Indonesia doesn’t rank highly in most of our news feeds. Spread across a chain of thousands of islands between Asia and Australia, Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and Southeast Asia’s biggest economy (and one of the world’s major emerging economies). Basically, we have a lot to learn so our student-fellow Jennie Spector hollered at an expert.

Enter Natalie Sambhi, a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre where she publishes on Indonesian foreign and defense policy, and Southeast Asian security. She was most recently an Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) from 2012 to 2016 and Managing Editor of ASPI’s blog, The Strategist. She worked previously at the Department of Defence and University of Canberra.

In January 2016 and in May 2014, Natalie was a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, DC where she presented on Indonesian civil-military relations. She is currently President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs ACT, having served as Vice President 2013–2015. She hosts Sea Control: Asia Pacific, a podcast series on Asia-Pacific security for the US-based Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). Natalie also joined the team at as a host for their international relations segment, Foreign Entanglements.

In 2010, she founded the blog Security Scholar and tweets at @SecurityScholar.

She speaks Indonesian and enjoys playing the cello. She also likes listening to Wu Tang Clan. (As do we).


Another Fun Fact: Natalie was wearing her pajamas when she met the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Bali during the 2011 East Asia Summit. Living on the Indonesian island at the time, she was watching Gillard visit the Bali Bombing memorial when she and other Australians were called over for an impromptu meet-and-greet. (Julia didn’t seem to mind).


FPI: How would you explain your job to a third grader?


For the last three and a half years, I lived in Canberra, monitoring what happens in Indonesia, particularly in terms of security and defense policy. That means the Indonesian military, and what it does, and how that affects Australia. Then I try to translate that into something that the Australian government can understand and potentially use, in order to make Australia’s relationship with Indonesia better.


Now in a new role as a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre I’ve moved to Perth. Being on the West Coast, we’re closer and much more attuned to the Indo-Pacific region. So in this role I’ll be looking at the region more broadly, looking at Australia’s relationship with Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, and producing research that hopefully can be useful to understanding and fostering relationships that include business ties, not just government-to-government.


FPI: I feel like the main things I know about Indonesia come from friends who had really incredible trips to Bali or from headlines mentioning terror attacks. Can you fill in my gaps?


Obviously Bali is a very popular tourist destination, so it’s not a surprise that when most people think ‘Indonesia’, especially in the US, they think Bali. They’ll think of President Obama’s childhood there. I suppose the best way to describe Indonesia is as a highly diverse country.


For starters, it’s the largest state in Southeast Asia and the fourth most populous country in the world, with roughly 250 million people. You have great linguistic diversity, great ethnic diversity, but also great religious diversity. Indonesia is commonly thought of as a Muslim country, which is not untrue, but an even better characterization would be to call it a Muslim majority country. In Indonesia, there is religious pluralism with five different official religions recognized, which includes sizable Christian and Hindu communities. To give you an idea of this diversity: if you go to my mother’s hometown, Manado in North Sulawesi, and you go from the airport into the city, you’ll pass a giant Jesus statue. That kind of religious expression, and hopefully freedom of religious expression, continues in Indonesia even though people commonly think of Islam first.


Also, I should point out that Indonesia has a very healthy, thriving democracy, and their last election was held peacefully. During the transition from military authoritarianism in 1998 to democratic rule, we saw some violence, but for the past 18 years, Indonesia’s democracy has survived.


FPI: So your mother is from Indonesia?


That’s right, she’s from the Northeast island called Sulawesi.


FPI: Is that how your interest in Asia-Pacific security developed?


Actually, I started off looking more at Australia’s foreign relations with Malaysia, which is where my dad is from, and studying Japanese. Growing up in Western Australia, a lot of us had Japanese as compulsory language at school, which was great!


When I moved to Canberra, and particularly when I worked at the Department of Defense and was doing my Masters, I found that people were more interested in Indonesia. More and more I came to see the security side of it as well, so I reoriented more of my research toward Indonesia. At the same time, the more I learned about my family history and the more I learned about the Indonesian military, the more I became organically drawn to it, until I finally moved there for four months in 2011. Developing closer personal ties with friends, different people, and understanding it better…I definitely consider myself a converted Indonesianist.


FPI: So now that you’re looking more broadly at the whole region, how are different states responding to the ongoing threat of terrorism? And is that what you’re mostly looking at, terrorism? Or are there other security concerns coming to the forefront?


At Perth USAsia Centre, we’re looking more to the Indo-Pacific as a system, so not only internal security links, but economic and trade links. Terrorism will be a part of the picture, but we’ll also be looking at the different ways in which Asia creatively grows ties within itself and then with other countries outside of the region, like Australia and the US. As we know, Secretary Clinton has said that Southeast Asia remains a fulcrum of the Asia-Pacific region, and in many ways is a gateway for Australia’s relationship with the rest of the region, but also burgeoning ties like Australia–India relations, or U.S.–India relations. Also, we’ll be looking at developments political, security and economic developments in Japan, South Korea and, of course, China.


FPI: What gets you most excited about the future of the region?

