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Rocky road: A short history of Australia and Indonesia’s relationship, and the way forward

Image credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The recent fiasco surrounding the presence of ‘offensive’ training material at an Australian Special Forces base in Perth is just one in a series of controversial incidents which have marred the Indonesia-Australia relationship. Ranging from the execution of Australian citizens to unwanted incursions by the Australian Navy into Indonesian waters, such incidents are symptomatic of a relationship that leaves much to be desired. Yet, there is a way forward to improving the Canberra-Jakarta relationship which would comprise considerable benefits for both countries.

An understanding of the often fraught nature of the Indonesia-Australia relationship requires historical context. President Sukarno’s newly independent and staunchly nationalist Indonesia sought to acquire West New Guinea, which was then a Dutch possession, as well as opposing the British sponsored creation of Malaysia. Compounding Australian anxiety was Surkano’s close ties with the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) and anti-Western rhetoric at a time of intense Cold War tension. Events came to a head during Konfrontasi when Commonwealth forces, including Australian troops, resolved to halt Indonesia’s destabilisation of the nascent Malaysian state. As part of Commonwealth strategy, Australian incursions into Indonesian territory were common.

Under President Suharto, who replaced Sukarno following the failed, allegedly PKI-instigated 1965 coup, bilateral relationships did indeed improve. However, East Timor proved to be a point of contention, beginning with the Indonesian Special Forces’ murder of five Australian journalists on the eve of the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor. When East Timor voted to secede from Indonesia in 1999, Australia organised the INTERFET peacekeeping force, which was tasked with reestablishing order in the wake of a violent insurgency instigated by pro-Indonesian militias who were supported by elements of the Indonesian military. In response, Indonesia terminated the 1995 Indonesia-Australia security pact and ministerial meetings between the two countries became increasingly rare.

Although the 21st century has not seen any armed confrontations between the two countries, the Canberra-Jakarta relationship has remained problematic. The 2002 Bali Bombings in which 88 Australians died no doubt contributed to Australian anxieties concerning its northern neighbour. Frustratingly, much of the progress engendered by the goodwill of leaders from both countries was overshadowed by the 2013 revelations that Australia had spied on Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

In essence, the troublesome nature of the Indonesian-Australian historical relationship has been coupled with pre-existing factors, such as the divergent cultures of the two nations, to create a relationship punctuated by mutual suspicion and mistrust. Hence, both nations have on several occasions viewed each other as security threats rather than opportunities, whilst Jakarta has taken particular issue over real and perceived Australian arrogance regarding East Timor, espionage and Operation Sovereign Borders. Indeed, General Gatot Nurmantyo, who instigated a suspension of Indonesian-Australian military ties, is known to resent Australia’s role in East Timor.

How, then, to move forward?

Firstly, an exercise in empathy is required. Both nations should endeavour to understand and respect the worldview of the other, which will help to avoid the reoccurrence of incidents like the latest, ‘offensive’ material saga. More could also be done to shift the historical narrative to one of cooperation rather than belligerence, and commonality rather than difference. For example, few know that Indonesian-Australian cooperation dates back centuries, beginning with trade between Makassar fishermen and Yolngu Indigenous Australians. More attention could be drawn to the fact that both Australia and Indonesia are secular democracies.

Trade is perhaps the most obvious area in which Indonesian-Australian ties can be deepened. Despite the proximity of the two nations and Indonesia’s population of over 250 million people, Indonesia ranks as Australia’s thirteenth largest trading partner. Thankfully, in the past year, the Australian government has seized the initiative, reinvigorating negotiations over a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. With quality agriculture, tourism, education and services industries, Australia is ideally placed to benefit from the continued growth of Indonesia’s middle class. Australia’s soft power prestige and its firms could also benefit from President Joko Widodo’s planned infrastructure splurge.

Security ties with Indonesia are in the process of expansion. Complementing earlier initiatives such as Australia’s financing and training of the counter-terrorism squad Detachment 88, the Australian and Indonesian militaries currently hold a joint annual exercise near Darwin, known as Operation Cassowary. Given both countries are at risk of radicalised jihadis returning home from Syria and an increasingly assertive China, which claims waters around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, there remains scope for closer cooperation between the security services of both nations.

Aside from the spectre of history, there are other obstacles to closer Jakarta-Canberra ties, such as the issue of West Papua. Yet, a cursory look at history shows that countries with far greater grievances were able to forge close friendships. If closer ties can indeed be forged, both Australia and Indonesia will enjoy considerable economic, diplomatic and security dividends.

Henry Storey is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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