Relations between Australia and Indonesia in recent years have largely floundered. Both governments have focused more on their bilateral dynamics, which amid differing values have resulted in an unstable relationship that blows hot and cold.
This narrow focus has made Australia and Indonesia neglect that they actually share many similar priorities in the regional context.
On issues such as asylum seekers and capital punishment, Australia and Indonesia may be at odds. But on major strategic questions facing the region, the two nations are in broad agreement.
Australia and Indonesia should gradually reframe the relationship by giving further weight to their shared interests within the broader regional context. Refocusing away from bilateral differences and towards regional similarities is one of the best paths toward a more stable and resilient Australia-Indonesia relationship.
Shared regional concerns
For the last half-century, Australia and Indonesia have had the same approach to most of the region’s major geopolitical issues.
Since Indonesia’s anti-communist turn in the mid-1960s, both Jakarta and Canberra have continued to favor the regional order that emerged after the United States’ rapprochement with China.
While its formal non-aligned status precludes it from openly saying so, Indonesia broadly maintains a preference for something akin to the current order in East Asia, resting on US primacy.
Despite initial protestations at not being consulted beforehand, Indonesia has indicated that it is untroubled by the basing of US marines in Darwin and the general strategic rebalancing to Asia-Pacific undertaken by the Obama administration. This aligns with the geopolitical preferences of US-ally Australia.
With China’s growing regional heft and continuing belligerence in the South China Sea, Australia and Indonesia share a similar concern on the challenge China poses to peace and stability in region.
Australia and Indonesia have both welcomed China’s increasing role in regional trade and investment. China is the major trading partner of each country and both were quick to sign up as founding members to China’s Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank, despite Japanese and US reluctance.
But Australia and Indonesia are anxious about China’s recent behavior in the South China Sea. The rising power’s artificial-island-building and expansive claims, recently ruled invalid by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague only to be dismissed by Beijing, are a shared concern.
The two countries also support the region’s open trade regime, deeming it vital for economic development. Canberra and Jakarta have declared support for both the Chinese-favored, Association of Southeast Asian Nations-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement and the US-favored Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Inclusive regional institutions are also a point of convergence for Australia and Indonesia. Both countries see them as important to maintaining regional peace and security. Jakarta was one of the key supporters of expanding the East Asia Summit, now the region’s premier international forum, to include Australia.
When it comes to the threat of jihadist terrorism, Australia and Indonesia are both committed to the fight. Jakarta has been very active and successful in destroying regional terrorist networks based on Indonesian soil. As a target of these networks, Australia has welcomed Indonesia’s activism in fighting regional terrorism.
As democratic middle powers that have enjoyed the security and prosperity of the existing regional order, Canberra and Jakarta have a shared interest in seeing peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific that is based on respect for international law and well-established norms of behavior.
A path forward for the relationship
Reframing the relationship toward these shared regional concerns offers a path forward.
Creating a greater mutual understanding of how Australia and Indonesia share complementary priorities will help bolster a relationship in need of greater resilience against the inevitable bilateral waxes and wanes. Fortunately, this has become increasingly recognized by leaders in both countries.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in his lecture at the Lowy Institute in March, declared that the Australia-Indonesia relationship is, "… increasingly defined by similarities and complementarities more than differences."
He then followed by immediately pivoting to the region, "Now the greatest run of peace and prosperity this planet has ever known — centered right here in our Indo-Pacific region — was all made possible by the system of rules and institutions which the United States and its allies built from the ashes of world war two."
These sentiments were echoed only a month later by former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in a speech addressing this year’s Australian Defense White Paper, "Both Jakarta and Canberra are seeing more and more of their interests converging: in economics, regional security, combating terrorism and others."
There is plenty of space to build a stronger partnership between us. Indonesia and Australia can work together to promote a rules based world order.
However, demonstrative of the neglect the two countries' geopolitical context receives, Yudhoyono’s speech was poorly attended, with no senior politicians in the audience.
Turnbull has made a start in the right direction. But without a broader recognition of the shared strategic priorities between the two nations, the relationship risks being run off the rails by the next asylum seeker boat or execution.
Reframing the way the relationship is thought about toward a greater recognition of shared geopolitical interests is the best way for these two neighbors to forge a stronger and more resilient relationship.
David Willis is a PhD candidate in international relations at Flinders University