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we need deeper ties with Indonesia

INDONESIA looms as the most important strategic reality in Australian defence thinking. We forget that fact when relations between Canberra and Jakarta are broadly positive.

If Australia tries to make the boatpeople problem too central to good relations with Indonesia, then we could be confronted with a much more problematic relationship.

Tony Abbott’s top priority for his visit to Jakarta must be to avoid that outcome.

As the Prime Minister reads his briefing papers for this visit, we should hope that Abbott’s officials referred back to Paul Dibb’s 1986 review of defence capabilities. That study captured the essence of Australia’s long-term strategic interests with Indonesia: in defence terms, Indonesia is our most important neighbour.

The Indonesian archipelago forms a protective barrier to Australia’s northern approaches. We have a common interest in regional stability, free from interference by potentially hostile external powers.

At the same time, we must recognise that, because of its proximity, the archipelago to our north is the area from or through which a military threat to Australia could be posed most easily.

Economic realities have shifted significantly since 1986. In the early 1980s, Australia’s gross national product was only just being surpassed by the combined economies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

By comparison, Indonesia’s economy this year is projected by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to be bigger ($US1.31 trillion, or $1.4 trillion) than Australia’s ($US1.02 trillion) in purchasing power parity.

When Dibb wrote his review, Australia’s defence spending was greater than all ASEAN’s defence spending combined. Now, the core Southeast Asian countries comfortably outspend Australia on military forces.

Last year, Indonesia’s defence spending at $US7.74 billion was less than one-third of Australia’s at $US25bn, but the trend is inexorable. Indonesia’s growing economic weight will translate into much greater military power not too many years from now. The key point for Abbott is clear: Australia has no more compelling strategic interest than to ensure we stay close friends with Jakarta.

Australia’s should not be lulled by Indonesia’s quiet success story of the past decade. During that time the country has enjoyed solid economic growth, managed a remarkable transition to being a stable democracy and kept under control the potentially destabilising threat of jihadist terrorism.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been strongly pro-Australian and acted in our interests to dampen occasional outbreaks of anti-Australian sentiment. These developments made it possible for Australia and Indonesia to build a positive bilateral relationship. But the reality is that there are lasting sources of friction between the two countries that must be managed carefully.

Negative stereotypes about the other exist in both countries. In the Lowy Institute poll this year of public opinion and foreign policy, Australians rated their “warmth” towards Indonesia at a distinctly cool 53 per cent, above Burma (50 per cent) but below Sri Lanka (54 per cent). Australia did a little better in poll of Indonesian sentiment last year, rating a “warmth” level of 62 per cent, up from 51 per cent in 2006. It will take sustained effort to shift these perceptions into more positive territory.

Papua remains a problem in Indonesian perceptions of Australia. There’s a view in Indonesian military circles that Canberra has a secret ambition to remove Papua from incorporation in the republic. That’s simply not the case as far as Australian government thinking is concerned. But there are clearly a number of non-government organisations and others who oppose incorporation and who will watch very carefully for signs of ill-treatment of Papuans.

Jihadi terrorism is a shared threat. The Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and the attack on the Australian embassy in 2004 remind us that there are people in Indonesia who seek to do us great harm. The two countries have drawn closer together in developing shared counter-terrorism strategies. However, while the threat has receded, it has not disappeared and it is essential to maintain police, legal and intelligence links with Indonesia to help prevent more attacks.

Abbott’s instinct to deepen economic and business links with Indonesia is correct. Australia has underinvested in Indonesia, and business has been too focused on short-term risks at the cost of long-term opportunities.

Closer business ties will put more ballast into relations and help to create lobbies in Canberra and Jakarta that call for the calm management of ties.

The Prime Minister should take the opportunity to broaden the conversation with the Indonesian President by stressing our shared strategic interests in bringing the two countries closer together. Indonesia will agree to work with us on the boatpeople issue if we put it in the wider context of shared approaches to maritime stability between the two countries.

To that end Abbott should put the offer of much deeper defence engagement on the table. He should discuss with Yudhoyono options to help equip the Indonesian navy with patrol vessels.

A creative approach to shared maritime surveillance also should treat Australia’s Cocos Island as a location from which joint operations could be launched, providing information to both countries about boat movements.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and blogs regularly at www.aspistrategist.org.au.


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