At a time of unprecedented good bilateral relations with Indonesia, Australia is now looking to its future. Indonesia’s shift towards a more open democratic framework has allowed the previously troubled relationship to stabilise, but its future remains uncertain, especially over the medium to longer term.
The renewed focus on relations with Indonesia reflects its continuing critical value to Australian foreign policy. It is Australia’s largest near neighbour, the world’s largest Muslim country, a major regional diplomatic actor, the key transit point for Australian trade, travel and irregular migration and, again, a growing economic partner.
Australia policy thinkers are therefore looking at options for the longer term relationship. Among those considerations is increasing bilateral strategic engagement. More than any other aspect of the relationship, this is likely to generate controversy both within Australia and in Indonesia.
Indonesia’s potential as an important strategic partner reflects a perceived need for the two countries to develop a regional security bloc. The problems that would accompany pursuing such a policy, however, reflect widespread public reluctance in Australia to endorse the Indonesian military, given its history of human rights abuses, impunity and its stalled reform process.
Beyond this challenging security focus, engagement with Indonesia is, to a large extent, shaped by Australia’s Indonesia ‘literacy’, or the extent to which Australia understands its sprawling, complex neighbour. Australia’s once strong claim to a high level of Indonesia expertise, supported by a secondary school Indonesia language program, has markedly declined.
Public understanding of Indonesia also remains limited, often misinformed and generally untrusting. This is not assisted by Indonesia specialists often presenting Indonesia in an unrealistically positive light, or as too different to be adequately assessed in Western terms.
Despite Indonesia’s constructive changes since the fall of Suharto in 1998, corruption continues, the judiciary remains compromised and military reform has effectively stopped. Exploitation and violence in West Papua also remains unresolved, primarily due to a lack of political will.
Despite these troubling issues, Australia’s improved relationship with Indonesia reflects the country’s broadly reformist trajectory, notably under President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The problem is, though, that Yudhoyono will leave office at the end of his second term next year. There is no guarantee his successor will be as liberal or benign.
Australia therefore has a small window of opportunity to further secure the bilateral relationship ahead of this uncertain change. Australia already puts significant effort into the relationship through aid, trade and security cooperation. The question is, what more can – and should - Australia do.
To start, the economic ‘ballast’ in the relationship needs to move away from commodities and simply transformed manufactures to technology and education. This is a better fit with an Indonesia that is again progressing up the developmental curve.
Australia’s aid program to Indonesia is also a practical gesture of continuing goodwill and its focus on education is important for building skills and understanding. It also creates a more positive profile for Australia. A subtle promotion in Indonesia of Australia’s commitment to education would be useful.
Similarly, Australia’s tertiary scholarship program in Indonesia has been very successful. Its expansion would further reap significant benefits over the medium to longer term.
Both countries must also work to improve the people-to-people links that underpin good relationships. Specific funding for studies on Indonesian society, politics, geography and economics would generate a better understanding of Indonesia within Australia. It would also better assure Indonesia that Australia continues to take it seriously.
Federal support for secondary Indonesian language has stopped and universities are struggling to maintain Indonesian language courses. These have a direct impact on ‘Indonesia literacy’. That is a further, obvious, area that requires remediation.
Linked to such ‘literacy’, the interfaith dialogue process is an important forum for the exchange of ideas and the building of understanding and trust. This should also receive further support.
Australia should continue to provide high-level forensic and investigative skills where required and requested. There may also be opportunities in future for Australia to work more closely with Indonesia in the area of terrorist de-radicalisation.
Indonesia’s problems with corruption are a significant impediment to its economic development and Jakarta’s commitment to fighting corruption has varied from rhetorical observance to a range of anticorruption measures. If Indonesia took the lead in asking for investigative support or analytical assistance to combat corruption, Australia should offer such help.
Australia has been generous in providing financial, technical and human assistance for humanitarian and disaster relief, which should continue. However, Australia should also be aware that direct human assistance is sometimes not required or, importantly, not wanted. With that proviso, assistance to Indonesia’s military in disaster response preparation, such as engineering and emergency medical skills, could be a benign area of military-to-military training.
Despite legitimate concerns about the TNI’s human rights record and its history of impunity, the official preference of both countries has mostly been for their two militaries to train together. The advantages of this include having a better knowledge of the TNI’s operational methods, greater mutual trust, closer intelligence sharing and potentially greater interoperability.
Some other policy thinkers looking to Australia’s longer term security arrangements believe that closer military-to-military relations, in an environment of greater political accountability, could lead to a strengthened bilateral security relationship. In an era in which the global balance of power is shifting towards Asia, Australia will probably explore opportunities for establishing such a bilateral defence structure.
Any move towards closer security cooperation would, however, have to be within a rigorous intellectual and legal framework, in particular addressing the issue of re-starting Indonesian military reform. This would probably rouse more reactionary elements in the Indonesian security community and would, no doubt, promote considerable public debate in Australia.
But, as Australia has learned from past bilateral difficulties, open and frank discussion is necessary to ensure that all parties understand what they do and don’t agree on. Without such open discussion, Australia’s bilateral relationship with Indonesia is likely to end up facing more, rather than fewer, longer term problems.