Australia–Indonesia relations: all marriages need effort

Group shot of the ASPI-Defence 1.5 track dialogue with Indonesia (photo credit: Luke Wilson, ASPI)The Australia–Indonesia relationship is headed in a broadly positive direction, with the potential for defence and security cooperation to grow. But people-to-people and economic links are surprisingly limited and more needs to be done to build ballast into a relationship often at risk due to misperceptions. These are our personal conclusions after ASPI’s inaugural ‘Australia–Indonesia Next Generation Defence & Security Forum’ in Sydney, 14 to 16 May. With the support of the Department of Defence, we brought together 20 Australian and Indonesian participants from the military, academia, government departments and think tanks for two days of 1.5 track discussion on pressing defence and strategic issues. To encourage frankness, the meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule, so we won’t attribute comments to individuals, rather we’ll offer our own impressions of the meeting.

There were several key themes that emerged from the presentations and discussion. For one, maps made an appearance in several instances—a salient reminder that geography is one of the key forces that necessitates greater Indonesia–Australia cooperation. Some presenters used maps to articulate an Indonesian perspective of our strategic environment and its security challenges. In one case, the visual representation of Indonesia’s archipelagic sea-lanes and their vulnerability to foreign vessels highlighted Indonesia’s need for greater investment in naval capabilities as well as for maritime cooperation.

Several speakers also looked at future prospects for the bilateral relationship. One speaker asked, ‘What should the relationship feel like in 20 years?’, the implication being that national sentiment and the degree of ‘warmth’ each country felt for the other would set the course towards stronger strategic ties down the track. For example, interoperability between our militaries (and even officers serving in each other’s battalions) was proposed as a desirable end. Yet several participants challenged this idea, on the grounds that interoperability entails greater compatibility between our systems than is commonly understood and greater congruence between our respective strategic cultures was still needed.

One issue that spurred particularly heated discussion was Papua which, as Peter and Gary Hogan have previously noted on The Strategist, is an area of potential tension between our countries. While the Indonesian participants acknowledged Australia’s official line of recognising Indonesian sovereignty over Papua, some were wary about our commitment to this position. One speaker noted that although Indonesian officials were aware of the Lombok Treaty’s wording on Papua, regular high-level policy coordination between our sides might assist in making our position even clearer. Others talked about bringing Papua New Guinea into a dialogue with Indonesia to discuss the province and other common strategic issues. What was clear from the sometimes heated exchanges around the table was that such frank discussion reflected the trust and confidence in the room, but this isn’t always apparent in the wider relationship.

As with many dialogues on defence and security in the Asia-Pacific, discussion about the strategic position of China and the United States was prominent. There were diverse views but an opinion common to many was that the US remained central to regional confidence and stability. A number of participants thought that Washington needed to do a better job of explaining its broader strategic purpose. Some also said there needed to be a clearer statement of purpose made for the enhanced cooperation between the US and Australia in our north. Showing that all politics is ultimately local, a number of delegates pointed to perceptions (reportedly held by some in Indonesia) that the US Marine Corps deployment was targeted towards protecting US mining interests in Papua. That proposition would likely bemuse US policy makers in both the Pentagon and State Department, but it points to the deep investment needed to build closer relations and trust.

On China’s rise, many participants are watching developments in the South China Sea very closely, especially with an eye to any potential impacts on the security of sea-borne trade. Many in Indonesia are acutely aware of their country’s growing strategic importance and the way in which geography is creating a greater global interest in the region and its vital sea-lanes. There was deep discussion at the dialogue on how Indonesia should respond to this emerging strategic role. Should Jakarta move away from its traditionally non-aligned approach, or does its current foreign policy settings adequately protect its interests? There was broad endorsement for closer ties with Australia and interest in the possibility that such cooperation might include more joint effort on maritime security. But it would be premature to suggest that there’s widespread agreement as to how the bilateral relationship should be deepened.

One particularly amusing and insightful presentation compared the Australia–Indonesia relationship to a marriage. And if the analogy is right, for reasons of proximity, history, interest and mutual benefit, the case for keeping the marriage of a rather unlikely couple together is very strong: even the best relationships have ups and downs. There remains some cause to wish that the two countries understood each other better but a lack of Indonesian language training in Australia and similarly a lack of a strong Indonesian interest in studying Australia don’t help. But participants agreed that individuals and groups in both countries would continue to highlight differences of interest, if not of values, between the two countries. The challenge for Australia and Indonesia is to learn to love each other with all our faults and differences, rather than to make those blemishes grounds for splitting up.

Peter Jennings is executive director at ASPI, and Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image credit: Luke Wilson, ASPI.