The Indonesian media recently described Indonesia in South East Asian political terms as “the elephant in the room”. Jumping to the western meaning of the expression – it is something that can be seen by everyone, but is not discussed.
On further reflection though, it seemed the elephant analogy could have some relevance – like the elephant, as a nation Indonesia is large, ancient, intelligent, revered and loyal. And in some ways, it is also true that Indonesia is not perhaps discussed in the way such a large and populous country should be in the context of the Asian Century.
Australia and Indonesia have been neighbouring participants in regional diplomacy for a very long time. The regional forums have seen us grace the same stages and work together on similar issues. We have our differences, but the breadth and depth of our relations would do any two neighbouring states proud, especially given our cultural and historical differences.
Regional forums play a strong role in building trade and investment flows, security, stability, and economic growth. Not to mention their role in promoting peace, dialogue, understanding, community and common issues like protecting the environment.
In the past three to four decades, forums like ASEAN and APEC have helped Indonesia and other regional states to grow strongly in a peaceful environment, and to implement reform. They have helped open markets, boost trade flows, strengthen investment and encourage the people-to-people contact that underpins peaceful development, both within the region and with global trading partners and entities.
ASEAN is a shining example of this process and Indonesia has been a key driver and nurturing agent of this organisation, which is now moving towards the establishment of the long-mooted ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, and constituting a great step forward for the grouping and our region. With an economy half the size of the ASEAN economy and with the largest population and land area by far in the grouping, Indonesia has a continuing and vital leadership role to play and it realises the value of the process and that there are significant gains it can make from the process.
But on the broader world stage, is Indonesia’s voice heard as strongly as it should be? In economic terms, Indonesia fits all the criteria of a BRIC, but is not always seen as such. In the G20 and the UN, she is not always seen as a power player and does not always appear to live up to expectations given her history, the momentous decolonisation process that led to her independence and the extensive and strong relations enjoyed with so many regional and global powers, rooted in the independence struggle and the non-aligned movement she championed in the 1950s. This is perhaps understandable given the reticence and self effacing traits inherent in her cultural roots.
So perhaps it is time for Australia and Indonesia to play more strongly together. Certainly, we have much in common. I think there is much more depth to our ties than many people would realise. Our two economies are surprisingly complementary. Sectors such as mining and resources offer huge potential for cooperation. Education and tourism also bring us together. Australia is deeply engaged with Indonesia's ASEAN partners and rightly believes that progress in and engagement with ASEAN directly impacts Australia’s own well-being. In terms of trade, Australia’s ties with the rest of Asia are on par with Indonesia's.
Australia, too, needs to speak up and work harder to realise the potential of her Asian relationships. This is why Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has launched the White Paper on the Asian Century, to gather intelligence, ideas and promote thought that can influence and fashion new policy directions. Indonesia is an important part of that endeavour.
But back to the elephant. Let’s not forget that other fine attribute of the elephant - muscle. In the Asian Century, Indonesia has a great deal of power in the form of opportunity.
Like most countries, Indonesia faces considerable challenges in terms of poverty, education and infrastructure, but perhaps these are not as pronounced as those challenging China and India. Growth and prosperity are arguably higher than ever in Indonesia’s history, and there is a vibrant optimism among the Indonesian people, having turned back the negative political and economic tides which so daunting in the late 1990s. The world watched as Indonesia faced the Tsunami in Aceh with efficiency, maturity and compassion while, with the help of friends, the country dealt with a grave disaster and at the same time paved the way for an end to a debilitating civil war.
If indeed Indonesia is the elephant, the kangaroo would see her as a worthy partner in bringing a strong regional voice to global forums.
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