Indonesians may be wary of Australia but they trust China even less - and we should embrace their independent spirit
Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Australians have traditionally had low levels of trust in Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy and our close neighbour. The new Lowy Institute Indonesia Poll, surveying 3000 Indonesians nationwide, suggests the feeling is mutual.
Trust in Australia and the United States has fallen sharply since our last poll in Indonesia a decade ago. A third of Indonesians see Australia as a security threat, though many more express concern about China.
Most Indonesians have not heard of Australian security initiatives such as AUKUS and the Quad. However, they do see Australia as an important aid and security partner, and as a significant destination for travel and study.
As Australia, the US, China and many other outside powers seek to woo Indonesia, it is important to listen to how Indonesians see their place in the world.
What emerges from the survey is that Indonesians do not look at the world through a bipolar US-China lens, as is the increasing trend in Australia and the wider Western world. This ought not to come as a surprise. Diplomatic talk in Canberra of Indonesia’s strategic convergence with Australia seems to be based on hope more than experience, given Jakarta’s deep-seated tradition of non-alignment.
Indonesians share their government’s preference for staying out of great-power conflicts, with 84 per cent wanting to stay neutral in the event of a US-China military conflict.
Jakarta’s reluctance to take a strong stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or to uninvite Vladimir Putin from the G20 summit, which Indonesia is chairing this year, frustrates some Western governments. But it reflects Indonesia’s desire not to be seen to be picking a side, and the government’s desire to focus on economic recovery post-pandemic.
Rather than lament Indonesia’s non-aligned status, Australia should embrace it, particularly because while Indonesians are wary of the US and, to a lesser extent, Australia, they are more wary of China.
While Australian foreign policy is increasingly framed between Washington and Beijing, the Indonesian public sees a multipolar world where different partners are trusted and liked in different ways for different reasons.
Saudi Arabia comes out well as a favoured source of investment, but Japan has the most admired economic development model. Some Islamic leaders are very well liked, but when asked where they want to study or work most overseas, Indonesians choose the US, Japan and South Korea. Near neighbours Singapore and Malaysia, emerge very positively in our survey but there is much less warmth for other South-East Asian nations such as Vietnam and Myanmar.
An Indonesia that is embracing the “independent and active” foreign policy enshrined for more than 70 years might not be the ideal partner for Australia. Canberra and Washington would rather see Jakarta standing up to China and aligning with their security interests. That is not realistic. A thriving, prosperous, independent and active Indonesia can help ensure a more multipolar, balanced Asia, where it is harder for any one power to dominate.
Mohammad Hatta, one of the country’s founders and the father of the “independent and active” approach, called for Indonesia to “row between two reefs” during the Cold War. As one senior Indonesian official puts it, “today, we are still trying to row between two reefs, but with a much bigger vessel”.
Rather than leaning on Indonesia to fall into line with the West’s strategic objectives, or simply hoping it will, it would be best to help Indonesians meet the key security priorities they raised in the survey: building a stronger Indonesian economy, helping create jobs and mitigating the risks of the pandemic and food security disruptions.
Working with the Indonesian people to build a more resilient and prosperous society will boost Jakarta’s ability to withstand pressure from outsiders and take more of a leadership role within South-East Asia.
“Geopolitics is a luxury,” the Indonesian official continued, “that developing countries cannot afford.”