Australia-India-Indonesia ties: strategic choices and national identity

Two recent news stories—one on Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s pledge to strengthen ties with Indian Ocean Rim states, and the other on Australian business lobby’s plea for greater emphasis on Asian language training—got me thinking again on why Australia’s engagement with India and Indonesia warrants attention. There are pragmatic and philosophical gains from this engagement. Three points:

First, of the Indian Ocean Rim states, India and Indonesia will have an increasingly more prominent role in Asia-Pacific region. India is the world’s largest arms importer, a fact that will shape the balance of military power and stability in the region. The world’s ninth most popular investment destination, Indonesia will have the ability to transfer its economic growth into military capability. While the US remains Australia’s security guarantor and China the largest trading partner, in light of the shifting geo-strategic balance between the US and China in Asia, stronger relations with India and Indonesia may be a prudent hedging strategy. Moreover, as one scholar notes, India-Indonesia relations hold great potential; it would be opportune for Australia to investigate potential trilateralism while strengthening bilateral ties with each country.

Second, Australia’s success in capitalising on the potential stronger bilateral (even trilateral) ties will lend credence to its ‘activist foreign policy’ and its status as a middle power. Andrew McIntyre argues that Rudd’s foreign ministership is a good opportunity for Australia to maintain momentum in an active foreign policy outlook, especially where Asia is concerned given Rudd’s expertise. Taking the lead on shaping maritime security issues of concern to Australia, India and Indonesia such as piracy, narcotics, border protection, and people smuggling would be exemplary behaviour of an active and effective middle power.

Third, the emergence of India and Indonesia, and most notably the permanent geo-political significance of the latter to Australia, should provide imperative to reinvigorate Asian language training in schools. Asian languages received a considerable boost in the 1980s and 1990s based on the ascendency of the Asian Tiger economies, but now enrolment in Asian languages is on the decline. While security risks to students in Indonesia (amongst other factors) have imperilled Indonesian language training in Australia, if Australia is serious about engaging with Indonesia, government intervention via scholarships and the like is warranted. Interestingly, Indonesian is not in the first wave languages to be taught under the national curriculum. With regards to India, while English is an official language (the other being Hindi), interest in Indian languages and culture would assist somewhat in building cultural bridges in light of attacks on Indian students in Australia in 2009 and 2010.

In closing, I will lay my cards on the table. I have an interest in Australian-Indian-Indonesian relations, but this is not because I have an Indian father and an Indonesian mother, and I am Australian. Although these facts have, no doubt, shaped my view of Australia’s place in the world, I am interested in the direction this nation is heading. Questions about Australia’s choices about its place in the Asia Pacific are not just about strategic pragmatism but, as Graeme Dobell and Hugh White note, go to more philosophical questions about who we are as a nation. In my mind, there is a nexus between our strategic alignment, our self-conceptualisation as a nation, and the development of our national language curriculum. Does our national identity allow us to align more strategically to the Asia Pacific? Does the prioritisation of Asian languages sit comfortably with our national identity? Perhaps greater engagement with India and Indonesia, coupled with and bolstered by a more active domestic language policy, will help spur debate on whether our strategic alignment is based on more cultural or national roots.

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