Foreign Minister Julie Bishop launched the Foreign Policy White Paper with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on 23 November. Photo by DFAT.


Prime Minister Paul Keating famously said in 1994: “no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right, and nurture and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete.” Almost all of Keating’s successors have echoed his “no more important relationship” language. Tony Abbott even went so far as to say Australia needs “more Jakarta, less Geneva” and Malcolm Turnbull made sure our giant northern neighbour was his first overseas destination.


While most Australian politicians would not be as sweeping as Keating, a good many would accept that Indonesia matters more to Australia than it has for many years and should be a leading priority for Australia in its dealings with the world. That is true, despite (or perhaps because of) the fragile and unpredictable nature of the bilateral relationship.


That is why it is surprising that, although focused on Asia, the Foreign Policy White Paper has relatively little to say about Indonesia. The US is mentioned 95 times, as is China, and India appears 60 times. By contrast, Indonesia receives just 36 mentions, and that includes listings in graphs and tables. There is a half-page anodyne summary of the state of relations with Indonesia but many of the other mentions are only made in passing, for example, listing the location of new diplomatic posts or proposing the strengthening of economic ties with Asian states.


One of the few statements in the white paper about Indonesia that has much substance proposes partnerships with important Asian democracies — implicitly to counter the rise of China. Indonesia is included among them.

To support a balance in the Indo-Pacific favourable to our interests and promote an open, inclusive and rules-based region, Australia will also work more closely with the region’s major democracies, bilaterally and in small groupings. In addition to the United States, our relations with Japan, Indonesia, India and the Republic of Korea are central to this agenda.

This is fine, except that it assumes Indonesia is interested in working closely with Australia. This may not necessarily be true, at least not in the circumstances that now prevail.


Despite its muddled economic policymaking, entrenched corruption and reputation as a minefield for foreign investors, Indonesia is beginning to rise economically. It is also starting to think of itself more ambitiously as a regional power and a future player on the global stage. Its economy will soon be bigger than ours and its enormous population of more than 260 million means that, as its middle class grows, it will become a far more lucrative market as well.


Indonesia’s rise may still be largely aspirational, but it is already accepted wisdom in Jakarta. Influential Indonesians speaking at bilateral dialogues and conferences dealing with the Australia-Indonesian relationship often say, “You need us more than we need you”, or “You now need to show us why you matter”. This reflects the fact that President Joko Widodo (unlike his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) does not regard his country’s relationship with Australia as a special one. In fact, many among the elite in Indonesia feel that their country should be the senior partner in the bilateral relationship and Australia needs to show why it should be given attention.


Apart from the million-plus tourists it sends every year to Bali, Australia does not have much economic leverage that it can use to convince Indonesians of its importance. It is a low-ranked trading and investment partner for Indonesia, and that is unlikely to change soon, given we invest far more in Luxembourg, Ireland, Papua New Guinea, most other Southeast Asian countries and, famously, New Zealand, than in Indonesia. Likewise, our aid program in Indonesia never gave us much leverage, but it did give us some access and the 2015 aid cuts have reduced that.


The White Paper is right, however, in casting China’s hegemonic ambitions in Southeast Asia as central to future foreign policy developments in the region. In fact, it is the emerging superpower of the north that may force Indonesia to look back to us in the south. Deeply embedded anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia means that if China’s territorial claims lead to major conflict in the South China Sea, Indonesia will almost certainly side with the US. We will tag along too, as a junior partner, as that is the basic scheme of the White Paper: reliance on the US to keep China under control in Asia.


And ASEAN does not offer Indonesia an alternative. Indonesia has long hoped ASEAN would be its vehicle to achieve the regional hegemony it regards as its destiny but ASEAN has begun to unravel. Laos and Cambodia now lean towards China, and thus away from other members. The result is the much-vaunted ASEAN principles of harmony and unanimity can no longer be relied on when it comes to the South China Sea.


So, when trouble comes, Indonesia will be forced to look to the west — and that means the US and, the White Paper expects, the deputy sheriff in the deep south.


Unfortunately, the growing distance between our two peoples will undoubtedly prove an obstacle to engagement with our possible future ally. This distance has been demonstrated by the consistent results of a wide range of polls over the last three decades, which all show increasing fear of Indonesia in Australia and hostility towards it. These feelings are sometimes reciprocated by Indonesian suspicion that Australia has neocolonial intentions regarding Papua and Christian areas in eastern Indonesia. Many Australians are also largely unaware that Indonesia is a democracy, and a substantial number even believe, wrongly, that it is ruled by the army or is under Islamic codes.


Indonesia is changing fast and Australia, like Indonesia’s other neighbours, will find the fractious and sometimes tense relations may become the new normal. The challenges ahead for Australia-Indonesia ties are thus considerable at a time of rapid and far-reaching change across Asia, with Indonesia seemingly poised for dramatic transformation.


It is therefore disturbing that that there is no discussion anywhere in the White Paper of the need for support for Asian studies and languages, let alone Indonesian studies. There is only the gnomic statement that “we will also increase the use of languages other than English through our digital media”, and the usual glib throw-away about outsourcing Asia literacy to diaspora communities that “have language skills and cultural understanding to assist Australia to deepen ties with other countries”. That rarely works after the first generation and, in this case, ignores the fact that the Indonesian diaspora community here is tiny.


Indonesian studies were once widespread in Australia but are now increasingly isolated and in decline, despite being essential for the deep, intimate and respectful engagement that we will need as Indonesia asserts itself. Unfortunately, the White Paper shows little evidence that this is understood. “Working in partnership with Indonesian agencies” and deepening “cooperation on shared interests” will both require significant linguistic and cultural skills but there are increasingly few Australians who still have them.


All in all, Indonesian politicians reading the White Paper would be forgiven for forming the view that, in fact, Australia doesn’t see their country as all that important to its foreign policy. The real problem for us is that they probably couldn’t care less.


This piece was also published on the Australian Institute of International Affairs blog.



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