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Australia’s management of the Sino-US rivalry and its effect on Indonesian-Australian relations.

BY: JACK MCMINIGAL

The power rivalry currently taking place between the United States (US) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has also affected Australian-Indonesian relations in recent months.

Australia’s involvement in multilateral strategic partnerships such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the 2022 AUKUS Agreement has been a source of anxiety in Indonesia. According to a 2022 poll conducted by the Lowy Institute, levels of trust felt towards Australia have been in a state of decline in Indonesia, it is asserted that the Australian Government’s involvement in such partnerships is partly to blame. Traditionally, Indonesia and other ASEAN nations have made efforts to stay out of great power rivalries, such policy direction first came about during the Cold War era with many ASEAN members joining the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Essentially, an assembly of nations that refused to pledge their allegiance to either the Soviet Union (USSR) or US power blocs that existed during the period.

Once again, a great power rivalry is playing out within the international system and the Indo-Pacific region is predicted to be at the centre of it. The increasingly confrontational nature of Sino-US relations in recent years has precipitated uncertainty amongst members of ASEAN and Australasia alike. Whilst nations like Australia have made their political allegiances clear, other nations such as Indonesia have opposed power bloc divisions through policy that aims to avoid absolute allegiance to either side. Essentially, Indonesia and other ASEAN nations have reinvigorated policy of non-alignment, when dealing with the US and PRC. Whilst also advocating for peace and cooperation in the region to decrease the chances of a future Sino-US conflict.

The Indonesian Government perceives Australia’s involvement in partnerships such as the AUKUS Agreement as provocative and counterproductive to attempts to maintain peace in the region. In recent months, this has been made apparent by Indonesia’s Ambassador to Australia, Dr Siswo Pramono, raising concerns about the antagonistic nature of AUKUS. Indonesian officials have taken issue with the agreement, asserting that member states must ensure that the strategic partnership, primarily revolving around strategic cooperation and weapon technology sharing, must not precipitate an arms race in the Indo-Pacific.

The Australian Government needs to recognise that unfaltering allegiance with the US, through partnerships such as AUKUS, is not an effective long-term strategy for strengthening ties in the greater Indo-Pacific region. Specifically, Southeast Asia is currently the most important region for Australian foreign policy and the reality of the situation, is that Australia needs ASEAN far more than ASEAN needs Australia. Indonesia’s GDP alone overtook that of Australia’s in 2005, and collectively ASEAN’s economy is approximately double the size of Australia’s. Indonesia and the rest of the ASEAN region offer significant opportunities for Australia to further develop trading relations. However, for this to occur, first, diplomatic relations must be strengthened, thus, exemplifying the need for a new approach to Australian foreign policy regarding the Sino-US rivalry.

A significant first step could be made by accepting and respecting the way in which ASEAN nations, such as Indonesia, are managing the power rivalry currently taking place between the US and the PRC. Concurrently, by diversifying relations away from traditional partners such as the US and the United Kingdom (UK) to focus more on relations within Australia’s geographical region. This does not mean that ties must be broken with traditional strategic partners, only that a greater priority should be put on bettering relations within Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific.

Bibliography

  • Bland, Ben and Natasha Kassam. “Indonesians may be wary of Australia, but they trust China even less – and we should embrace their independent spirit.” Lowy Institute, 15 June 2022. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/indonesians-may-be-wary-australia-they-trust-china-even-less-and-we-should-embrace
  • Herscovitch, Benjamin and Gatra Priyandita. “Indonesia-Australia: Deeper divide lies beneath AUKUS submarine rift.” The Interpreter, November 08, 2021. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/indonesia-australia-deeper-divide-lies-beneath-aukus-submarine-rift
  • Hurst, Daniel. “Indonesian ambassador warns Australia Aukus pact must not fuel a hypersonic arms race.” The Guardian, November 03, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/nov/03/indonesian-ambassador-warns-australia-aukus-pact-must-not-fuel-a-hypersonic-arms-race-in-the-region
  • Karmini, Niniek. “Australian Leader’s Visit Affirms Deeper Ties to Indonesia.” The Diplomat, June 07, 2022. https://thediplomat.com/2022/06/australian-leaders-visit-affirms-deeper-ties-to-indonesia/
  • Lindsey, Tim and Tim Mann. “It’s great Albanese is in Indonesia, but Australia needs to do a lot more to reset relations. Here are 5 ways to start.” The Conversation, June 06, 2022. https://theconversation.com/its-great-albanese-is-in-indonesia-but-australia-needs-to-do-a-lot-more-to-reset-relations-here-are-5-ways-to-start-184446
  • Milner, Anthony and Ron Huisken. “Australia’s push for closer ties with ASEAN is good strategy but complicated.” Australia Strategic Policy Institute, November 22, 2022. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australias-push-for-closer-ties-with-asean-is-good-strategy-but-complicated/
  • Rahman Yaacob, Abdul. “Strategic divergence threatens Australia-ASEAN relations.” East Asia Forum, November 09, 2022. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2022/11/09/strategic-divergence-threatens-australia-asean-relations/

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