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11 July 2018

With Jonathan Pearlman

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.



Getting Australia’s strategic choices right

“There is an extensive bureaucracy, centred on national security, defence and intelligence departments and agencies that support the National Security Committee of cabinet. These institutions are not well placed to provide advice on strategy that integrates Australia’s security and economic interests and see economic engagement as a form of political influence.” Peter Drysdale and Shiro Armstrong,East Asia Forum

Myth and politics in Thailand’s cave rescue operation

“The rescue operation was narrated as a tale of heroism with Buddhist undertones. Rescuers were quickly praised for their selflessness, and social media users shared drawings in which bright halos emanate from their heads, reminiscent of the embodied meritorious power (barami) of Buddhist saints.” Edoardo Siani,New Mandala

How free trade trampled freedom in the Stern Hu affair

“Where once we stood for the rights of the individual, this time we happily offered up one of our own for the good of the collective, just so the multi-billion-dollar trade in iron ore could continue unimpeded.” Ian Verrender,ABC News


How Kim Jong-un is schooling Donald Trump in the art of the phantom deal

“It may be ‘new’ in terms of the start of dialogue between friend and foe, perhaps, but the long-standing motives of Pyongyang remain to continue nuclear development while luring the US to the negotiating table to get it to grant economic benefits in exchange for vacuous promises. Déjà vu?” Edward Howell,South China Morning Post

15 prestigious Australians and Americans apparently embody the spirit of mateship. They’re all men.

“This list is myopic and lazy and it’s not at all representative of Australia or the United States. For the first time, Australia has a female Foreign Minister and a female head of DFAT. But it seems the same monumental change isn’t filtering through.” Meggie Palmer,Women’s Agenda

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

The Jakarta Switch

“Wealth is the ultimate foundation of national power, so that will make Indonesia, or should make Indonesia, a very powerful country. It will have the material resources to be a great power in Asia, able to exercise major influence over affairs not just in its immediate neighbourhood but also throughout our region.” Hugh White, here


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