As 2018 draws to a close, Australia’s relationship with Indonesia could not be more important. Although the approach — from both sides — doesn’t always give that impression. We have much to learn from each other.

We are neighbours in a fast changing Asia-Pacific. We both have outward looking, maritime interests, hold aspirations for the region, and have a long track record of cooperation, albeit often as the result of crisis. We share similar concerns about shifting regional power dynamics, and face similar challenges, not least from non-traditional threats including climate change.

As one of the region’s largest democracies with a growing economy, expanding middle class, and a strong reputation for leadership in Southeast Asia particularly through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia will only become more important for Australia as times goes on. Although, the reverse may not necessarily be true. A significant challenge for Australia will be to deepen its relationship with, and maintain relevance for Indonesia going forward.

Against this background we were delighted to host Indonesia’s former foreign minister, Dr Marty Natalegawa (2009-2014) to deliver our third Griffith Asia Lecture. As our signature annual event, the Asia lecture shines a light on thought leaders from the Asia Pacific who, by sharing their insights, expertise and stories might help us understand the region and  Australia’s place in it. Dr Natalegawa delivered on this promise.

The topic, Leadership and Regionalism in Southeast Asia could not have been more timely. Dr Natalegawa’s core message was that leadership matters. But in a world with many leaders, we find ourselves with a serious leadership deficit. We need leaders who can build trust, manage crises and problem solve at the nexus point where local-national-regional-global issues converge.

Dr Natalegawa reflected on the fact that over the past five decades, ASEAN has demonstrated significant leadership capacity: navigating through times of crisis, forging community amidst conditions of diversity, transforming economies, and bringing agency and influence to the region. In the past ASEAN has benefited from a leadership model that has been both cooperative and transformative, but it was a model fit for a different time.

Today, ASEAN faces new challenges – most fundamentally from the convergence between the local-national-regional-global distinctions. Where the reality of today’s world means that issues are felt across each domain and require multifaceted attention and intervention. And at a time when narrow sub-national preoccupations exist alongside transnational problems, and geopolitical shifts are disrupting long-established rules of engagement. Trust deficits, at all levels, threaten to fragment and divide.

Finding new ways to actively build and affirm trust and confidence, not just through rhetoric, but at a personal level, through consistent engagement and interaction, is the core challenge for ASEAN leaders today. “Absent such efforts – passivism – will ensure that negative-competitive dynamic will soon envelop not only Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, rather also the Pacific and Indian oceans – the Indo-Pacific.”

The outlook presented by Dr Natalegawa is a sobering one. His call for ASEAN to step up; “to be a net contributer to the region’s peace, stability, and prosperity” and “to provide leadership plenty” is timely. More importantly it’s a call that others, especially Australia, might do well to consider.

The Griffith Asia Lecture and transcript are available online.

Written by Professor Caitlin Byrne, Director, Griffith Asia Institute