Visiting Pyongyang and the Australia-Indonesia-US Trilateral Relationship

29 May 2018
Visiting Pyongyang and the Australia-Indonesia-US Trilateral Relationship
In May 2018, the Perth USAsia Centre hosted Dr Dino Patti Djalal in Perth for two  events focusing on key strategic and issues in the Indo-Pacific: recent developments on the Korean peninsula and the Australia-Indonesia-US trilateral relationship.
Dr Djalal’s On His Recent Visit to North Korea
Developments on the Korean Peninsula has captured global attention for much of the past two years. This has been due to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and provocative messages exchanged between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. In early April 2018, a group of Asian scholars from Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and New Zealand visited the DPRK. The group was initiated and later led by Dr Dino Patti Djalal, who shared his insights and observations from the trip at a public event hosted by the Perth USAsia Centre. Dr Djalal’s presentation provided a rare opportunity to gain insight into life in DPRK and their approach to foreign policy.

“The more you have problems, the more you need to talk.”
- Dr Dino Patti Djalal, Founder of Foreign Policy Community Indonesia

In engaging DPRK in conversation, the scholars adopted a ‘side door approach’. This sought to learn, listen and to share with DPRK; and discuss issues of global concern such as climate change disruptions and employment. There were some surprising messages communicated during the visit, with DPRK identifying tourism as a main economic priority alongside investment, agriculture and science. DPRK officials conveyed to the scholars a strong sense of self-reliance in all aspects of life within the country. It was suggested that the United States was the source of all problems both within DPRK and among its immediate neighbourhood.
The trip provided insight into the future strategic picture. Observing that DPRK exhibited full ownership of the inter-Korean summit in April, Dr Djalal cautioned against a scenario which would have DPRK approaching negotiations from a defensive position. He argued that Kim Jong Un is capable of strategic thinking and calculated moves, and it would be as much of a mistake to underestimate President Trump as it would be to underestimate Kim Jong Un.
Amidst the ongoing efforts for the denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula, Dr Djalal advised that confidence, trust and reconciliation should be more urgent goals. Reunification and denuclearisation should be considered more distant, long-term goals. We should not underestimate the power of soft diplomacy, meaningful engagement and persuasion when dealing with DPRK, which can help to reduce communication and perception gaps. The actions of President Donald Trump appear to be working to the contrary of this advice, with his recent cancellation of the much-vaunted US-DPRK summit. As DPRK remains ‘still open to talk’ there remains an opportunity for the US to engage in conversations; but an adjustment approaches and expectations may be required to ensure meaningful engagement.
Trilateral relations between Australia, Indonesia and the United States
The Perth USAsia Centre was also fortunate to host Dr Djalal for a private discussion on Australia-Indonesia-US Trilateral Relations. The Centre’s stakeholders were able to engage Dr Djalal on the implications of Indonesia’s deepening economic and security relationship with the US, which both informs and creates opportunities for Australia to advance its relationship with both partners.  The issues discussed are developed below.

dj1.jpgDr Dino Patti Djalal, Founder of Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia and one of Indonesia's most distinguished diplomats, receives a question during his foreign policy roundtable discussion on trilateral diplomacy between Australia, Indonesia and the United States.
Two-way Secretary (US) and Ministerial (Indonesia) level visits to Jakarta and Washington in 2018 have affirmed the two nations’ Strategic Partnership and desire for closer security cooperation.  As the strategic objectives of the two nations’ converge in the Indo-Pacific, particularly around ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and disrupting Southeast Asian extremism, closer defence cooperation is a key bilateral goal. However, with presidential and parliamentary elections looming in April 2019, the domestic ramifications of Indonesia’s foreign policies are well in focus.
US President Donald Trump’s announcement in late 2017 of his decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem resulted in mass demonstrations outside the US embassy in Jakarta.  Broadcast on live television, Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo strongly condemned Trump’s decision. Polling of Indonesian perceptions of US influence revealed that in the minds of many Indonesians, the Trump Presidency could have negative rather than positive implications for US global influence. Combined with the uncertainty around President Trump’s assertive “America First” policies, this negative sentiment is likely to continue.
As President Jokowi, works to liberalise Indonesia’s economy, investment from the United States is part of the economic narrative.  As per the Bureau of Economic Analysis, in 2016 the US direct investment position in Indonesia constituted $14.6 billion, an increase of 9.1% from 2015.  Indonesia is predicted to become the 4th biggest economy in the world by 2050, as the enormous size of its young labour market and growing consumer class builds the nation’s economic heft.  With the United States boosting foreign direct investment in Indonesia, bilateral economic ties are set to grow.
In contrast, Australia’s economic engagement with its fellow G20 neighbour is underwhelming, with Indonesia outside Australia’s top ten trading partners and accounting for just over 1% of its outbound direct investment. Indonesia and Australia are still negotiating their Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (‘IA-CEPA’), which while being conducted in good faith at a time of global trade uncertainty, is taking longer than anticipated to reach conclusion.
Australia and Indonesia now share a resilient bilateral relationship and cooperate closely together in a multitude of regional dialogues, including as Co-Chairs of the Bali Process, Co-Chairs of the Inaugural Sub-Regional Meeting on Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Cross Border Terrorism and sequential Chairs of the rejuvenated Indian Ocean Rim Association.  As the United States and Indonesia work to advance their security cooperation, whether via working towards Special Forces training or joint maritime efforts, an area of opportunity lies in Australia-Indonesia-US trilateral military training and exercise cooperation.

Perth USAsia Centre's exclusive interview:

Dr Dino Patti Djalal live on ABC News:

Featured image courtesy of


Hugo Seymour
Hugo Seymour
Program Coordinator
Hugo Seymour is the Program Coordinator at the Perth USAsia Centre. He coordinates the Centre’s foreign policy programs and events, engaging governments, industry stakeholders and civil institutions.
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