The Republic of Indonesia does not actively participate in the present geopolitical game being played on the world stage and strives to maintain harmonious ties with both its immediate neighbors and powerful nations like China, the United States, and Russia. Meanwhile, the fact that Indonesia is a pretty large state with 275 million citizens and a gradually expanding economy—which, many economic experts believe, has a bright future—determines its relevance not just in regional affairs.
Australia, whose influence in the South Pacific region has recently been surpassed by China, is eager to deepen its relationship with its neighbors in order to maintain its former political and economic sway. Despite past tensions over the East Timor crisis in 1999, Canberra and Jakarta’s relationship is still developing year by year. The goal of Indonesian politicians is to entice as much foreign investment as possible in order to build their nation, and Australia does not want China to continue to dominate the Indonesian economy, which is currently Jakarta’s principal trading partner for both imports and exports.
Australia and Indonesia delegates came to a free trade deal on March 4, 2019. The agreement, signed by the two countries’ trade ministers, allows 99 percent of Australian goods to enter Indonesia either duty-free or on preferential terms. The agreement also gives Australian universities the opportunity to open branches in Indonesian cities. In order to make Indonesian society more supportive of Canberra’s policies in the future, Australia is interested in teaching Indonesian nationals in accordance with Australian norms.
Despite their close proximity, Australia and Indonesia are not close trading partners, but Canberra is doing everything it can to retain and increase its economic involvement with Indonesia.
It should be noted that Australia and Indonesia have been in free trade talks since 2018, but that progress has delayed as a result of diplomatic tensions surrounding the relocation of Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While Indonesia, the nation with the biggest Muslim population in the world, supports Palestinian independence and opposes Israeli government actions on the Palestinian issue, Australia, an ally of the United States, does not recognize Palestine and believes that the nation belongs to Israel. However, Canberra and Jakarta’s desire to trade on mutually beneficial terms has proven stronger than conflicts based on ideological grounds.
Anthony Albanese, the prime minister of Australia, and Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, met in Jakarta on June 6, 2022. As a result of the special operation in Ukraine that started in February 2022, the leaders of the two nations decided to step up their collaboration in the area of food security, particularly with regard to the delivery of wheat. Expanding bilateral collaboration in the fields of food innovation and the food business was deemed necessary by Widodo and Albanese. The Indonesian President emphasized the need of Canberra and Jakarta to expand their cooperative energy projects and cooperate in the battle against climate change.
Diplomats from Australia and Indonesia signed a memorandum of agreement on September 21, 2022, to improve bilateral cooperation. The pact would improve ties between Australia and Indonesia, according to Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s finance minister.
On November 24, 2022, during the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto met with his Australian counterpart Richard Donald Marles. After the meeting, Subianto said Jakarta has always considered Australia a reliable friend and important partner in the region, including in the area of defense. According to the Indonesian defense minister, the close friendship between the two countries has come about not only because of geographical proximity, but also because of the two nations’ shared geopolitical interests.
During the meeting, the Indonesian defense minister also thanked Australia for allowing Indonesian cadets to study at the Australian Defense Force Academy. So far, two Indonesian soldiers are participating in the 18-month military training at the academy after joining on February 2, 2022.
The good relations between Australia and Indonesia do not indicate that Jakarta is sympathetic to Western countries and pursues policies that benefit the United States and its allies. As noted earlier, Indonesia shows no tendency to place itself entirely within the sphere of influence of the United States or China. Indonesia’s relatively solid economy allows it to maneuver between Washington and Beijing to its advantage and maintain mutually beneficial relations with its Asian neighbors and key global players such as the EU and Russia.
A clear example of Jakarta’s position, characterized by the Indonesian leadership’s loyalty to all countries, is the naval exercises conducted with them. For example, in May 2021, a joint Indonesian-Chinese naval exercise was held off the coast of Indonesia, the main purpose of the exercise was to improve the coordination of the two countries’ military actions in maritime emergencies. Two Chinese guided missile frigates participated.
In December 2022, representatives of the Indonesian Navy invited the navies of 47 countries to participate in the Komodo International Exercise (MNEK) to be held in Makassar, South Sulawesi, in June 2023. According to media reports, the Indonesian military has invited Russia, China, the United States, Canada, South Korea and North Korea, among others.
MNEK is a joint international exercise that has been held regularly every two years since 2014. Organized by the Indonesian Navy, the exercise is non-military in nature. Its main goal is to promote maritime cooperation in the South Asian region to reduce international tensions.
Although Jakarta is unlikely to establish tight connections with Canberra, Australia is keen in making more strategic friends. The scale of the Indonesian economy makes it possible for the government to maintain cordial ties with all of its neighbors, which is crucial for their own interests. Nevertheless, a rapprochement between Indonesia and Australia could be expected in the near future since Jakarta should accept the relatively attractive terms of collaboration that the Australian leadership is proposing to Jakarta.
Petr Konovalov, political observer, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.