Gareth Evans is usually credited with initiating the idea that the Indonesia-Australia relationship needed 'ballast' to keep it upright against the storms it inevitably encounters:

For many years now we have possessed what could be called common strategic interests. These interests are important, but they have not been enough to give ballast to the overly intense political relationship.

This powerful image has reappeared many times since 1988. But just what is the 'ballast', and how do we create enough of it to counterbalance the 'overly intense political relationship'?

There isn't just one answer or one approach. But one example, the ANU Indonesia Project, celebrated its 50th anniversary in Canberra last week. This well-attended celebration included the launch of Colin Brown's history of the project, Australia's Indonesia Project: 50 Years of Engagement.

Those thinking that the present strained juncture is the lowest point in the relationship might contemplate the unpropitious climate in 1965 when the Project was established. Laid out in Australia's Indonesia Project, the proposal that the economist Heinz Arndt put to the ANU vice chancellor stated:

There is an almost complete lack of the macro-economic data one normally takes for granted...The present government is unlikely to evince interest in, or facilitate, economic research or policy advice based on research. If political relations between Australia and Indonesia should further deteriorate, fieldwork, already difficult to organise on the outer islands, may become impracticable even in Java

Nor did the Project have support from academic colleagues, as outlined by Arndt: 'Everyone, almost everyone I consulted advised against the effort'. At the time, Indonesia's economy had collapsed. The currency was valueless, exports had shrunken, hyperinflation was rampant and the country was in default of its enormous foreign debt. Indonesia was about to experience the traumatic and drawn-out transition from Sukarno to Soeharto.

Nevertheless, Arndt went ahead.

50 years later, the convivial anniversary was attended by three former Indonesian ministers (one of them also former vice-president), all alumni from ANU. The Project's academic journal – the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies – has been published continuously three times a year. It's the best (perhaps the only) comprehensive record of the progress of the Indonesian economy from the basket-case days of the 1960s to a well-performing emerging economy with GDP within sight of overtaking Australia.

Perhaps the greatest insight of the Project's founders was their conviction that this should not be solely an Australian-oriented effort. It needed substantive Indonesian participation. The famous 'Berkeley Mafia' economists were all involved, many of them making regular trips to Canberra for project events. A strenuous effort was made to have Indonesians write in the Bulletin (Arndt's intrusive editorial hand bringing them up to scratch in the early days when drafts needed his ministrations).

Today the project is headed by an Indonesian. There are two annual lecture series in Indonesia (the Sadli lecture and the Hadi Soesastro lecture, both given in honour of Indonesians closely associated with the Project). The PhD students studying in the Project are almost exclusively Indonesian. Yet the centre of gravity remains ANU in Canberra.

The other great quality the Project brought was its emphasis on people. Arndt aimed to create 'not an institution, but a network'. The key task was getting people together to focus on the issues of Indonesian economic development. The reach was wide, with many visits to universities outside Jakarta. The central role of the annual Indonesia Update was not to write academic papers just to add to authors' CVs but to attract a crowd ready to learn more about Indonesia. A mini-version of the Update takes place every year at the Lowy Institute, bringing it to a different audience.

Much of Colin Brown's history records the struggle to fund the Project, especially as increasing demands for higher governance and accountability replaced the informal world in which the project had been born. The book usefully records the begging letters to Australia's aid agency pleading for funding – a reminder that this project could have ended several times during its life, never to be revived.

There has been plenty of Indonesian recognition of the Project's value as a source of research. One top Indonesian economist said 'It is ironic that the best institution...on the Indonesian economy is not in Indonesia but is to be found in Australia.' 

But evaluating its worth as 'ballast' in the relationship has proven harder and its value has often gone unrecognised. One of the regular reviewers noted that the Project's budget (less than A$1 million a year) 'represents significantly less than 1/10th of one percent of AusAID's country program in Indonesia. Effectively, the Project operates on a slender shoestring, while providing plenty of leverage for AusAID's money'.

Even in the tough current budget climate, the ANU Indonesia Project seems to have continuing support. But it's only one example of what is needed. The problem is not just funding. Colin Brown's book gives some indications of the critical need for energetic, resourceful, entrepreneurial people like Arndt and his successors. As usual, the luck of time and circumstance is also vital.

Another powerful image that has been invoked about Australia-Indonesia relations suggests we need to create spiderweb-like ties between our two countries. When the inevitable crises recur, these ties would flex, some would snap, but the relationship would be stabilised by those that held. Whether it is ballast or spiderweb ties, we need more.

Photo by Flickr user DFAT.