Indonesia and ‘strategic trust': no-one knows what it means, but it’s provocative


Here’s my latest post on The Strategist, and kudos to the executive editor for letting me keep the phrase ‘dropping the mic’. 

One of the main features of the Indonesian President’s speech to last week’s Jakarta International Defense Dialogue was the concept of ‘strategic trust’. Admitting this was difficult to define, he referred to it as ‘an evolving sense of mutual confidence between nations – particularly between government and militaries’ that enables parties to work together more effectively and, more importantly, peacefully.

President SBY offered two examples from Indonesia’s own history where strategic trust has been the glue in otherwise shattered relationships: between Indonesia and East Timor (a poignant reference given East Timor’s PM Xanana Gusmão was sitting in the audience), and between the Indonesian government and GAM in Aceh. His message is that it’s something that can bring bitter enemies together very gradually over time, ‘brick by brick’, and it has to reach from top leadership to the bottom rung.

It’s not a particularly radical concept, and it has been bounced around before. But what President SBY has put in words is, for instance, what Australia is seeking to build with regional partners. If we were asking ourselves, ‘what does it take to be strategic partners with Indonesia?’, SBY has got an easy answer: ‘strategic trust’, as it’s understood in Jakarta. And that’s the beauty of abstraction: you’re off the hook proving it in quantitative terms but you certainly can say you’re working towards it.

The President gets further mileage from a term ‘strategic trust’ because it’s entirely consistent with the back catalogue of Indonesia’s regional and international proclamations. Strategic trust is an extension of Indonesia’s foreign policy of ‘dynamic equilibrium’ and its diplomatic approach of having ‘a million friends and zero enemies’. It continues to affirm Indonesia’s desire to be seen as a balancer within the region, not only between global and emerging powers, but also between Asia–Pacific partners. It comes as no surprise that the President would cite opportunities for strategic trust-building as areas where Indonesia has been active diplomatically: in Myanmar’s democratic transition and the South China Sea Code of Conduct.

The speech might not be ground-breaking but it’s clever for slipping a diplomatic buzzword into a forum like JIDD. There’s no doubt ‘strategic trust’ was whispered around the JIDD stalls throughout the day and after. Media coverage of the event has played up SBY’s speech like he was ‘dropping the mic’ on strategic thinking. But at the end of the day, ‘strategic trust’ is a term that, if incorporated into our everyday diplomatic parlance and practice with Indonesia, wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Image source: President of the Republic of Indonesia

More than words: Australia–Indonesia strategic relations

I’ve just returned from a trip to Jakarta so with Indonesia on my mind, it’s a good time to share some of the recent Indonesia-related posts I’ve written on The Strategist, starting with Australia’s stated defence policy on Indonesia:

Exercise Pitch Black 2012

26 September, Canberra:

Australia’s leaders from both sides of politics have been paying greater attention to Indonesia; there’s been more official engagement, as well as new diplomatic and defence initiatives in the past year. And we’ve been describing Indonesia, as our Defence Minister has during his Jakarta visit last week, in more important terms like ‘strategic partner’.

But it looks like that there’s some way to go before ‘strategic partner’ becomes more than just a term of endearment. If we look at the 2009 Defence White Paper (for the time being still the government’s defence strategic policy), we find a curious ambivalence towards Indonesia. According to the White Paper, we have a ‘fundamental interest in controlling the air and sea approaches to our continent’ (paragraph 5.5). But in reference to a secure immediate neighbourhood, it says we should prevent or mitigate ‘nearby states [from] develop[ing] the capacity to undertake sustained military operations within our approaches’ (paragraph 5.8). There’s a contradiction there; as Hugh White notes in his Security Challenges essay (PDF), it may very well be those same capabilities Indonesia requires to ensure its own security in its northern approaches that could be instrumental in both Indonesia and Australia securing their strategic interests. Continue reading