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Jakarta Post

Australia looks to Indonesia in an era of uncertainty

  • Stephen Smith and Hugo Seymour


Perth, Western Australia   /   Mon, August 19, 2019   /   03:38 pm
Australia looks to Indonesia in an era of uncertainty Art of the deal: Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita (right) and his Australian counterpart Simon Birmingham hold documents after signing a trade deal in Jakarta. (AFP/Adek Berry)

Our world in 2019 continues to be defined by the uncertainty which has unfortunately characterized recent years.

There are two major contributing factors: first, uncertainty caused by an increasingly assertive China, both abroad and domestically, under President Xi Jinping; second, the policy uncertainty and unilateralism of United States President Donald Trump, which may only increase during the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.

This year, the inability of the US and China to effectively manage their disputes has exacerbated the adverse state of their strategic competition. Even an optimistic analyst would say there are few signs these two great powers are working through their economic and strategic differences in an orderly manner. The pessimist might say we have the emergence of a new cold war with economic characteristics.

During this period of global uncertainty, however, one thing remains a constant: The world’s economic and strategic center of gravity continues to move closer toward Indonesia, Australia, and our shared part of the word, the Indo-Pacific region.

It is the inexorable growth across the Indo-Pacific, led by India, Indonesia and Vietnam, that most defies broader deteriorations in global growth. It is also the maritime trade routes and their supply lines to the Indo-Pacific economies that are most vulnerable to US-China trade or security tensions.

With these realities, it is increasingly clear that it will be in the Indo-Pacific, the region housing all the current and emerging great economies and powers — China, India, the US and Indonesia — where questions about global peace, prosperity and security will be answered.

One hopes that as a multipolar world emerges from within the Indo-Pacific, the diffusion of power supports global stability.

As two countries whose shores lap both the Indian and Pacific oceans, Australia and Indonesia are both recognizing and responding to developments in the “Indo” and “Pacific” segments of our region. This includes in defense and security policy, as we see expanded defense capability programs undertaken by both countries, along with the US, China, India, Japan and across South and Southeast Asia.

Recently reelected Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has made it clear he will continue to expand the country’s Indo-Pacific engagement. An example of this is Indonesia’s leadership in ASEAN’s development of an Indo-Pacific Outlook. This leadership is both an organic result of Indonesia’s increasing economic and strategic weight, as well as an important response to the region’s changing economic and strategic circumstances.

Australia and Indonesia are rightly pursuing closer defense and security ties. And while the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) is only just beginning its ratification processes, the trajectory of convergence in the two countries’ Indo-Pacific analysis, interests and policies has been occurring for some time.

Both from Perth in Western Australia and in Jakarta, it is essential to look out at what is occurring on the “Indo” side of the Indo-Pacific, including to a rising India and Indonesia. Western Australia is Australia’s only Indian Ocean facing state. Further, Perth effectively shares a timeline with Indonesia and is closer to Jakarta than it is to Australia’s largest city Sydney and its capital Canberra.

In recognition of these strategic and geographical factors, the 2019 Western Australian Indo-Pacific Defence Conference was held again in Perth earlier this week. Defense leaders across the Indo-Pacific, including widely respected Indonesian retired general Agus Widjojo, assembled in Australia’s “Indian Ocean Capital” to engage with government, industry and military leaders on the future of the Indo-Pacific.

Defense leaders outlined the factors driving and further opportunities for strategic and defense cooperation to occur in the Indo-Pacific, including between Australia and Indonesia.

Australia’s Defense Minister Linda Reynolds laid out the foundations for an enhanced Australia-Indonesia partnership, “Both Australia and Indonesia share a desire for a stable and secure maritime order: one with unimpeded trade; adherence to international law; and freedom of navigation and overflight. We are both respected regional maritime security actors, with good track records in the Indian Ocean.”

Agus, discussing the requirements for effective regional cooperation, sagely noted that countries need to be acutely aware of each other’s multidimensional defense capabilities and shortcomings when seeking closer collaboration.

In this context, new opportunities for enhanced Australia-Indonesia engagement include: elevating to ministerial level the Indonesia-Australia-India Trilateral Dialog and driving the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to be a more effective piece of regional architecture. On the defense side, opportunities should be explored for Australia-Indonesia naval exercises out of Australia’s Indian Ocean naval base HMAS Stirling, as well as trilateral exercises with US marines rotating out of Darwin.

In 2019 the challenges to an international rules-based order are mounting, both with regards to the adequacy of the rules in the modern environment, and the extent of compliance with them. The conference concluded that only enhanced bilateral and regional collaboration could help government and industry ensure the security and defense needs of the Indo-Pacific are met.

For Australia, Indonesia is a cornerstone partner.


Stephen Smith is a member of the board of the Perth USAsia Centre and a former Australian minister for defense and foreign affairs. Hugo Seymour is a research analyst at the Perth USAsia Centre. The second Western Australian Indo-Pacific Defence Conference was held in Perth on Aug. 12.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.