Indonesia’s and Australia’s interests: yours, mine and ours

Senator Penny Wong and experts from The University of Melbourne and leading Indonesian think tank CSIS have called for more effective multilateralism in the region and less deference to the interests of China and the US.


“At a time where humanity should have been cooperating to confront this common threat [the pandemic has instead] weakened multilateralism, intensified competition between the great powers, and brought nationalism to the fore,” said Senator and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Wong at the 23 July webinar.

Summary points:

    • If the region is not shaped by us it will be shaped for us by a US and Chinese influence
    • Indonesia needs to take a leadership role in regional multilateralism
    • Australia should support closer links in science, education and language capability

Professor Michael Wesley from The University of Melbourne sees opportunity in the current moment:

“The leadership credentials of both the US and China have been damaged, providing real opportunities for countries such as Australia and Indonesia to step in and fill the diplomatic void and reconstruct a multilateral vision of the region. This should be our number one foreign policy priority.”

Phillips Vermonte, Executive Director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a regular media commentator, states that Indonesia also opposes a US vs. China approach: “We don’t want to be dragged into that kind of competition,” he said, but acknowledged it wouldn’t be easy.

“Many countries have a long relationship with China, historically, culturally and so on, so it’s rather difficult to manage the tension … Indonesia is walking a thin line.”

Shared interests

Shaping the stable, prosperous and non-hegemonic region that we both seek, Senator Wong said, can’t be achieved without actively pursuing such, nor without Australia and Indonesia cooperating effectively.

Continuing on our current path, Senator Wong believes, would not lead to stability.

“The counterfactual of our failure to [step up now] is not the status quo, but rather a very different world and a very different region for us both.”

“President Jokowi,” she recounted, “gave an extraordinarily warm address to the Australian parliament… I think we should be reciprocating that.”

And bilateral cooperation is getting easier, according to Phillips Vermonte:

“Some of the cultural [and political] hurdles that existed in the past are now no longer there, so we have more shared views about governance, about politics in Southeast Asia and about principles.”

“Indonesia has not been investing much in foreign affairs,” he went on, “but now, as a G20 country, I think it’s time to do that.”

Senator Penny Wong speaks at the webinar. Top image from a program by CAUSINDY, a bilateral youth organisation which provides a platform for young leaders to create a stronger Australia-Indonesia relationship. (Image: CAUSINDY)

Australia has a self-interest, as well as an ethical interest, in supporting Indonesia’s wellbeing, Senator Wong claimed. One reason for that, offered Professor Wesley, was geopolitical importance:

“Most of our shipping, most of our trade, traverses the Indonesian archipelago. A lot of our air travel goes over the Indonesian landmass. You can just imagine the impact on Australia, if we had a really bad relationship with Indonesia.”

President Jokowi prioritises Australia, explained Phillips Vermonte, despite the fact the president has been criticised for being inward looking.

Jokowi has stated that he spends just 10 per cent of his time on foriegn affairs, Vermont says, but within that, regional economic cooperation and the recently signed economic partnership with Australia have been key areas of focus.

Jokowi’s strategic approach should not be taken for granted, says Professor Wesley.

“Jokowi broadly shares our international values and we should be working really hard on building that relationship, because we don’t know who will succeed him.”

The way forward

“We have to recognise that working with the region to ensure the region that we want with the characteristics we want, is really the only path… otherwise it will be made for us in ways that we do not seek,” warned Senator Wong, encouraging Indonesia to take on a leadership role and “be a central player in the way in which the region is governed.”

Phillips Vermonte welcomed this, suggesting that through ASEAN and together with Australia, Indonesia should indeed improve cooperation within the region, especially as “China and the US are more or less no longer interested in multilateral organisation”.

Poster for the AIC In Conversation Webinar where the discussion took place, featuring the three panelists and moderator, the AIC’s Helen Brown. (Image: AIC)

Panelists agreed that more collaboration in science and education would bring the two countries closer, with the pandemic and the hunt for a vaccine being just some of the region’s big challenges.

“Before the pandemic we all talked about climate change,” said Vermonte. “Indonesia suffers from forest fires every year, for example, and [Australia] just suffered from the devastating bushfires … that can be one area where Indonesia and Australia cooperate, in very concrete terms.”

“We can be doing a lot more in terms of building research and education links with Indonesia,” agreed Professor Wesley. “I think these are some of the most effective ways to build diplomatic and social capital.”

Both the Australians decried recently weakened aid funding from Australia: “We are disinvesting in exactly the wrong arms of our foreign policy. And we are doing it at a time that we cannot afford to do it,” said Wesley.

“I don’t understand why,” added the senator, “we have funded our Pacific step up with a Southeast Asia step down.” She also expressed frustration at a lack of government support for Indonesian language capability, including for the ACICIS program which is in danger of collapse due to travel restrictions.

“We have to generate and work for greater alignment and greater cooperation… and that requires greater Indonesian and Southeast Asian language and cultural capability.”

“We need to make sure in our own minds, we move from them to us and generate that sense of shared purpose.”

Watch or listen to the full webinar: Geopolitics in a post-COVID world

Browse all AIC In Conversation Webinars

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Digital Communications Manager
The Australia-Indonesia Centre

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