Indonesia’s complex ascent
5 Mar 2013|
How high will Indonesia rise? (Garuda at Monumen Nasional)

I recently had the pleasure of attending the National Security College’s workshop ‘Indonesia’s Ascent: power, leadership and Asia’s security order’ at the ANU. The presentations were delivered as part of a larger publication project that will explore and challenge different elements of Indonesia’s rise. In this Canberra workshop (the other being in Jakarta), the key message of most speakers was that, overall, Indonesia is on the right trajectory but is still grappling with questions of democratisation, governance and security.

Sue Thompson from the National Security College presented a historical overview of Indonesia’s self-perception as a leader and discussed the legacy of colonialism and great power interference in Indonesia’s affairs. Delivered at the outset of the workshop, these historical experiences provided an important framing device for subsequent presentations that explored the potential for Indonesia to assume a more powerful and influential role in the region. Also discussing historical legacies, independent researcher Robert Lowry explored a number of security fault lines in Indonesia—in particular, separatism—that could threaten its ascent if not addressed carefully.

In terms of other domestic challenges, Stephen Sherlock of the ANU’s Centre for Democratic Institutions argued that Indonesia’s present political settings are characterised by a rather lacklustre line-up of presidential candidates and that an incomplete democratic transition would challenge the country’s rise. (In a later post, I’ll provide the flipside to this view on Indonesian politics.) Leonard Sebastian of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore highlighted other domestic issues, including the security ramifications of poverty, increasing decentralisation, trans-migration (and the ethno-religious tensions it sometimes brings) and lagging security sector reform as a counterweight to overly optimistic views of Indonesia’s development.

Turning to Indonesia’s foreign policy, the University of Melbourne’s Avery Poole looked at the ways in which democracy promotion has both shaped Indonesia’s diplomacy efforts and provided a balance to political Islam. Meanwhile, Mark Beeson (Murdoch University) and Will Lee (University of Western Australia) contended that Indonesia’s increasing democratic character might allow it to engage with other ‘middle powers’ like Australia, although, in practice, this was still limited to issues within the direct national interest. In responding to both presentations, the NSC’s Michael Wesley questioned the extent to which democracy informed Indonesian foreign policy. He argued that Indonesia’s increasingly democratic character hadn’t necessarily convinced the Australian public to warm to our near neighbour—a view supported by the Lowy Institute’s annual poll.

Looking more closely at Australia–Indonesia relations, Derry Habir of Bakrie University in Jakarta urged caution in getting carried away with Indonesia’s rise. In his view, corruption, competitiveness and growing resource nationalism were areas to watch. Together with NSC’s Chris Roberts, he argued that areas of the bilateral relationship like trade needed greater attention but, overall, there was reason to be positive. In terms of generating greater Australian interest at the grassroots level, Roberts even recommended sending newspaper editors to Indonesia to pique their interest.

Leonard Sebastian and I Made Andi Arsana from Gadjah Madah University in Yogyakarta outlined a number of maritime-related issues which are also challenging Indonesia’s rising trajectory, including complex territorial claims and the need to provide security for a vast archipelago and its sea lanes of communication. According to Arsana, the maritime boundary between Indonesia and Australia is one of several issues that must be addressed. Even though maritime boundaries have been settled, their management remains a big issue for the two neighbours in the future. It concerns maritime resource utilisation which requires collaboration between the two countries.

Mark Turner from the University of Canberra rounded off the discussion by raising broader philosophical questions about how we appraise the bilateral relationship. He wondered whether we worried about the relationship as a result of actual indicators or just as a matter of course. (I’d argue it’s probably a bit of both.)

Overall, one of the key messages of the workshop was that, as we rush towards embracing initiatives that hope to bring us closer to Indonesia, we might need to take a step back to better understand the complex nature of our neighbour’s ascent—and the factors that might hold it back. More specifically, this includes what role we might usefully seek to play; it might well be as a diplomatic or trading partner, or how Australia might adjust to a stronger and more influential regional partner. Nevertheless, convening a number of Australian, Indonesian and Singaporean scholars who, in front of an audience of policymakers and practitioners, grapple with these questions is certainly a good start. By consensus, the issues facing our near neighbour aren’t insurmountable, but they are pressing enough that a dose of realism about Indonesia becoming a great power on our doorstep is needed.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user drhenkenstein.