Amid comments on how Australia treated France over the decision to switch to nuclear-powered submarines, Canberra’s treatment of another close partner and the resulting reaction received relatively little attention. ‘Warning.
The Australian government’s relations with Indonesia on submarines and AUKUS were no less awkward.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi’s carefully crafted press release on AUKUS and its first headline act have been muted over Paris’s understandable fury at being so brazenly duped. On the surface, he simply called on Australia to honor its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the ASEAN Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, and urged Canberra to settle disputes âpeacefullyâ through dialogue. and international law, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law. of the sea.
But Marsudi’s pointed use of adverbs like “deeply” hints at deeper concerns, and the dynamics of Indonesian politics are likely to plunge them even deeper.
One should not swallow the line of some observers in Jakarta that South East Asians are universally upset by Australia’s “arrogant” actions on the grounds that the purchase of such boats would jeopardize the aspirations of the region. to be a zone of peace.
They are not. Some have welcomed AUKUS and what it brings, including Australian boats. Their fears about China are behind this.
Even many Indonesians are not convinced that signing the ASEAN peace treaty guarantees either friendship or cooperation as Beijing is busy asserting its absurd claims to ownership of the “North Natuna Sea” .
Some were quick to urge Indonesia to step up its military responsiveness to China’s latest foray into its exclusive economic zone, which the government did, but without any accompanying statements from Retno expressing concerns, deep or not, about Beijing’s actions.
An Indonesian parliamentarian, a former major general, even said that an “anti-communist” group within the Indonesian army strongly wanted Indonesia to join the American “bloc” and transform AUKUS into “AUKUSI”.
That said, it is true that many Indonesian commentators, like their government, want to emphasize international law and ASEAN-centric diplomacy in their dealings with Beijing. For them, AUKUS and the Australian submarines are an affront to both.
Additionally, President Joko Widodo’s administration sees no need to choose sides, as Australian governments until recently claimed, especially when it sees a material advantage in flirting with the two.
The Australian government is not ignoring this feeling, nor the need to play with it. Foreign Minister Marise Payne recited her mantra that Australia wants to help regional peace and security under the wise leadership of ASEAN.
But the government’s actions have made those words more hollow than ever. The sequencing of the 2 + 2 meeting held in Jakarta just a week before the AUKUS announcement is a glaring example.
Whatever hints Australian ministers may have given to their Indonesian counterparts, it is clear that Jakarta was as caught off guard as the French.
That’s not to say Canberra should have kept the Widodo administration in secret. Our overall strategic partnership is far too short to be truly strategic for that.
But this is not how we treat partners in a relationship that we wisely wish to develop gradually, even if anything approaching a truly meaningful and influential strategic relationship is still little more than a pipe dream.
We could and should have done things differently, with more respect and frankness, and we held the talks after the announcement of AUKUS.
Canberra could have told its partners in Jakarta some time in advance that something was going to happen that would affect their interests, begging them to understand that this had to be closed for now, reassured them that we had fully considered the position of Indonesia, and explained that we must inform our partners.
Of course, after the announcement, the Indonesians may have expressed their displeasure by abruptly postponing the talks. The optics would not have been ideal. But all that would have shown was that the two countries had different positions and that Australia at least showed Indonesia the respect to give it some warning and the opportunity to discuss the matter on a Equality.
On the other hand, if the talks had continued, we could have plausibly demonstrated that we had listened carefully to what Indonesia was telling us and that we would behave accordingly. We could have allowed Jakarta to underscore Australia’s concern for fulfilling its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its declared adherence to the ASEAN regional leadership and its Indo-Pacific vision. We could have argued politely and respectfully that the deterrence of hegemonic behavior that threatened ASEAN’s principles and the sovereignty of its members required a credible deterrent, but of course we shared the goal of peace. and lasting prosperity.
Instead, by blithely continuing the talks ahead of the announcement, we left an impression of duplicity and arrogance. Too many Indonesians have associated us with the first characteristic since the independence of East Timor, if not before. But arrogance is particularly frowned upon in Indonesian culture and often associated with neocolonial tendencies.
