By Andrew Reynolds, 17 June 2014
Indonesia and Australia share one overwhelming reason for strengthening security ties, and that reason is China.
Clint Richards at The Diplomat this morning has some interesting thoughts on collective security options available to Indonesia to counter China’s increasingly assertive posture in the South China Sea. Not surprisingly, the two main contenders he lists for possible maritime security partners are Australia and Japan.
With some pundits speculating China will declare an ADIZ in the SCS by 2015, such an arrangement would have to happen sooner rather than later. Richards’ most astute observation is that given the current fractious state of Indo-Australian relations, such an alliance would require a significant regional crisis to act as a catalyst. An Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) declaration may be just the catalyst this alliance requires.
Australia’s relationship with Indonesia took a battering in 2014 over Australia’s divergent stance on asylum seekers, and was further eroded by allegations Australia had spied on Indonesia, including on the wife of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, following further revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Relations with Indonesia appear to be on the mend, following Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent visit to Indonesia. Pursuing further defence relations with Indonesia would be a wise course for the Abbott government, given the importance for Australia in protecting the northern approaches to Australia, as set out in the 2013 Australian Defence White Paper.
With over half the world’s cargo trade transiting the waters of the South China Sea (SCS), including the strategically vital Indonesian straits of Molucca, Sunda and Lombok, the South China Sea’s waters are too important globally for the unhindered passage of cargo, oil and gas resources to be threatened by any one power. For Australia’s burgeoning gas industry, it is vital that Australia acts to ensure the safety of its exports through these contested waters, and it is here that the relationship with Indonesia is of vital import. The 2013 Defence White Paper states “Australia’s longstanding partnership with Indonesia remains our most important defence relationship in the region. In addition to shared security challenges, Australia and Indonesia maintain a common commitment to regional security …”
With such regional security interests with Indonesia framed in policy, it is important that Australia proactively seek to strengthen this relationship in anticipation of near-future regional security threats. A Chinese declared ADIZ in the SCS has the potential to pose just such a threat. Moreover, it is important that Australia continue its policy of advocating that all players, including China, resolve their disputes peacefully and not escalate tensions further. Having China agree to abide by international rules and laws – in this case the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – is the current major sticking point and may well prove a bridge too far, in which case having strong regional defence relationships with Indonesia, and other regional partners including Singapore and Malaysia, could be the ace in the hole Australia needs.
1. Defence, Department of, Defence White Paper 2013: Defending Australia and Its National Interests (Defence White Paper, 2013), 58, <http://www.defence.gov.au/whitepaper2013/>.