Promoting regional stability in a time of uncertainty

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Canberra on February 10. AFP

As the devastating impacts of Covid-19 have shown us all this year, the international environment confronting Indonesia and Australia is more complex, contested and uncertain than ever before.

The Indo-Pacific, the region in which we both live, is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since World War II and is the epicenter of rising strategic competition.

Covid-19 has accelerated many of these trends. Our external security environment is changing quickly.

Militarisation and disruptive technological advances are making our region less secure – at the very time that emergency response and resilience measures demand a higher priority and greater resources from governments.

“Grey-zone” activities – such as the use of militia and coercive economic levers – are being applied in ways that challenge sovereignty and habits of cooperation.

National defence thinking, strategy and planning needs to shift gears to respond.

That’s why the Australian government’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update released recently details a new Australian defence policy that prioritises the Indo-Pacific region and invests A$270 billion (US$188.7 billion) over the next 10 years to increase Australia’s capabilities to achieve our goals.

Our focus on a stable and secure region is an interest we share with Indonesia and many of our Southeast Asian neighbours.

Australia shares the goals and principles of ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific: a region of dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry, and of development and prosperity for all. For Australia, ASEAN centrality is at the core of the Indo-Pacific.

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison said when announcing Australia’s new defence posture, the Indo-Pacific region is where we live and where our interests are most directly engaged. We want an open, sovereign Indo-Pacific, free from coercion and hegemony.

We are redoubling our efforts to prioritise our region in our defence planning – ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland Southeast Asia, to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific – deepening cooperation with our regional partners, new and old.

The Australia-Indonesia defence relationship will remain a top priority. Despite challenges posed by Covid-19, our defence forces will continue their strong partnership, building on decades of close cooperation.

We will cement mini-lateral relationships across the region, including with Indonesia, such as cooperation in trilateral and other small groups on issues of shared interest to reinforce sovereignty and regional stability.

We will acquire new capabilities to shape our strategic environment, deter actions against our interests and enable us to respond with credible military force when required.

While these are undoubtedly challenging times, opportunities are emerging for countries like Indonesia and Australia.

We have the chance to shape our international environment and ensure countries in our region can pursue their own interests peacefully and without external interference.

As a close neighbour and friend, Indonesia is in the top tier of Australia’s international partners, reflected by the fact that we are both among a handful of countries with which each has a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

A resilient, prosperous Indonesia will continue to play a crucial role in the Indo-Pacific.

Indonesia’s strategic weight, its influence within ASEAN and its democratic credentials are major assets for the region.

Indonesia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – including in respect of the Papua provinces – are fundamental, as Australia has recognised through the Lombok Treaty of 2006.

Together, Indonesia and Australia can play a positive role shaping the region’s future.

We have always worked together at critical junctures – Indonesia and Australia are strong supporters of the rules-based order on which we depend for our security and prosperity, and our cooperation reflects this fundamental commitment.

As Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in his historic address to the Australian Parliament earlier this year, “Indonesia and Australia must become the anchors for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region”.

Australia will continue to stand with Indonesia during this unprecedented pandemic and in whatever follows.

This year, we have already redirected nearly A$45 million from our budgeted A$298.5 million development programme in Indonesia to support the Covid-19 response.

In late May, Australia also announced A$21 million in new initiatives to provide immediate support to Indonesia’s health, humanitarian and economic response.

And just last week, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne took part in a Special ASEAN-Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Covid-19 in partnership with Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and all her ASEAN counterparts.

At the meeting, Payne committed an additional A$23 million to help ASEAN bolster health security, economic recovery and stability in our region.

The challenges of our time are immense but Australia and Indonesia are not bystanders.

As neighbours and friends working together, we can help shape a region of stable, prosperous and sovereign states, cooperating on shared interests and resilient to coercion.

Gary Quinlan is Australian ambassador to Indonesia

The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network