International relations, National security | Australia, Southeast Asia

16 July 2021

Much has changed since Indonesia and Australia came together to plan their maritime co-operation, and the two countries will need to develop renewed solutions to meet the changing landscape, Aristyo Rizka Darmawan writes.

2022 will be the last year of Australia’s Plan of Action for the Joint Declaration between Indonesia and Australia on Maritime Cooperation. The plan outlines Australia’s role in a Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation signed in 2017, which has served as an important framework for maritime collaboration between the two countries.

The Joint Declaration has led to many benefits for both countries and its end presents Australia and Indonesia with a blank slate for what comes next. With the end of the Declaration’s term, and challenges in the region only intensifying, it is important now for the two countries to reflect on what can be done differently in order to enhance maritime cooperation into the future.

There are two key developments that Australia and Indonesia should consider in formulating their maritime cooperation going forward. First, the changing geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific, and second, the increasing threat of climate change for the region’s coastal communities.

The current Joint Declaration and Plan of Action address many important areas for maritime cooperation between the two countries, such as encouraging economic activity, strengthening maritime security, and combating transnational organised crime at sea.

The Joint Declaration promises collaboration on preventing illegal fishing, protection of the marine environment, search and rescue, disaster management, marine scientific research, cultural heritage, and technology collaboration. Australia’s Plan of Action then lists specific activities to meet these goals and the agencies responsible for their implementation.

More on this: Power plays in Indonesian waters

Still, since the document was signed in 2017, there has been significant geopolitical change in the region that must be considered when it is renewed.

In particular, it needs to consider growing rivalry between the United States and China and the increasing military presence of the United States and its allies in the region, especially when it comes to enforcing freedom of navigation.

This development has caused maritime freedoms in the Indo-Pacific to become vulnerable to an escalation between the United States and its allies and China, and any update to the Plan should include protection against these risks.

Increasing geopolitical rivalry between United States and China has also led to the growing significance of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – known as the Quad – of which Australia is a part, together with the United States, India, and Japan.

Even though Quad is not only solely a space for cooperation on maritime security, it is a significant part of the Quad’s dialogue. At the latest Quad summit in March 2021, the four countries released a joint statement that explicitly said that Quad will focus on “collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.”

This showed that these countries’ have a clear position on the growing United States-China rivalry in the region, especially in terms of maritime security and freedom of navigation, which the Joint Declaration addresses.

More on this: Maritime muscle in the South China Sea

On the other hand, Indonesia, together with other ASEAN countries, has kept a neutral position on these issues. For instance, most discourse on whether or not Indonesia will join the Quad has come to the somewhat obvious conclusion: that Indonesia will not join, as it is trying not to lean too closely toward either the United States or China.

However, Indonesia’s neutral position should not preclude it from strategic maritime cooperation with Quad countries, and Australia can use a renewal of the Declaration to make that clear.

Under President Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s foreign policy has been quite transactional, so Australia can know that Indonesia is open to any cooperation that will benefit its strategic and economic interests.

This means that even if Indonesia is hesitant about seeming to co-operate with United States’ allies, it could make the prospect more attractive by including more technical collaboration in maritime security in the plan, such as information sharing, capacity building, and joint law enforcement training, keeping Indonesia in the fold when it comes to maritime security.

The other important issue it needs to address is the increasing threat of climate change. The ocean has always been an important resource for Indonesia and Australia, which have some of the longest coastlines in the world, and a healthy ocean is crucial for coastal communities and both countries’ national security.

As the climate changes, this is under increasing threat. With sea level rises, ocean warming and acidification, and other challenges such as marine debris and oil spills endangering coastal communities, the plan must include collaboration to protect them.

As large maritime nations in the region, Indonesia and Australia have an important role in tackling these issues. To do so, they will need a renewed and revised maritime cooperation plan, both to help stabilise the region geopolitically, and to prepare it for the challenges it will face from climate change.

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