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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 14:08 | SYDNEY

Australia-US: The Jakarta factor

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20 August 2010 09:19

If you ask which country has the most potential to disturb the Australia-US relationship, most people will probably reply, 'China'.

I don't agree. I think the answer is Indonesia.

Indonesia has already caused the most serious rift in our relations with Washington, back in the early 1960s, when the Americans decided that Cold War interests were more important than backing their mates' opposition to Jakarta's annexation of West Irian.

Things may seem to have moved on. Indonesia has no outstanding territorial claims, and it's a democracy now. And even though President Obama spent part of his childhood there, it's still a major effort to get the Americans to think seriously about Indonesia.

But we'd be foolish to be complacent. Australia and Indonesia get on because of the long-running balanced disparity between the two countries. Australia is small but wealthy; Indonesia is huge but poor. Indonesia has a huge army but small naval and air forces; Australia has a small army but potent naval and air capabilities. As Hugh White says, the Australian army could get to Indonesia but do nothing once it got there; the Indonesian army could overrun Australia but can't get here. So we just accept each other and get along.

Rapid Indonesian growth could end this balanced disparity, though this is unlikely in the near future. Indonesia's growth rate won't emulate China's because its political evolution seems to be losing steam. It can't fix the corruption and rule of law issues that hold back growth, yet it has advanced far enough to allow interest groups to slow down infrastructure planning and approvals.

But other countries could intervene to disturb this bucolic rate of change. China's rise has kicked off a regional dynamic in which countries are building up each other's power. That's why the Japanese are building the New Delhi subway and the Americans have agreed to help the Vietnamese with nuclear power. Wealthy countries that are threatened by China's rise are looking around for weighty and like-minded partners, and building them up to fighting weight – meaning, enough strategic significance to take part in the omni-balancing of China.

India's the first cab off the rank, followed by Vietnam. The next has to be...Indonesia. It's perfect – big, historically suspicious of China, strategically located. The Japanese and Koreans have their hands full helping India and Vietnam. This leaves the US as most likely to awake to the strategic sense of helping Indonesia emerge as a great power.

Think about it – as China builds naval muscle in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, wouldn't the Pentagon want to invest in building up Indonesia's air and naval forces'

Whether Indonesia is stable and benign or not, this would constitute the most profound shift in our strategic geography for 60 years. Are we sure our friends in Washington, entering a deepening spiral of strategic competition with Beijing, would take account of our strategic interests before investing in Indonesia's strength'

Photo by Flickr user HKmPUA, used under a Creative Commons license.

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