When Australia thinks strategy, it quickly comes to Indonesia.
So it was when the Howard Government was mulling the 2000 Defence White Paper. The National Security Committee of Cabinet was grilling the defenceniks: ‘If Indonesia can’t invade us, why should we buy all these military toys?’
One official produced a map, pointed to the archipelago and island chain arcing across Australia’s north, and asked: ‘What do you see?’
‘Yes, sir, today it’s Indonesia. Just think what it’d mean if Indonesia broke up and instead this map showed three new Bangladeshes and a couple of new oil-rich Bruneis.’
I’ve heard various versions of this yarn, but having asked some who should have been there when it supposedly happened, I get no confirmation. It’s a tale yet to achieve the truth it deserves, illustrating how Indonesia directs Australia’s regional dreams or dominates its nightmares.
The vision of a splintering Indonesia goes to the nightmare side of current Australian imaginings. On Suharto’s fall, the horror was of Indonesia succumbing to centrifugal forces as Yugoslavia did after Tito. Instead of that nightmare, Indonesia conjured up a dream experiment—one of the world’s most ambitious efforts at political devolution and regional autonomy.
The doomsayers in Jakarta see little more than a devolution of corruption, setting a course to splinter the Republic. Joko Widodo’s arrival is an extraordinarily positive answer to that lament. Devolution meant an engineer who created a furniture business could become mayor of Solo in 2005, then step up to be elected Jakarta’s governor in 2012, and next month will be sworn in as Indonesia’s seventh president. Indonesians have elected ‘one of us’ as their leader; that democratic expression of the idea of ‘us’ is a powerful unifying force.
As the previous column noted, add a great caveat to the statement that Indonesia and Australia are neighbours with absolutely nothing in common. We now share something vital and defining—democracy. Add to that a further fundamental point—both agree on the regional and strategic importance of a unified and strong Indonesia. Indeed, the fact of a democratic Indonesia should help Australia accept its relative decline—stress relative—compared to the growing wealth and power of its giant neighbour.
Stressing Australia’s belief in a unified Indonesia is a point worth making. It ain’t always been so. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Canberra would have been happy with bits of Indonesia splitting away: because of fears about Indonesia turning to communism; when the CIA was shipping arms to support regional rebellions in Sumatra and Sulawesi; during Konfrontasi when British and Australian soldiers were fighting Indonesian troops; and when the Dutch were trying to hang on to West Papua.
Australia’s leading role in the one successful bit of splitism—the creation of East Timor— doesn’t fit with the mindset of the 1950s and 60s. Right up to the moment that East Timor voted for independence, Australia was sincere—in statement and belief—in calling for East Timor to remain within the Republic. The great irony is that Jakarta’s elite is convinced Australia was always plotting against it in Timor; that conviction misreads the clash between popular sentiment in Oz and Canberra’s judgement of national interest.
Australia’s commitment to a coherent rather than a fractured Indonesia is expressed in one phrase that is pregnant with meaning for Canberra strategists. That’s the statement that any military threat to Australia will come ‘from or through’ Indonesia. The idea has a long history in Australian thinking, dating from that moment of existential fright delivered by Japan in WWII. It’s a powerful idea that can shift in shape and colour. Thus, the 1947 Strategic Appreciation noted:
Having established herself in Indonesia, Russia could attack the mainland of Australia under cover of land based aircraft. Hence, it follows that Australia is vitally interested in this line of approach.
The most famous expression of ‘from or through’ was Paul Dibb’s 1986 Review of Australian Defence:
In defence terms, Indonesia is our most important neighbour. The Indonesian archipelago forms a protective barrier to Australia’s northern approaches. We have a common interest in regional stability, free from interference by potentially hostile external powers. At the same time, we must recognise that, because of its proximity, the archipelago to our north is the area from or through which a military threat to Australia could most easily be posed.
Australia wants an Indonesia strong enough not to be porous or splitable, but uninterested in using its strength for anything nasty.
The Oz dream is to go beyond ‘from or through’ to find ‘a shield to Australia’s north.’ Australia will stand with ASEAN in the fervent wish for Jokowi’s huge success.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Juan Manuel Garcia.