncertain and the region faces possible shockwaves from great state competition. The China–US trade war will, directly or indirectly, have a broad impact in various sectors, including security. The Trump administration has declared China a long-term strategic competitor and the US government has adopted a more proactive response to China’s actions. China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the ‘America first’ policies of the United States are elements of a trade war that has been openly declared by both countries.

Nations such as Britain, France, India, Russia and Japan are becoming increasingly involved in strategic competition in the region.

The potential for destabilisation is considerable, and Indonesia and Australia have key roles to play in working together to help maintain stability.

The concept of Indo-Pacific cooperation promoted by Indonesia is based on inclusiveness, openness, close cooperation and respect for international law, with the centrality of ASEAN as one of the main nodes of development and cooperation. This is a manifestation of the vision of the world maritime axis as announced by President Joko Widodo and emphasised by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi with the ‘ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ concept.

In its 2016 defence white paper, Australia stated that it wanted a stable Indo-Pacific region and a rules-based global order that supported its interests. Australia will seek to expand and deepen its alliance with the United States and encourage and support a continuing US military presence. Clearly, it will support the US in its encouragement of free and open policies in the region.

So, how can Indonesia and Australia contribute to this peace, stability and prosperity?

ASEAN and the US have different, but sympathetic, views on the future of the Indo-Pacific region. Through their strategic relationship, Indonesia and Australia can help bring these approaches together by acting as a liaison between ASEAN and the US. Before that can happen effectively, Indonesia and Australia need to agree on common ground so that they can offer ASEAN and the US a plan that accommodates their shared interests. Then, these neighbours can help the region build and enhance self-confidence.

Indonesia and Australia must work together to encourage all in the region to commit to maintaining stability, security and peace and to hold firmly to the principles of openness, transparency and clarity.

This should not involve the creation of a new platform but should utilise the existing ASEAN Regional Forum. At the operational level, much can be done by the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus using senior officers and expert working groups.

If the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus do not accomplish what they seek to do, an option would be to expand that group into a broader ASEAN Indo-Pacific Forum.

To make this regional cooperation process work, Indonesia and Australia should continue to strengthen partnerships and bilateral cooperation in accordance with the goals set out in the Jakarta Concord of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which called for closer cooperation among nations sharing geographical space.

Together we neighbours can achieve much more than we can alone.