FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by John MorrisseyNews Weekly
The significance for Australia of the rise of Indonesia
, April 26, 2014
When Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that his maxim for foreign affairs would be “less Geneva and more Jakarta”, he was reflecting a reality which seems to have eluded many in Australia’s diplomatic club, notwithstanding Julia Gillard’s rhetoric concerning the “Asian Century”.
As Abdul-Latif Halimi, editor of The International Spectator, puts it, “Australia’s dominance and transactional approach to the relationship will have to give way to a more balanced and strategic one, as Canberra comes to terms with the fact that a burgeoning Asian power of more than 250 million people cradles Australia’s northern borders” (“The regional implications of Indonesia’s rise”, The Diplomat, April 10, 2014).
Halimi delineates the spectacular growth of our near neighbour, its rapid rise among the ranks of the world’s economies, its government solvency, future potential, progress in defence procurement, diplomatic ambitions and the implications of its rise for the region and for the strategic balance of the major players — especially with regard to any collective response to Chinese ambitions.
Indonesia is South-East Asia’s largest country. With its launching pad of political and economic reforms it is poised to exploit both its location in this dynamic region and its youthful workforce, with a low dependency ratio which ensures high productivity.
Already the world’s 16th-largest economy, Indonesia is estimated to become the seventh largest by 2030 and the fourth largest by 2040. These extrapolations are reliant on current trends and disregard potential problems, such as corruption, infrastructure deficiencies and inequality — all of which Halimi acknowledges — and, it should be added, the danger of Islamism. Nevertheless, Indonesia is bound to benefit from the global economy’s rebalance towards the region.
Although starting from a low base of 1 per cent of GDP, Indonesia’s spending on defence is increasing at a rapid rate. The vision is ambitious: 10 fighter plane squadrons, 274 ships and 12 submarines by 2024. Recent purchases of modern Russian and U.S. jets, helicopter gunships and German tanks are credible evidence of serious intentions behind this vision.
To these developments should be added some recent foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East, with the country adopting a serious stance as a major Muslim power, and reflecting the sympathies of its population. These initiatives include a defence agreement with Saudi Arabia and support at the UN for the Palestinian cause against Israel.
As it was during the Cold War, Indonesia is traditionally a non-aligned nation; but any consideration of regional security has to take into account the elephant in the room, that is, the expansion of Chinese power and influence. This is evident in China’s alarming military build-up, territorial claims and especially its use of soft diplomacy in the use of foreign aid to win hearts and minds throughout the Pacific region.
It is reassuring that under a Coalition government Australia is rebalancing its own $5.04 billion aid budget to better focus on the Asia-Pacific region, after years of its distortion in order to indulge former Labor PM Kevin Rudd’s craving for a casual seat on the UN Security Council.
This involved not only cash gifts to corrupt African states which brook no interference with how the funds are used (that would be neo-colonialism), but becoming the third largest donor to Libya, where Australia does not even have an embassy. A statue in Washington and building a new a parliament house for Grenada in the Caribbean were other curious projects.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will no doubt want to serve Australia’s strategic and material interests, as well as to nurture development in our region, including that of our near neighbour, where we also have some fences to mend.
Plainly speaking, the proposal of Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, that India, Japan, Australia and the United States should form a “quadrilateral initiative” to ensure Asia’s status quo security in the 21st century is mindful of two salient features of our region today. One is China’s ambitions to project its power throughout the region and achieve something like the former Pax Britannica. The other is the limitations of currently cash-strapped America, on which those nations cannot afford to rely in the future.
Indonesia’s interests might be served by its participating in such an arrangement, rather than remaining non-aligned. It is hard to imagine that it would align itself closely with China, considering the events of 50 years ago. Chinese communist penetration and involvement in a murderous coup attempt led to a bloody purge of communists, socialists and even innocent ethnic Chinese, resulting in a dominant role for the army and the rule of the Suharto regime until 1998.
Halimi is confident that whatever choice Indonesia makes in its diplomatic commitments, its rise will make for “significant geopolitical change” in the region. Its economic growth engine has such vigour relative to the rest of the world that its rise among the nations is inevitable.
This represents significant opportunities for our exports, but will give Indonesia such clout that cavalier treatment from Australia, be it over border protection or animal rights, will be unthinkable.
John Morrissey is a Melbourne-based writer.
Abdul-Latif Halimi, “The regional implications of Indonesia’s rise”, The Diplomatˆ(Tokyo), April 10, 2014.