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Regional relationships could secure US alliance

By Amelia Long

Maintaining neutrality and striking a balance between Beijing and Washington remains a priority for Australia but uncertainty in the South China Sea is setting the scene for closer defence co-operation with Indonesia.

President Joko Widodo’s visit to Australia last month marked a significant leap forward for a bilateral relationship that has long been judged on its fluctuations.

The restoration of defence co-operation, after links were cut by Jakarta when visiting Indonesian soldiers were offended by material produced at a special forces languages course, reflects the “robust relationship” Mr Widodo described in Sydney.

So, too, will Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to Jakarta next week for the Indian Ocean Rim Association leadership summit.

Although reports of potential joint patrols between Indonesia’s TNI and the Australian Defence Force in the South China Sea surfaced last week, they were not mentioned in the joint statement from Mr Widodo’s trip, probably because Indonesia was concerned about the message partnering with a US ally would send to China.

But both leaders’ focus on the need to maintain peace, security and stability in Southeast Asia reflects the extent to which strategic competition between the US and China is being felt across the region.

The two countries could do a lot to cement their defence relations while building ballast into a partnership often defined by political mood swings.

While building economic capacity and improving military self-sufficiency are key preoccupations for President Widodo, Australia should indicate its support for wider Indonesian defence reform, particularly of Jakarta’s Minimum Essential Force program. It could encourage partnerships on projects such as the mine-resistant armoured vehicle for the TNI, based loosely on Australia’s Bushmaster.

Japan finds itself in a similar position and constructing strategic partnerships will be central to preserving the rules-based regional order it depends upon for unobstructed use of its shipping lanes. For all three countries, keeping the new US administration focused on Southeast Asia will be integral to securing their own strategic interests.

Australia could leverage the South China Sea disputes to help Indonesia foster a closer partnership with the US. Japan should help states such as Indonesia reach a minimum level of credible deterrence.

Continuing to bolster the maritime capabilities of non-Chinese South China Sea claimant states would benefit Japan though it must be mindful of the risks of crossing a red line for China that could escalate disputes. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should consider a minor increase in host-nation support funds.

Japan should establish a formula that won’t significantly increase its allocation but which would allow President Donald Trump, with his transactional world view, to claim victory domestically by stating that Japan is contributing more to the bilateral relationship.

Amelia Long is co-author with Peter Chalk of the new ASPI report, Tiptoeing around the nine-dash line: Southeast Asia after ASEAN.

Originally published: The Australian. 03 March 2017

Originally published by: ASPI Report on 03 Mar 2017