I think it’s the rate of change, to be honest. With many Southeast Asian countries, life changes rapidly in many ways, particularly in capital cities—some ways good, some ways bad. The rate of development is intriguing, but also it raises questions about sustainability, about the use of urban space, the adequacy of infrastructure …it’s a source of fascination, looking back to see how these countries are going to move forward and all the requisite challenges that they’re going to have. Not only just in terms of sustainability but the energy and food security, the environment, demographics, so on.


FPI: What do you think is the ideal way that you would like to see Australia be a part of that development?


Australia has a lot to share in terms of developing technical skills and providing tertiary-level education. In particular, if we’re looking at developing megacities in Southeast Asia and relate that to some of the questions I’d raised about sustainability and urban growth, engineering, as well as other kinds of expertise in terms of waste disposal, development of safety standards, industry policy, the nexus between industry and environmentalism; these are areas that I think Australia has traditionally done well in, and I think there’s a lot of knowledge that we could share with the region, provided that’s what our partners are looking for.



FPI: You’re switching from a more security-based job to one that’s looking more to trade, business growth, and development in the wider region, how did that decision come about?


It’ll be an interesting area for me because I haven’t done a lot in terms of trade and economics in the past. But I’m looking forward to challenging myself and understanding the region from a different perspective. It’s very easy to get blinkered with a focus on security and to forget that there are other kinds of relationships that are not necessarily as antagonistic as they are in the defense and security space. For instance, a lot of the time we over think in the strategic realm. When we think of China, we may think of it much more in competitive terms than we do in cooperative, but shifting your focus to other issues like environmental issues or trade issues, your lens will naturally be predisposed to being much more cooperative and constructive. I’m looking forward to actually shifting my perspective in that regard.


FPI: Thinking about Australia a bit more, what are the main security and defense concerns or challenges currently facing the country?


As is the case with many of our friends and allies, we’re looking at the way in which China’s behavior is, and could potentially be, changing the regional order. In security terms and in economic terms, we’re waiting to see the impacts on the rules and norms which have allowed this region to enjoy peace and security for so long.


We have also concerns like climate change: how well is our region prepared to be resilient against these kinds of environmental issues? How quickly is the region, that is Southeast Asia, transforming and translating increased economic growth into increased military growth, and what are the effects of that? It’s another question for us. Certainly we’re looking more globally, at the Middle East, and with great interest and concern watching the developments with the Islamic State. But also when we’re talking about specific defense issues, thinking about the region, we’re actually thinking about things like procuring our next generation of submarines—if we were to look down into the weeds in hard security terms. We’re looking at strengthening our alliance with the U.S., but also building a stronger defense relationship with Japan, so those are some of the developments thus far.


In the diplomatic sphere, we’re active in our role in the U.N., and building up relations with our South Pacific partners, as we always have. We also want to build a better relationship with Indonesia. Now that Malcolm Turnbull is Prime Minister, there seems to have been a positive streak in the relationship and I hope that continues.


FPI: It’s really interesting to me that you lead with China, because I’m from the US, so I feel like the first thing that anyone would say is “ISIS” or something along those lines. It’s sort of refreshing to hear someone say China and climate change first. It’s a different perspective.


ISIS is certainly of great interest to us, but if I can put it in perspective: we, Australia, live in the Asia Pacific. While the United States has a great stake in what happens in this region and has provided peace and security by virtue of securing global commons, in terms of the sea lanes, Australia is right in the thick of it and our neighbors are right in the thick of what China is doing in terms of its land reclamation activities and the creation of new, potentially different kinds of rule-based systems like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We’re really looking keenly to see where China’s influence has stretched into places that are in our strategic backyard, like the South Pacific Islands. So I think that for us, it’s much more acute. It’s much more in our face.



FPI: Do you have any book or movie recommendations for the people who want to learn more about what you do?


Indonesia is often described as the largest country about which no one very knows much at all.


There’s a wonderful book by a former journalist-turned-epidemiologist called Elizabeth Pisani. She’s written a book called Indonesia, etc. where she chronicles her journey throughout the archipelago, taking some amazing trips—using boats that have holes in them, and travels on the flooded roads—and ends up embracing all different parts of Indonesia, warts and all.


Anyone who has lived and worked there gets it: you both adore and struggle with the country. I love the book because it’s a personal journey for her—what it’s like as a foreigner in the country for one, and number two, she doesn’t just do the traditional hangout in Bali, like the “Eat, Pray, Love” thing. She doesn’t just hang out in urban centers, she goes and she finds the remote parts of Indonesia, she captures their uniqueness and the personal stories of the people that she meets there with such warmth and comedy. It is such an engaging and informative book, and I highly recommend it to people when they say “give me something to read on Indonesia.”



FPI: Do you have any advice for your fellow or for younger interruptors in the field?


I think the most important thing is—and it’s going to sound trite—to believe in your own abilities.


Go and find people who are supportive of your thinking and your vision. Find friendly people who are also prepared to disagree with you. Trusted people who will stick with you throughout your friendships and your career will be extremely invaluable, because your career will evolve and your thinking will evolve, but you’re gonna need some sort of sound external advice throughout.


The other thing I would advocate for is to just read widely, and read voraciously, and certainly learn languages—they’ll do amazing things to your brain and open up amazing opportunities that you never would have thought existed. If you’ve ever wanted to do one and it’s on your bucket list, do it now!


And travel.