Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Keeping it real in Australia's outlook on Indonesia

Keeping it real in Australia's outlook on Indonesia
Published 8 Mar 2016   Follow @SecurityScholar

In 1999, rapper Mos Def released a b-side single called 'Mathematics' in which he cleverly weaves numerical references into his rhymes to highlight socio-economic disparities between whites and blacks in the US. His message is simple: look at both sides of the equation and you get a fuller picture.

In the case of Australia's 2016 Defence White Paper, it's one half of an equation about Australia's strategic future with Indonesia. Naturally we'll need input from the Indonesian side if we're really going to understand how our defence ties will evolve over the next two decades. 

Let's start with the Australian side. Here are some Indonesia highlights from the White Paper: 

2.81 As our near neighbour, Australia's relationship with Indonesia is vital. By 2035, Indonesia should be a major world economy…

2.82 With continued economic growth Indonesia has the potential to increase its regional and global influence…

2.83 The modernisation of the Indonesian armed forces and Indonesia's growing influence are positive developments that will add to Indonesia's security, and that of the region. A secure Indonesia is in Australia's interests and its growing military capabilities will offer Australia and Indonesia opportunities for more effective cooperation to respond to regional challenges…

It builds ever so slightly on the 2009 and 2013 versions, subtly dropping references to Indonesia's democratic credentials and expanding on the country's potential. Chapter Five also touches on Indonesia and paints a constructive picture of future bilateral defence ties, emphasising the potential of maritime security cooperation (riffing on the maritime theme found throughout the 2016 edition). The White Paper passed through the Indonesian media without strong reaction, with a military spokesperson affirming there was no reason for concern.

There was no Kanye-style show stealing from Indonesian politicians the way Marty Natalegawa made a meal of our Darwin basing plans for US Marines. Times have changed and Defence has been cleverly keeping regional friends in the loop. [fold]

So far, it's a good start. But as I alluded to earlier, the future of defence ties with our nearest neighbour has got to take into account Indonesian conditions. As Rod Lyon deftly highlights on The Strategist, a 'dominant motif' emerging from the paper is that of uncertainty – and indeed that applies to Indonesia. Despite President Joko Widodo's proclamations about Indonesia becoming a global maritime fulcrum, there's been little meat on the bones to explain what that means for the country's strategic outlook or the Indonesian armed forces. 

We're still waiting on Indonesia's white paper (rumoured to be released later this year) but even then, like all white papers, whether it sticks is another question. Jokowi has affirmed that Indonesia's military modernisation will continue to deliver much-needed upgrades, particularly for the Air Force and Navy. But so far there's been patchy progress. In terms of defence budget, our White Paper is hopeful that Indonesia's economic growth will fund that military modernisation, but growth in recent quarters remains modest and well below the required 7% of GDP. 

What we do know is that Indonesia is focused on consolidating and modernising its military force to face specific contingencies such as conflict in the South China Sea, disaster relief, and illegal fishing. But even those tasks herald more uncertainty. Take illegal fishing: Jokowi has given a boost to civilian maritime forces with the establishment of a Maritime Security Body (BAKAMLA, which is effectively a coast guard) but its official status remains unclear and, in practice, its area of responsibility is muddied by overlaps with agencies like the Navy. There's also the issue of whether it has been able to beg, steal and borrow enough ships from the Navy to get the job done (Prashanth Parameswaran has a solid rundown of its 99 problems here). With 3.5 years left of Jokowi's tenure, fingers crossed these wrinkles are ironed out.

There's another factor as well, and that's the attitude of the Indonesian armed forces. Over the course of almost two decades, our militaries have grown closer since coming close to conflict over Timor-Leste. The question now is, to what extent can a more vocal Indonesian Chief of Defence Force (step forward, General Nurmantyo) encourage or inhibit future cooperation with Australia? Will we find an Indonesia that is receptive in 10, 15 or 20 years from now, if conservatism is a trend?

Civil–military relations in Indonesia is an area in need of further study and while the military is ostensibly out of politics, let's get real and acknowledge that it still wields influence in Indonesian politics and business today. Indonesia's Chief of Defence force has basically authored the book 'The Art of (Proxy) War'. The man is (not unjustifiably, looking at Indonesia's history with foreign interference) fixated with this concept, most recently signing agreements with national media outlets to fight against creeping proxyism in the country's TV and newspapers. Of course, shifts towards a more unstable strategic environment, in which our interests converge,  could override domestic factors. Nevertheless, until such a time, it's worth considering the prevailing attitudes towards Western militaries in Indonesia among some defence players and how they might shape things to come. 

Those of us watching Indonesia might also consider how Australia's future ISR acquisitions, particularly maritime-based platforms like P-8As and MQ-4C Tritons, will have an impact on relations. Will they increase our ability to work with Indonesia on asylum seekers or illegal fishing, or will they give conservatives in the Jokowi Government reason to be suspicious about our intelligence gathering activities?

Noting the challenges outlined above, let's explore some of the positive opportunities that arise in the White Paper with Indonesia.

First, in the chapter on international engagement, the White Paper says we'll increase the number of liaison personnel from other countries in areas like strategic policy development (5.10). It would be constructive to encourage Indonesian civilians and military personnel to have short stints in these kinds of areas. In addition to a skills exchange, there's much to learn about each other's bureaucratic cultures, and if there was a way of institutionalising that knowledge transfer, even better. Second, the paper also expresses a desire to increase military exercises, especially maritime ones (5.9). Provided Indonesian forces are in a position to accommodate this, it's a good time to work with Indonesia on all things nautical-by-nature. 

Overall, this White Paper is a refreshingly mature take on relations with our nearest Southeast Asian neighbour as well as a clear-eyed look at its place in the world. Taking into account Indonesia's domestic constraints, as well as its ambitions, will help us work out whether things add up the way we might want them to.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user CARAT.

You may also be interested in