Australia must get its relationship right with Indonesia: Roggeveen

Australia’s strategic environment is deteriorating due to the rise of China, a decline in US resolve and the need to get our relationship right with Indonesia, the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen told an audience at CEDA’s 2021 State of the Nation forum.

Speaking at a panel on defence funding and capability, Mr Roggeveen, Director of Lowy’s International Security Program, said that while China “already had more non-nuclear capability to strike the Australian continent than the Soviet Union ever did”, China’s rise was not the sole cause of the erosion of Australia’s strategic circumstances.

On US resolve, Mr Roggeveen said: “We have to ask ourselves: ‘Would the US really be willing to risk a war with China?’ A war that it might lose or at the very least, which would result in the sinking of, let's say a couple of aircraft carriers, the bombing of its bases in Japan and Guam.

“That's a lot to ask for the United States, given that Taiwan itself is not essential for US security.”

But Mr Roggeveen said the third major shift – the rise of Indonesia – also posed opportunities. He said if Indonesia was willing to become a “true leader in Southeast Asia”, given projections it would have a bigger economy than Japan by 2050, “for the first time ever, Australia will have a great power on its doorstep”.

“That is a major change for Australia. In fact, I'd argue that's a more significant challenge for Australian security even than the rise of China,” he said.

“And again, Indonesia is not an enemy; in fact, we've got all the reason in the world… to try to enhance our relationship with Indonesia and make it closer than ever before, because we do face a common challenge through the rise of China.

“So I think there's more urgency than ever before to get our relationship with Indonesia right for economic and strategic reasons.”

The role of technology and collaboration

Mr Roggeveen was joined on stage by two representatives of BAE Systems Australia – Chief Executive, Gabby Costigan and Maritime Australia Managing Director, Craig Lockhart.

Ms Costigan and Mr Lockhart were asked about the role of technology and collaboration with small and medium businesses as part of BAE’s project to build nine Hunter-class frigates for the Royal Australian Navy.

Ms Costigan said she expected the program would bring export opportunities for Australia.

“You can look back through history where there's been some great innovations that have come from defence that are now used in other areas – GPS is one example. Duct tape is another,” she said.

Mr Lockhart pointed to BAE’s “Line Zero – Factory of the Future” facility in Adelaide, a site for industrial-scale testing of new technologies for use in advanced manufacturing or shipbuilding, as an opportunity to build Australia’s sovereign capability.

“We’re working with universities on research technologies and we've encouraged the SME community to come and test their products, their systems, their applications in our environment, whereby we get first-hand knowledge of what they are able to bring to our sector, and by working with them, we can determine or explain our needs in a defence environment,” he said.

Immigration ‘overly securitised’

On the impact of Australia’s closed borders, Mr Roggeveen emphasised that immigration was a strategic issue for Australia, and warned the national debate about immigration and border control had become “overly securitised” on both sides of politics since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“I do think there's something to be said for thinking about immigration and foreign diasporas as a major foreign policy asset for Australia and, in fact, to think about immigration as a tool of foreign policy,” he said.

“We've done this before. For instance, after Tiananmen Square, the government at the time made a major announcement about allowing Chinese students to stay in Australia.”

Ms Costigan and Mr Lockhart expressed concern about the current lack of foreign students in Australian universities.

“Sixty per cent of my workforce are STEM-qualified roles,” Ms Costigan said.

“It's great to be able to have the technology, but I also need to develop the people in the workforce here.

“One of the challenges that we face in some of the critical skills areas is: how do we continue to develop those pipelines of people coming up?

“… We've got the capability here. We've got the people here. We've just got to make sure that, number one, we're getting them to study the right things.”