We haven’t just added superficial credibility to the argument now raging in Jakarta that Australia has moved away from ASEAN and reverted to its ethno-racial brethren and deputy sheriff claims. We have echoed the arguments of those who insist that Australia is no less of a threat to the interests of ASEAN states in maintaining peace in their region than China, even though the AUKUS and Quad states have not claimed any disputed atoll like theirs and turned it into an unsinkable aircraft carrier.
We have shattered the preconceived notion that Australia is cavalier about Indonesia’s desire that foreign submarines, especially ânuclearâ submarines, not secretly use the waters it does. considers his tanah tune (country).
Jakarta’s political dynamics and governance structures may deepen this impression. The Indonesian system gives its legislature an important role in international affairs. Separate from the executive in the Indonesian presidential system, the parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committee not only wields real powers, but also serves as a forum for shaping public opinion, often in the direction of nationalist populism.
Australia has often been a prime target for the more chauvinistic members of this body, and little could inspire them more than the prospect of their neighbor to the south living up to their usual tricks and treating Indonesia with contempt.
Members of the commission have acted faithfully, with some urging the administration to confront Australia for threatening the peace in the region and taking actions that have “implications for the defense … or sovereignty of our country.”
The commission’s censorship will add to negative perceptions of AUKUS and Australia’s military ambitions already in the public domain. Australia even seems to have raised suspicions that it is secretly considering arming its submarines with nuclear weapons, regardless of our assurances to the contrary.
Our assurances are likely to carry as much weight in these quarters, including on the committee, as our insistence that we have no plans for Papua, even if both are true.
In democratic Indonesia, administrations can hardly afford to ignore such political positions, and the administration’s message has subtly adjusted. After appearing before a closed-door committee hearing, Deputy Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar reiterated that Indonesia was “worried” that Australia’s nuclear submarine plans were destabilizing the region by causing a arms race, pointing the blame for such a “disturbance” more openly than Retno.
All of this confirms that unless Australia begins to invest as much strategy and confidence in diplomacy as it does in military readiness – if not in monetary terms, at least in skills, integrity and in us – we risk doing little to “shape” our region other than helping a privileged few deter China from forcefully reshaping it.
It is difficult to be optimistic that the government will do this. Too often, the political perspective seems paramount. And when it comes to national security, he has shown little evidence, despite modest increases in the aid budget for Southeast Asia, that he views his foreign ministry as the same as defense, that either as a source of advice or as a support for its announcements. .
The view seems to be that domestic arguments for doing more to pursue our foreign and strategic interests are more marketable in front of awesome guns or alongside American presidents than behind culturally astute diplomatic craft.
The government could well claim that with Indonesia this approach works very well. Presumably, AUKUS will not lead Jakarta to repudiate our strategic partnership agreement, let alone reject the Bushmaster vehicles that Australia has offered it or back down from other minor but welcome improvements to the cooperation agreement in defense to which the two parties have committed themselves during the talks.
By such superficial measures he might be right. We will manage to get out of any immediate tension, which Jakarta wants to limit.
But as the last fifteen weeks have underlined in very dark tones (especially in our relations with France), tin-eared diplomacy accumulates costs, especially in disaffecting and even offending those we have the most. need to influence.
For now, Australia and Indonesia fundamentally disagree on the relative usefulness of dialogue and alliance-based hard power in deterring hegemonic potential and preserving sovereignty, and on how much of the latter is necessary if the former can have any persuasive power.
We should expect this disagreement to persist for the foreseeable future. The successor to the Widodo administration will likely think similarly.
It is very good. We can disagree.
We should certainly not be dissuaded from taking action that we consider vital to our national security just because Jakarta has a profoundly different perspective. (Whether which course Canberra chooses is the right one is a whole other debate.)
But if one of our strategic goals is a relationship with Indonesia that has matured beyond the transaction to become a true partnership based on mutual trust and respect, we will have to relearn how to pursue this more skillfully.
Over time, we could help push Jakarta to at least move closer to those of its less ambivalent ASEAN partners about the real threat from China and the realistic way to deal with it, while also giving more emphasis. credibility to our statements in Washington that we are responsive and influential in our region.
This will take more than better meeting planning, although it would help.