The United States, Australia, & Indonesia: Breaking New Ground in the Trilateral Relationship

By Amy Searight —

Dr. Amy Searight, senior adviser and director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program, with Mr. Matthew Pottinger, Senior Director for Asian Affairs, National Security Council of the United States, during the May 4 U.S.-Australia-Indonesia track 1.5 strategic dialogue at CSIS.

On May 4, 2018, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), hosted a first-ever U.S.-Australia-Indonesia track 1.5 strategic dialogue in partnership with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI). Participants included sitting members of parliament, senior officials from across government departments and ministries, and leading non-government experts, including former ambassadors, business executives, and other former senior officials and scholars.

CSIS, ASPI, and FPCI convened this dialogue in recognition that our three countries share a range of common interests, and that trilateral cooperation offers great promise to shape the future of the Indo-Pacific region in ways beneficial to each of our countries. The meeting agenda reflected the wide scope of common interests, ranging from regional security, transnational threats, energy, infrastructure, and economic relations.

For the United States and Australia, engaging with Indonesia in a trilateral format is a natural extension of each country’s respective bilateral engagement with Indonesia and between the United States and Australia. Over the past decade, the United States and Australia have developed robust trilateral cooperation with Japan, which has served as a proof of concept for the utility of trilateral dialogue and coordination. This trilateral format has also contributed to a dramatically closer Japan-Australia relationship. Similarly, U.S.-Japan-India trilateral dialogue has become an important vehicle for policy coordination as well as a mechanism to deepen Japan-India ties.

For Indonesia, trilateralism is new and this track 1.5 dialogue could represent a bold foray for Indonesian foreign policy. Indonesia, whose foreign policy is grounded in non-alignment, has historically focused its foreign policy on broad multilateralism and on bilateral relationships with a wide range of partners. It has shunned trilateral and minilateral forums, as these could be construed as alliance-building. However, in recent years Indonesia has experienced tangible benefits of trilateral cooperation on particular issues in its immediate neighborhood. Since 2004, Indonesia has worked with Malaysia and Singapore to patrol the Malacca Strait and since 2017, Indonesia has worked with Malaysia and the Philippines on maritime security in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. However, in both cases cooperation has been focused on a particular issue and not focused on broad foreign policy issues.

The May 4 dialogue demonstrated to participants the common interests that bind our three countries, but also highlighted some of our differences in perspective. It also provided a venue for candid discussion of impediments to closer alignment and of developments that could take relations off course.

In terms of convergences, it was agreed that being free and open maritime democracies underpins our respective country’s approach to the world and provides a common baseline. As such, each side expressed concerns regarding regional trends in terms of democracy and rule of law. Participants made note of concerns in the domain of maritime disputes, and in turn emphasized the importance of regional institutions like ASEAN and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in promoting rules-based order. Participants also agreed that infrastructure investment from Australia and the United States in Indonesia could be an area ripe for cooperation and convergence, citing the need to provide Southeast Asian countries with viable and attractive choices and alternatives in securing infrastructure funding.

Dr. Amy Searight is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @AmySearight.

Amy Searight

Amy Searight

Dr. Amy Searight is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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