The delicate and volatile relationship between Indonesia and Australia


Comment: Written by Fathma Khalid

Indonesia’s General Gatot Nurmantyo suspended all defence cooperation with Australia on January 4th after it had been discovered that materials used to train Indonesian soldiers in Australia were insulting Indonesian ideology and based on a historical narrative inconsistent to Indonesia’s own. However, the following day Indonesia’s Chief Security Minister Wiranto told reporters that the suspension was due to technical reasons and that it only applied to a language programme, and so was not a complete termination of military relations.

The Australian government expressed regret, ordered an investigation into the event and emphasized the need for strong ties between the two countries. However, despite the fact that both sides quickly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating tensions, the incident highlighted the fragile nature of the relationship between the two countries.

Australian-Indonesian relations have historically been uncertain, although this has improved in recent years. Both countries are committed to the 2006 Lombok Treaty which entails intelligence sharing and cooperation over combatting transnational crime, counter-terrorism and defence.

Australia sees Indonesia as the gateway to Asia and as crucial in helping them achieve their security and economic objectives. Indonesia learns from Australian military prowess, and sends officers to be trained there every year. As well as their dependence on each other, it is important for the neighbouring countries to peacefully coexist because of the potential impact of animosity on regional and global affairs.

Some experts were also alarmed by the incident because the military relationship between the two countries has typically been the most steadfast over the years, whereas relations in other state departments have not been as robust. The offensive training materials referred to the five founding principles of Indonesia as ‘crazy’ and insulted the memory of a revered former Indonesian general, as well as covering Indonesian history in an insensitive manner.

The offensive materials were reportedly lifted from Wikipedia. They were taught by a low-ranking Lieutenant in the Australian Defence Force who has since been relieved of his teaching duties. The initial announcement to sever military ties could have been detrimental to long-term interactions, but the quick de-escalation of the event demonstrated that both countries were keen to resume usual diplomatic affairs.

The need for mutual understanding led President Joko to reproach General Gatot in a meeting later that week for his hasty decision. While General Gatot maintained that he was working to preserve Indonesian national honour, there are concerns that he may be ‘out of control’. There have been reports that the issue was to be dealt with internally but General Gatot “jumped the gun”. This incident could be seen as an attempt to expand the military’s role in civilian affairs and it may have been motivated by political ambitions of the General. The President’s response suggests that he was not consulted before the initial announcement to cut military ties with Australia, and that he is preempting any potential future challenge to his authority.

In December, General Gatot announced in a speech that when he became Commander-in-Chief he would stop sending top Indonesian officials to Australia for training. This is because he wanted to stop the Australians from reportedly “recruiting” Indonesian army officers as their spies, a claim denied by the Australian Defence Secretary Marise Payne. General Gatot has also raised concerns about the presence of US Marines in Darwin, pointing out the proximity to West Papua and suggesting ulterior motives.

An incident on Friday 6th January placed further strain on the newly repaired relations when a Caucasian suspect broke into the Indonesian Consulate General in Melbourne and waved a West Papuan flag on the roof. This flag is a symbol of the independence of the West Papua region from Jakarta, and this development has caused frustration amongst Indonesian officials.

The fact that Australia also eventually sided against Indonesia over the independence of Timor-Leste after initially supporting them raises concerns that the same thing could happen with West Papua in the future. Previous sources of contention include the 2013 revelation that Australia had previously wiretapped the Indonesian President’s phone in 2009, and the execution of Australian drug smugglers by Indonesia in 2015. Events such as these increase mutual mistrust and animosity.

Despite their differences, Australia and Indonesia continue to strive for a more civil future relationship. There are no two neighbouring countries that are more different than these, and future challenges to their diplomatic relations will surely arise. Undoubtedly more work needs to be done to further reinforce their fragile relationship.

Fathma Khalid holds an MSc in Security Studies from University College London and a BA (Hons) in Philosophy, Politics and Economic from the University of York. Her interests include civil war, international intervention and the role of non-profit orgnaisations in conflict zones. She has a special interest in the Asia Pacific region, particularly South and South-East Asia. She has also published work with the Tempest.


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