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An Indonesia strategy for Australia

Posted By on November 9, 2012 @ 13:36

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Indonesia seems to know where it’s going. At least that’s the impression that Indonesia’s Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan’s gave in his recent talk at the ANU discussing his country’s trajectory towards 2030. His speech envisions Indonesia as a future economic heavyweight and as a democracy that has consolidated its weaknesses, invested in areas like education and harnessed the full potential of its population—a large proportion of which is under 30. According to Wirjawan, if the ‘directionality’ of Indonesia’s democracy is right—and he believes it is—then for Indonesia, the sky’s the limit.

What’s striking about Wirjawan’s vision is its simple yet pragmatic formula. It begins with constructing an ambitious path for the nation. It’s followed by a systematic identification of the roadblocks and challenges, as well as their possible solutions, to set the right course. With a clear trajectory, armed with innovation and determination, the future seems eminently attainable. This is the view of a vital young country (which it effectively is).

When it comes to Australia’s strategic relations with Indonesia, Pak Wirjawan’s ideas should give us some clues about how we might set ourselves some goals for a much greater degree of engagement. We haven’t done anything like it yet; as a nation, we’re yet to articulate in a clear policy as to where Indonesia fits into our national objectives and, importantly, where we fit into theirs.

The Asian Century White Paper has mapped out a policy for Australia to draw closer to the region, anchoring its future (at least in broad economic terms) to the near abroad. Yet Indonesia, as it becomes an influential global player, is looking further and reaching out beyond the region. Indonesia is increasingly seeing itself in terms of being a member of the G20. It might be that Australia is a smaller part of Indonesia’s worldview than we imagine. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing closer ties. Rather, we need to be realistic about the prospect of success of our White Paper initiatives if our Asia-enthusiasm isn’t reciprocated.

If that’s the case, it’s not enough to say we want a closer relationship with our nearest neighbour. We need a clear Indonesia strategy that describes the how as well as the why. It’s tempting to see closer relations as the desired end state, but they are means, not ends. And the ends we aspire to must be mutually beneficial and enduring.

Having been a keen Indonesia watcher for a while, I’ve got a few thoughts to offer. The relationship discussion might begin with identifying a number of key working assumptions about future trends in the region (looking perhaps 20 years ahead), from which we can develop a coherent plan for Australia and Indonesia to relate and work with each other. As I outlined in a post a few weeks ago, using constructive language about Indonesia as a strategic partner in our 2013 Defence White Paper is a good start. But it’s also only part of a larger picture.

Indonesia and Australia have a stake, both individually and collectively, in the economic and military development of the Asian Pacific region (or even beyond), so there’s an opportunity to work together to shape developments as far as possible in our favour. Understanding how Australia fits into Indonesia’s national strategy is an essential part of this equation. And Australia needs to understand that we won’t be calling all the shots—if Indonesia makes even partly good on its aspirations, we’ll have less leverage with every passing year.

The Asian Century White Paper talks about developing a ‘comprehensive country strategy’ with Indonesia (p. 31). An appropriate framework, depending on how far both countries want to go, might include a comprehensive partnership along the lines of the agreement signed between Indonesia and the United States in 2010. The framework—seen as a ‘long-term commitment to elevate bilateral relations’—is particular to the history of US-Indonesia relations but it’s seen as highly successful. The working groups established under the auspices of the partnership add depth to the relationship in key areas. Australia already has strong ties with Indonesia across several sectors but a comprehensive agreement would ensure that all aspects of the relationship move us towards the same future vision with a shared sense of purpose. It might also, as ASEAN Secretary General Dr Surin Pitsuwan prescribed earlier this month, allow Australia to see the bilateral relationship in the context of ASEAN dynamics.

It’s just one way of thinking strategically about the long-term relationship between our countries. There are, of course, plenty more. But given the geo-strategic location of Indonesia and its transformation over the last 14 years, it’s a wonder that we’ve only just started to give it some real thought now.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Thrillseekr.


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[1] his recent talk at the ANU: http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/events/20121012-gita-wirjawan.php

[2] Indonesia as a future economic heavyweight: https://twitter.com/ANUasiapacific/status/256616132256096256

[3] invested in areas like education: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2012/10/21/teaching-indonesia-s-children.html

[4] in a post a few weeks ago: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/more-than-words-australia-indonesia-strategic-relations/

[5] signed between Indonesia and the United States in 2010: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2011/07/169001.htm

[6] highly successful: http://csis.org/publication/comprehensive-partnership-nudges-us-indonesia-relations-new-levels-cooperation

[7] prescribed: http://www.anu.edu.au/vision/videos/6831/

[8] Thrillseekr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thrillseekr/3227536731/