Australia–Indonesia: defence ties the best ballast
11 Apr 2013|

Service Members from Indonesia, Australia, United States, and United Kingdom fire 9mm pistols during an international shooting match at the 2012 Australian Army Skill at Arms Meeting (AASAM) May 9 in Puckapunyal, Australia.This year will mark 25 years since then Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans delivered a landmark address (PDF) to an Australia–Indonesia business group in Bali, in which he first raised the importance of ‘building ballast’ into the bilateral relationship.

There were obvious differences in the diplomatic environment in October 1988 and the political reality today. For one, the Suharto regime was at the height of its autocratic control of Indonesia in 1988, whereas Indonesia’s system of representative democracy continues to mature and strengthen in 2013.

But the broader context is unmistakably similar. Evans was speaking as the bilateral relationship was still recovering from damaging Sydney Morning Herald articles in 1986 by David Jenkins on Suharto family corruption. Evans was also seeking to nudge his Indonesian counterpart, Ali Alatas, towards signing the lucrative Timor Gap Treaty.

Sound familiar? In 2013, we are still attempting to put the bitter ramifications of the Australia-led intervention in East Timor behind us, while looking forward to negotiating a comprehensive economic partnership agreement with Indonesia.

In his 1988 speech, Evans urged both sides to stop talking about ‘the relationship’ as if it were a sick patient whose pulse constantly needed taking. Instead, the two countries needed to get on with the task of building the content of it.

Evans’s comments are the more remarkable not for what has changed over a quarter of a century but for how little has changed. Bob Carr could deliver the same speech today, with disturbingly few tweaks. Evans lamented the lack of trade and commercial ties between two neighbours with so much potential economic complementarity. He recognised our shared regional security challenges, particularly an incipient peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, and he placed great hope in the durability of our people-to-people links. The song remains the same.

There is one aspect of Evans’s remarks, however, which differentiates the bilateral relations of 1988 with today’s strategic ties. When he referred to the 1987 Australian Defence White paper, Evans made no reference to the Indonesian Armed Forces, then known as ABRI (Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia).

In those days, the prevailing ‘Defence of Australia’ national strategic concept, grounded in a 1986 review of Australia’s defence capabilities by Paul Dibb, emphasised our capacity to defend the sea-air gap between us and our northern neighbours. This was seen as primarily a mission for Australia’s air and naval forces.

The White paper assigned to our army the duty of repelling anticipated lodgements by foreign forces on Australian soil across the north of our continent. It was implicitly understood, though never explicitly stated, that such a lodgement force could only be Indonesian.

In contemporary training exercises across northwestern Australia, hostilities were waged against a make-believe enemy nation, known variously as ‘Orangeland’ and ‘Musoria’, located due south of Bali. Its military organisation looked suspiciously like ABRI. And it was no coincidence that the Bahasa Indonesia word for ‘enemy’ (musuh) inspired the choice of Musoria as the name of our mythical enemy’s homeland.

How times have changed and strategic perceptions of our region have matured. The 1987 Defence White paper and that scheduled for release in 2013 could not be more of a contrast. In a speech delivered last week in Jakarta to members of the Indonesia-Australia Defence Alumni Association, Defence Minister Stephen Smith spoke of the desire he shared with his Indonesian counterpart to ‘enhance’ the currently robust bilateral defence relationship. And Indonesia’s premier world affairs journal, the Strategic Review, showcases Indonesia-Australia defence relations in its current quarterly issue.

While the 1987 White paper avoided any specific mention of Indonesia (the only specific Southeast Asian references were to the Philippines and Cambodia), the 2013 White paper is almost certain to highlight relations between the Australian Defence Force and the Indonesian National Defence Forces, or TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia). After 25 years, the Asian Century finds us finally seeking our security with Indonesia, rather than from it.

While Gareth Evans used his ‘ballast’ metaphor mainly to urge greater trade and commercial activity, the ballast provided by the defence relationship has historically provided the even keel necessary to weather the ebbs and flows of our broader bilateral relationship.

This was recognised in  an article in The Australian this week by veteran Indonesia watcher and commentator, Alan Dupont, who described defence cooperation as the ‘bedrock of a more sustainable and broadly based partnership’. This analogy is supported by a review of our post-war relations. Despite regular ups and downs experienced across the board, defence engagement has been largely steady as she goes.

It is a little-known fact that the first ever United Nations peacekeeping operation to be authorised under Chapter VI of the UN Charter involved a group of Australian army officers sent to Yogyakarta in 1947 to supervise an uneasy ceasefire between Indonesian revolutionaries and Dutch colonial forces.

In 1964, dubbed by Indonesian president Sukarno ‘the Year of Living Dangerously’, the first Australian to undergo formal Indonesian military training was stationed in central Java, while Australian and Indonesian troops stalked each other in Borneo jungles, during the undeclared war known as Konfrontasi. Indonesian officers had been studying at our staff college at Fort Queenscliff,Victoria, since 1961.

From the 1960s to the present day, there have always been Australians at Indonesia’s military schools, including in difficult times like the disputed 1969 ‘Act of Free Choice’ in Papua, the 1975 annexation of Portuguese East Timor, and the freeze in relations caused by the 1986 David Jenkins articles. Even as Indonesian and Australian forces faced off in East Timor in 1999, officers from both sides continued their studies in each other’s military colleges.

More than 800,000 Australians visited Baliin 2012. The governor of that province first got a taste of Australians, our values and our lifestyle in 1974, when he stayed with Australian military, naval and air force cadets, as part of an exchange program that continues to the present day. Dozens of senior Indonesian military officers, both active and retired, filling senior posts as governors, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, chiefs of service and senior civil servants, are graduates of Australia’s highest-level civil-military leadership training college at Weston Creek, Canberra.

Military diplomacy has underwritten the broader bilateral relationship since our first defence attaché arrived in Jakarta in 1954.

Although the Indonesian national police force is slightly bigger numerically, TNI is still the largest and most powerful single unified entity in Indonesia, when hardware, organisation, deployment capability and strategic reach are factored in. And TNI is an organ of government respected and largely trusted across Indonesia’s archipelago. When peaks in our bilateral relationship turn to troughs, as they invariably have and inevitably will again, TNI is not a bad dialogue partner to have.

As Alan Dupont recently observed, Defence relations have historically provided a bedrock of goodwill and a conduit for communication between Australia and Indonesia. After 25 years, the 2013 Defence White paper will likely recognise this and call for an enhanced strategic partnership with Indonesia. As with the Ken Henry white paper on Australia in the Asian Century, our security will continue to be viewed officially as with, rather than from, our enormously important northern neighbour.

Future Australian governments would be well advised to maintain and foster this strategic approach.

Gary Hogan is a former Professor of Grand Strategy at the US National Defense University. He was the first foreigner to graduate from Indonesia’s Institute of National Governance (Lemhannas) and was Australia’s Defence Attaché to Indonesia 2009 to 2012. Image by Flickr user AFN-Pacific Hawaii News Bureau.