The four compass points of Australia–Indonesia relations
17 Feb 2020|

‘Indonesia and Australia are destined to be close neighbours. We cannot choose our neighbours. We have to choose to be friends. Australia is Indonesia’s closest friend.’

— Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Address to the Australian Parliament, 10 February 2020

Two blokes in a golf cart, one Australian, one Indonesian, go out to look at kangaroos.

No casual sightseeing trip, this. The cart has a crown on its front bumper, and both men are wearing suits.

Governor-General David Hurley is at the wheel of the vice-regal buggy, showing Indonesian President Joko Widodo the local fauna hopping around the grounds of Canberra’s Government House.

The roo-spotting is a whimsical moment in the friendship between two neighbours that are destined but deeply disparate.

At the state lunch that followed, Hurley delivered his speech in Bahasa Indonesia, ending: ‘Bapak Presiden, itu yang terbaik yang bisa saya lakukan’ (‘Mr President, that’s the best I can do’).

Jokowi returned the language effort with a ‘G’day mate’ to Australia’s parliament.

The president’s statement that Australia is Indonesia’s closest friend is remarkable because, of course, it’s not true. Yet …

Nowhere in the world are there three neighbours more different than the extraordinary triangle of Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

So Jokowi offers geostrategic and geoeconomic aspiration expressed in the most human terms.

The friendship call is an ambitious example of what leaders must do: shift reality towards the vision they describe. ‘Closest friend’ sits beside Paul Keating’s declaration 25 years ago that ‘No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia.’

Jokowi’s Canberra visit lit up the map of the Oz–Indonesia relationship. The two countries zigzag around the chart, climbing Mount Incomprehension and sailing the Sea of Dissimilarity. This is a volatile friendship, prey to shocks and shakes. As Indonesia’s previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said in the Great Hall of Australia’s parliament on 4 April 2005:

Over the years, our relations have experienced many twists and turns, highs and lows. We know from experience that our relations are so complex and unique that it can be pulled in so many different directions, and it can go right as often as it can go wrong. Which is why we have to handle it with the greatest care and counsel.

Noting SBY’s caution and Jokowi’s ambition, lift your eyes from the map to consider the four compass points of the relationship.

The first constant, the north star, is geography. As Indonesian people-smugglers demonstrated, we’re only a short boat ride apart.

For Oz strategists, a friendly Indonesia ‘acts as a strategic shield to the immediate north of Australia’ while an unfriendly Indonesia is a sword above our head. Here’s a statement about geography as true today as it was in 1986:

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.

Keating paints this vividly: ‘How things go in the Indonesian archipelago, in many respects, so go we. Indonesia remains the place where Australia’s strategic bread is buttered.’

Australia wants an Indonesia strong enough not to be porous, but uninterested in using its strength for anything nasty.

The second compass point is that relative power is shifting steadily to Indonesia. It’s the same relative power loss Australia faces across Asia. Indonesia just brings it close to home. Our giant neighbour is on track ‘to pass Australia in economic size in the 2020s and eventually in military capabilities by the 2040s’. That projection is from Kevin Rudd in his memoirs.

If Indonesia maintains its 5% growth rate for the next two decades, by 2040 it will be the world’s fifth largest economy. In that future, Hugh White muses, Indonesia is as important to Australia as China, ‘because while it will not match China’s wealth and power, it is much closer—and that could make all the difference. Never underestimate the importance of proximity.’

Indonesia sets the temperature and frames Australia’s approach to the rest of Southeast Asia (just as PNG does in the South Pacific).

The Oz role in ‘regional architecture’ always has an Indonesian element, even a Jakarta veto. Suharto brushed away Gough Whitlam’s regionalist ambitions, just as his support helped Bob Hawke and Keating build APEC. Jakarta’s nod was needed to get Australia into the East Asia Summit when John Howard held the top job.

Indonesia’s centrality to Australia is central to my argument that Australia should join ASEAN.

In what I think of as his testament, the sage Jamie Mackie advised: ‘We should endeavour to ensure at all costs that our broader regional and global policies diverge from Indonesia’s as little as possible—and ideally should follow essentially convergent trajectories.’

The third compass point is Australia’s constant focus on creating diplomatic, economic and military partnerships with Indonesia. And getting the two peoples to see each other clearly.

The comprehensive economic partnership agreement finalised during Jokowi’s visit is the trade twin of the 2018 comprehensive strategic partnership, which itself is built on the 2006 Lombok treaty.

Jokowi told parliament the two countries can be ‘anchors for development’ in the South Pacific and help ASEAN transform the Indo-Pacific ‘trust deficit’.

The effort, always, is to build more weight and depth, to get bilateral alignments that serve regional aims. The joint statement from Indonesia’s president and Australia’s prime minister devoted 10 of its 45 points to Indo-Pacific ‘stability and prosperity’, 10 points to shared regional interests and 9 points to maritime cooperation.

The fourth compass point adds a great caveat to the statement that Indonesia and Australia have nothing in common.

We now share something vital and defining: democracy.

As usual, Australia and Indonesia do democracy in disparate ways; the north and south faces of Mount Democracy are vastly different, yet we share the peak and the view. Democracy—along with geography and power and partnership—can draw two peoples together, to achieve Jokowi’s vision of Australia as Indonesia’s closest friend.

The fact of a democratic Indonesia should help Australia adjust to its relative decline compared with the growing wealth and strength of its giant neighbour.