The US-Australia Alliance in the Indo-Pacific: insights from Indonesia

Hangga Fathana,
Universitas Islam Indonesia

In recent decades, the Indo-Pacific region has become a global focal point, with the interplay of competing powers shaping its stability. Following the Cold War, many perceived the United States as the dominant superpower, marking the onset of unipolarity. However the emergence of multipolarity, such as the rise of China and India as formidable players, has sparked renewed debates on the global power equilibrium. 
 
China’s rise stands as one of the most pivotal phenomena shaping the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region. Its robust economic expansion has opened doors for regional nations, including Indonesia, to bolster their economic competitiveness through increased trade and investment opportunities. Moreover, China’s central role in the global supply chain underscores its growing influence. Amidst its growing power, China advocates for peaceful development (heping fazhan), challenging the traditional notion that great powers must inevitably seek hegemony. 
 
However, recent developments have introduced a greater degree of complexity into the equation. China’s rise is not as tranquil as anticipated, as it poses challenges to the established international rules and experiences a slowdown in economic progress. Concurrently, there’s a perception of the relative decline in US power, raising questions about its reliability in the region. In an era where news cycles are saturated with questions of war and peace, we often find ourselves grappling with the true implications of these questions, navigating through a world fraught with uncertainty. How should we navigate these geopolitical dynamics? What trajectory might these dynamics take in the future? This article seeks to provide insights into the US-Australia alliance from an Indonesian perspective. 

Indonesia’s response to China’s rise

In response to China’s rise, some argue that Indonesia has followed the path taken by other middle power countries: embracing economic development while remaining vigilant of political assertiveness. Geoeconomically, Indonesia has capitalized on China’s economic expansion, experiencing a significant uptick in trade and investment. Chinese investment in Indonesia has surged to its highest level on record, with a remarkable 64 per cent increase in 2022 alone. 

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s visit to China in 2023 underscored his policy priorities, as he and Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the economic significance of the Indonesia-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. They emphasized the need to expand bilateral trade and investment cooperation, promote the use of local currencies, and implement the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). They also highlighted the importance of infrastructure projects such as the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Corridor, with the aim of enhancing regional connectivity and fostering economic development. 

Despite some doubts about Indonesia’s ability to exercise caution towards China’s assertiveness in the region, it is important to recognize that Indonesia has serious concerns about China’s growing military power. However, Indonesia does not openly state these concerns, as Indonesia prefers to address the situation without involving external powers. But domestic critics are increasingly questioning this pacifist approach, and asking Indonesia to adopt a more assertive stance on critical issues like the South China Sea dispute. This would entail Indonesia urging ASEAN to strengthen its capacity in promoting the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ (AOIP) as an alternative perspective, moving away from viewing China as a threat in the region. 

US-Australia alliance

Indonesia’s pacifist stance towards the conflict in the South China Sea and China’s broader assertiveness is deliberate – and partly influenced by the dynamics of balancing with the United States, the preeminent superpower in the region. 

As one of Australia’s closest neighbours geographically, Indonesia holds a strategic geopolitical and geoeconomic position in the Indo-Pacific region. By perceiving the US-Australia alliance as a counterbalance to China’s growing power in the region, Indonesia’s adoption of a pacifist strategy reflects a prudent approach to prevent exacerbating existing security dynamics. 

From the Indonesian perspective, the US-Australia alliance represents a mutually beneficial partnership for both countries. In the context of the United States’ declining economic influence in the Indo-Pacific, the US benefits from Australia’s representation and relationships in Asia.  And for Australia, its ’ongoing political and security partnerships with the United States, including AUKUS, not only provide a vital security guarantee for the country but also unlock the benefits of security assurance from the US amidst the increasing uncertainty in the region. 

In this context, it’s crucial to recognize Australia’s pivotal role in US-Asia relations. At times, if the United States aims for a more comprehensive economic engagement with Asian countries, Australia can serve as an entry point. Similarly, for Asian countries seeking to enhance their strategic partnership with the US, engaging with Australia can be a strategic avenue. 

Seeking common ground

In the face of growing uncertainty regarding regional security in the Indo-Pacific, the US-Australia alliance has the potential to contribute to broader regional stability, provided it operates in alignment with Australia’s foreign policy key ideas on strategic equilibrium. However, if the alliance is solely handled to contain China’s influence, it could potentially and unnecessarily undermine the current stability.  

In today’s complex geopolitical landscape, sustainable approaches to peace and development in the Indo-Pacific are vital. To achieve this, states must not solely rely on economic and defence structures, but leverage shared beliefs and values to find common ground and support regional stability.  

As Australia adopts strategic equilibrium as its worldview, it promotes a vision where the region becomes predictable and all nations adhere to established rules, standards, and laws, thereby preventing dominance or hegemony. While this worldview may differ from the ideological stances of other countries, there must be intersections among all. Indonesia, for example, upholds its free and active foreign policy, which shares similar aspects in enabling Indonesia to cooperate with other nations for the sake of world peace. As such, Australia and Indonesia are well-positioned to collaborate effectively because, despite differing perspectives on US-China competition, we both aim for regional prosperity, peace and stability.

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