11 July 2018
The elephant next door
Within the next six years, Indonesia plans to complete a 142-kilometre high-speed rail link, the first such network in South-East Asia. The line, which will connect Jakarta to Bandung at speeds of 350 kilometres an hour, will reduce the current journey time from more than three hours to forty minutes.
Despite delays and uncertainty, the project is progressing. It serves as a gentle reminder of the ways in which Australia risks being left behind by its somewhat erratic northern neighbour.
Within the next decade, Indonesia’s fast-growing economy, buoyed by a young population and a growing middle class, will overtake Australia’s. By 2030, if Indonesia can complete the projects it has planned, its economy will be bigger than that of the United Kingdom or Germany.
The rise of Indonesia should mean opportunities for Australia, yet the relatively minimal trade between the two nations has been stagnant or going backwards – much like the overall relationship.
There is another looming reason for Australia to explore closer relations with Indonesia: its security may depend on it.
As Hugh White argues in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, Australia must contemplate a historic shift in its approach to Indonesia to see it as a possible ally, rather than as a potential threat. An Indonesia willing to assert itself against an ascendant China could help to protect Australia, particularly as US power in the region declines.
“Indonesia has to decide what part it wants to play in a region that will be vastly different from the one it has known since independence, in order to avoid becoming increasingly irrelevant and vulnerable to the power of other nations,” White writes. “A strong Indonesia that shares Australia’s aims would be an immense asset, while one that is hostile to Australia could pose unprecedented threats.”
White tells us that Indonesia has not yet decided how it will respond to China’s rise.
It appears that other countries, such as Japan and India, have not been waiting to find out. Late last month, for instance, Japan’s foreign minister, Tarō Kōno, visited Jakarta and discussed plans to provide funding for ports and fishing facilities in a tiny set of remote Indonesian islands. The Natuna Islands are home to just 85,000 of Indonesia’s 260 million people but they are located at the edge of the highly contested South China Sea. Japan, like Australia, does not want China to dominate the sea and has been encouraging Jakarta’s assertiveness.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to Indonesia took place in May. Modi signed an agreement with Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo to boost military and economic ties, and followed up late last month, sending warships to visit Indonesia to improve relations between the two navies.
Australia does not have the clout of India or Japan. But time may be running out to develop a deeper relationship.
As China and other nations in Asia grow, Indonesia will increasingly be looking northwards.
There are also troubling political developments in Indonesia that could endanger closer ties with Australia. Indonesia has been sliding towards illiberalism, buoyed by a vocal and internet-savvy Islamist movement that is encouraging the country to move away from its post-1998 embrace of liberal democracy. This could cause friction with Australia, especially as Indonesia cracks down on the LGBTI+ community and religious and ethnic minorities.
Public debate in Indonesia about Australia can be paranoid and suspicious, coloured by memories of the White Australia policy and Canberra’s role in securing independence for East Timor. So rising populism could also discourage leaders in Jakarta from reaching out to Australia.
Of course, there are limitations to Australia’s ability to shape relations with Indonesia. And much may depend on the outcome of next year’s presidential election.
Australia and Indonesia have occasionally developed strong but temporary alliances, such as the military and counterterrorism cooperation that took place after the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. But the two countries remain largely invisible to each other. This is costing both nations, but it could leave Australia paying the heavier price just as it becomes harder to fix.