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Australia's most-needed security partner is next door. We just don't show it

Sydney Morning Herald - July 5, 2023

David Livingstone – The charismatic leader of the world's third-largest democracy, fourth-largest country by population, and likely fourth-largest economy by 2050, has just visited Australia. And his impending powerhouse of a nation not only sits at Australia's front door, it bestrides our defensive perimeter to the north, making it physically the most important country in our security matrix.

Why, then, was the Australian government's welcome of Indonesia's President Joko Widodo so anaemic? Despite the bonhomie, this was a low-key visit. It seemed a visit diminished, particularly in comparison with his 2020 tour, when he addressed the Australian parliament. This visit was not marked by the honours that should be accorded such an important leader coming to the end of his term, and having been such a valuable friend to Australia and its place in the region.

The remarkable thing about Australia at this moment is, despite having the strongest frontbench in a generation, the government's priorities are sometimes seriously at odds with Australia's real interests.

Widodo offers partnership in the green future of the automotive industry and increased collaboration to deal with the pressing security challenges Indonesia and Australia share (read, China).

Taking up his offer regarding lithium would contribute to Australia's overdue efforts to catch up on electric vehicle adoption and infrastructure. Australia would build on its strength in lithium production and Indonesia's strength of resources and an increasingly capable and technologically engaged workforce. This is an opportunity to enhance Australia's environmental sustainability and build an important link into an economy that will soon outstrip ours.

While reports indicate the Australian government is interested in this opportunity, it seems the commitment is likely to be buried in a memorandum of understanding – a best-efforts, non-binding declaration of intent that usually carries little weight. Why doesn't the government bring in serious commercial partners and put some money behind the venture itself? After all, it has a loose $368 billion lying around to further its military muscling-up fantasies.

If nothing substantive eventuates from President Widodo's offer, it would indicate multiple Australian government failures, including those of vision, analysis of where Australia needs to be in 30 years, and its ability to leverage existing bilateral relations into a future foundation that will stand Australia in good stead in its region.

Equally, Australia could prioritise Indonesia as a security partner and, through deft diplomacy, work with it to protect maritime territory and approaches from unwelcome incursions, including by China's merchant navy and coastguard. That would not only build Australia's relations with a leader in the ASEAN group; it would, very self-interestedly, keep any maritime challenge to Australia at a great distance to the north.

Geography ensures that any threat to Indonesia has grave consequences for Australia. There are many good reasons to work with Indonesia on its own merits, and here is a reason that goes to the heart of Australia's self-interested security needs.

But sadly, this is also likely to be ignored, as the ironically named Defence Strategic Review mentions the United Kingdom more than it does Indonesia – and that is despite its recommendation that Australia's "northern approaches should be the primary area of military interest".

In this context, it is remarkable that the Australian government leads the way in focusing on out-of-region countries to be Australia's security partners, rather than Indonesia. Take for example the UK, which, despite the marketing of "Global Britain", is a failing regional power heavily reliant on the United States for its own protection. Accordingly, its potential to be a meaningful security partner for Australia is questionable, and that includes in relation to weapons and technology procurement, given the unfortunate performance of Britain's commercial arm in Australia's disastrous Hunter Class frigate program.

Slightly closer to home, but barely more relevant, Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles has identified South Korea as a priority country for security collaboration, citing "a huge amount of alignment at the moment". On the face of it, it seems unlikely that Australia, a country with predominantly maritime security interests, has much alignment with South Korea, a country with a land border with the world's most aggressive, unstable and nuclear-armed neighbour, North Korea. On closer examination, it is hard to see any real alignment of strategic security priorities at all.

For example, the Rand Corporation identified the key threats to South Korea as: North Korea's increasingly sophisticated nuclear arsenal; North Korea could hold South Korea's population centres hostage to the threat of devastating conventional or WMD artillery attack; an actual artillery attack by North Korea would put 25 million South Koreans in immediate danger; and the North Korean regime could collapse with little warning.

Furthermore, 71 per cent of South Koreans want the country to have its own nuclear weapons, in part because of doubts the US would protect them against North Korea. And as for its view of China, South Korea's relations with China are complicated by China's vital role in managing North Korea, ensuring Seoul is nuanced in its approach to Beijing.

This is not to criticise South Korea, which is an important partner for Australia in many ways. It is just that it is not the security fit that Australia needs to ensure its security in a region of increasing competition and tension, and it should not be prioritised over Indonesia.

At the ASEAN-Australia Summit in Sydney in 2018, political leaders spoke politely of relations with Australia. However, in the accompanying seminars, non-government speakers from several ASEAN countries repeatedly and bluntly complained of Australia's historic arrogance, which they dismissed as having morphed into patronising engagement. The common conclusion was that Australia was not very relevant to their countries or the region.

It would be unfortunate if President Widodo's visit to Australia epitomised that dynamic. Australia's window for building strong relations with its increasingly important and influential neighbours is finite and closing. Let us hope Australia's frontbench rallies and embraces Widodo and the opportunities he embodies – for Australia's own sake.

[David Livingstone is a former Australian diplomat and an international security and strategy specialist. He served as deputy head of mission in Iraq between 2011 and 2012.]

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/australia-s-most-needed-security-partner-is-next-door-we-just-don-t-show-it-20230705-p5dlte.htm