ANZUS Entrapment: it’s about not leaving IN-donesia-OUT

Jerry Hofhuis

Ben’s call for a reconsideration of the US alliance is timely and necessary. But as a basic tenet of Australian foreign policy, it is unlikely the next Australian government will take a revisionist approach to ANZUS. Rather, the Australian government should look at what it can do, and that is to improve its strategic relationship with Indonesia.

Australia, as Ben rightly observes in his article, is unquestioning of the ANZUS alliance. But to question the US alliance in Australian politics would be as conducive to a ‘pollies’ career as questioning the need to ‘stop the boat people’; as a matter of political survival, it does not happen.

In the 1950s, fearing abandonment as a European country in an Asian region, Australian leaders were adamant about securing US support in case of attack. With few economic ties to its near-neighbourhood to speak of, the opportunity cost of Australia being alienated from its neighbourhood was acceptable.

The main risk in Australia’s unquestioning commitment to the ANZUS alliance today—as Ben points out—is that it offers Australia little flexibility in adapting to new realities in a rapidly changing neighbourhood. While it maintains strong economic ties with the United States and Europe, the main recipients of Australia’s exports nowadays are Asian. Politically, however, the ANZUS treaty remains all-important to Australia. As Ben points out, it is central to Australian identity, as a close relationship to the US affords Australia ‘middle power’ stature.

As such, questioning the US alliance is a noble but vain effort. It is a cornerstone of Australian foreign policy: a given, not a variable. From a policy perspective, Australian leaders will have to look elsewhere for options to secure Australia’s future.

Look North

Australia’s relationship with its nearest and most influential neighbour is what really needs change.  A healthy and robust relationship with Indonesia could cement Australia’s role and place in the Asian region. As Hugh White has pointed out, Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is still based on the conception that the latter is a ‘poor and weak country’ with headlines dominated by issues of Australian drug smugglers, Indonesian people smugglers, and cattle.

The facts paint a different picture. Politically, Indonesia is a key ASEAN member. Militarily, it is the dominant Southeast Asian naval power. Economically, it is on a trajectory that will see it passing the likes of Italy and Britain in the next two decades.

A good place to start transforming the relationship with Indonesia is in fact with the US Marines rotating through Darwin. Indonesia was actually not all that baffled by the announcement last year that the US would start rotating Marines through Darwin. One Indonesian diplomat recently suggested that the visit to Darwin by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in part to signal his consent or even endorsement; SBY went on to  suggest Indonesian involvement in US-Australian military training.

The Geopolitical Impetus

While on a growth trajectory to greater power, Indonesia is and will remain a weakly governed state. With over 17,000 islands spread over almost two million square kilometres, Indonesia’s geography will always inhibit strong centralised administration. As such, Jakarta will always carry existential concerns over the state’s territorial integrity. Australian assurances over this would go a long way.

Such assurances could come in the form of joint coastal and oceanic patrols. Between Indonesia and Australia lay highly strategic waterways. Joint patrolling in the Indian Ocean along Indonesia’s maritime boundaries would carry mutual benefits in terms of security. It would reduce the porousness of Indonesia’s boundaries, and assure it that Australia is committed to Indonesian security.  For Australia, more maritime patrols would increase the ability of the Australian Navy to interdict unauthorised vessels before they reach Australian territory—an easy sell at home.

The US Marines in Darwin could play a role in this. The US Marine Corps (USMC) has strong ties with the Indonesian Marine Corps dating back to the founding days of the Korps Marinir or KorMar. Currently restructuring towards a more amphibiously-oriented structure, the Australian Army enjoys long standing ties with both the USMC and KorMar.

While I’m not suggesting the Australian Army and USMC start patrolling Indonesia’s coastline in conjunction with KorMar, intensive three-way training will not only serve as an effective confidence building measure between nations, but also help the Indonesian Marines develop and strengthen core-capabilities, which will help improve Indonesian security—which would be positive for Australia too.

In 1994, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating quipped that “no relationship offers greater potential, on the social, the cultural or economic fronts, than this one with Indonesia.” He went on to warn that if Australia were to ‘fail to get this relationship right…the whole web of foreign relations is incomplete.” Unbeknown to most Australians, this belief led Keating to sign a security pact with Suharto, the wording of which was in fact very similar to the ANZUS treaty. The Indonesians tore it up in 1999 in response to Australia’s stance on East Timor. But Keating’s words still hold true. The difference is that, today, Australia stands to gain far more from positive relations with Indonesia than it has in the past. Strong ties with Indonesia will cement Australia’s role and place in the region in terms of both security and economics.

Jerry Hofhuis recently completed a Master’s Degree at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. He may be contacted at


One thought on “ANZUS Entrapment: it’s about not leaving IN-donesia-OUT

  1. Interesting read Jerry-

    I have to disagree with you on the absolute nature of ANZUS, I believe it is a variable and this will be proved over the coming years. If in an analogy, you discover the cornerstone or foundations of your house are crumbling or you begin to question its structural integrity, most people would look to do something about it, not just concede that because it has supported your home so well for 60 years it will be able to do so so well into the future.

    Borrowing from Derek Zoolander, certainly ‘That Indonesia’s so hot right now.’

    However, one of the things not mentioned in either John Lee’s article or Hugh Whites above is that Indonesia has actually been quite active in its relations with China of late too- equal to its efforts in its dealings with the US.

    Of all the regional states viewed on a U diagram with China and the US sitting at respective ends of the diagram, perhaps the two regional states sharing the bottom of the curve, equidistant between the two powers is Malaysia and Indonesia- by my reckoning anyway.

    Indonesia is certainly hedging and there are limits to how far it will be prepared to go with either the US and China according to Indonesia’s own national interests. This is conducive to achieving Indonesia’s primary desire for not having the region dominated by either one or two great powers- in what Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa termed ‘dynamic equilibrium.’

    I agree with both the position expressed by you and the two articles that head this comment- Indonesia COULD be an important partner for Australia- but the hurdle to achieving this is Australia itself. How do we transform what has traditionally been seen as a risk and threat to Australia (the arc of instability) into an opportunity?

    This will require a massive shift in Australian strategic thinking because to do so would ultimately mean accepting a hard truth, we are part of an Asia where power is diffusing from being concentrated in one ‘great power’ that has coincidently been our ally and security guarantor to a yet to be determined order, and here rests fear of the great unknown.

    Something perhaps even more interesting to consider is, with Indonesia’s anticipated ‘rise’ and if it were so inclined- could Indonesia become Australia’s competitor for the ‘deputy sheriff’ badge?!

‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

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