OPINION | Reinforcing Indonesia–Australia defence relations: the case for maritime recalibration

It was not until the 2016 White Paper that the maritime domain came to the fore: “Australia and Indonesia share maritime borders and enduring interests in the security and stability of South East Asia … We have a mutual and abiding interest in the security and stability of the maritime domains that we share…” [emphasis added]

The 2016 White Paper reflected Canberra’s evolving security perception of Indonesia. While it did not fully abandon some older geostrategic assumptions, it explicitly recognised the importance of a shared maritime domain. Instead of dwelling on pre-existing cooperation as the sole foundation of bilateral security relations, it placed shared maritime interests as another foundation and sought to rally around Jokowi’s economic goals and maritime vision. This maritime focus reversed the long-standing premise that threats could come “from or through” Indonesia. Rather than building a risk-driven engagement strategy, the 2016 White Paper showed how the same geographic destiny can be the basis for shared interests.

On the other hand, Indonesia’s Defence White Papers say very little about Australia. This is perhaps a reflection of the old notion that Indonesians do not care much about Australia, save the occasional bilateral crisis. As a retired Indonesian general once remarked, “Indonesia does not regard Australia as a threat, nor do Indonesians harbour a feeling of hostility … as a matter of fact the country is of little interest to them”. Where Australia is mentioned in Indonesia’s Defence White Papers, it is in relation to existing cooperative activities and sets of common challenges. There have been very few thoughtful assessments of Australia as part of Indonesia’s strategic thinking or priorities.

Indonesia’s 1995 Defence White Paper noted that the, “Australia–Indonesia relationship continues to flourish and is creating new opportunities for economic, cultural and security cooperation”. The 2004 White Paper stated that defence relations have been affected by the changeable nature of the political relationship but reiterated Indonesia’s commitment to confidence-building measures based on “balanced and shared interests” as well as mutual respect for each state’s internal affairs.

Despite a brief concern that Australia was becoming a security threat to Indonesia, the 2008 White Paper noted the utility of the Indonesia–Australia Defence and Strategic Dialogue as well as the expansive scope of the Lombok Treaty. Finally, the 2015 White Paper noted that while the bilateral relationship has been “dynamic”, it has geopolitical significance in shaping regional peace and stability.

Overall, while concrete definitions of shared strategic interests have been historically absent on both sides, there is a growing realisation that a shared strategic maritime vision could underpin a stronger bilateral partnership. Indeed, in recent years, the maritime domain increasingly seems to define the content and scope of the cooperative relationship.

Is a shared maritime vision enough?

The geographic proximity between Indonesia and Australia, two of the biggest states in the Indo-Pacific that oversee critical regional waterways, should have driven them into a maritime-centred security relationship. Indeed, the 2015 joint communiqué from the third Australia and Indonesia Foreign and Defence Ministers 2+2 Dialogue declared that, “As respectively the world’s only island continent and the world’s largest archipelagic state, located at the fulcrum of the Pacific and Indian oceans, Australia and Indonesia aspire to a secure maritime domain in which people, trade and the environment flourish.”

Both countries have many shared maritime interests, including maintaining good order at sea; preventing piracy, people smuggling, and illegal fishing; protecting the marine environment; and managing regional instability, territorial disputes, and threats to the security of sea lines of communication. Building on these interests, Jakarta and Canberra issued a Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation in February 2017.

It reaffirmed their commitment to: unimpeded lawful commerce, freedom of navigation and overflight and sustainable use of living marine resources; peace, security and stability in the region, full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, and the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in accordance with international law; and addressing the challenges posed by transnational crimes committed at sea. These principles underlie 15 broad objectives, from the sustainability of living marine resources to maritime infrastructure and maritime security.

The 2018 Maritime Cooperation Plan of Action provides the broad policy guidelines to implement the Joint Declaration and the new CSP nominates maritime cooperation as one of its key pillars, resting on trade and sustainable blue economy development as much as maritime security, scientific collaboration, and cultural heritage. Such a maritime outlook falls squarely within President Jokowi’s Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) vision. Before Jokowi’s inauguration in 2014, his chief foreign policy adviser, Rizal Sukma, outlined the GMF’s fundamental tenets.

He argued that the GMF is an aspiration, a doctrine, and a part of the national development agenda. As an aspiration, it is a call to return to Indonesia’s archipelagic identity. As a doctrine, providing a sense of common purpose, it sees Indonesia as a “force between” the Indian and Pacific Oceans. As a developmental agenda, it provides plans to boost the national economy such as improving inter-island connectivity.

On assuming office, Jokowi outlined the five pillars of the GMF during a major speech at the East Asia Summit in November 2014: rebuild maritime culture; manage marine resources; develop maritime infrastructure and connectivity; advance maritime diplomacy; and boost maritime defence forces. By March 2017, Jokowi released Presidential Regulation No 16 on Indonesian Sea Policy to codify the GMF as part of Indonesia’s regulatory hierarchy and to coordinate maritime-related policies across different ministries into a single framework.

Despite a shared maritime vision, however, both Indonesia and Australia still confront lingering concerns over their shared maritime domain. Various incidents involving illegal fishing and boat-borne asylum seekers suggest that a shared Indonesia–Australia maritime vision should not be taken for granted. Even a basic shared understanding of the maritime domain has not been easily managed. Consider Jakarta’s adverse reaction in December 2004 to Australia unilaterally declaring a 1,000-nautical mile maritime identification zone that overlapped with Indonesian waters. Official declarations of a shared maritime vision will not erase divergent maritime interests, assumptions, and approaches overnight.

Take the South China Sea, for example, where despite common interests in constraining Chinese militarisation and ensuring freedom of navigation, Indonesia’s ASEAN-centric and Australia’s ANZUS-centric approaches have led to different strategies. Jakarta, a non-claimant in the South China Sea disputes, is interested in ensuring ASEAN centrality while safeguarding its waters. Canberra, also a non-claimant, sees China’s behaviour through the lens of its US alliance. Both sides are interested in sustaining a rules-based order but disagree over which rules to enforce and how.

Indonesia has been less supportive than Australia of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). Canberra sees support for FONOPs and the ASEAN–China Code of Conduct process on the South China Sea as complementary while Jakarta at times considers them mutually exclusive.

Indonesia and Australia also suffer from different degrees of “sea blindness”, a term used to describe a condition where states vastly underrate the importance of the maritime domain or acknowledge it but delay protective measures until more urgent national matters are addressed.While Australia is a classic “trade-dependent maritime state”, its strategic culture has been dominated by the sense that the country is first and foremost a continent.

The debate over the “defence of Australia” concept in strategic planning exemplifies this tension. This partially explains Australia’s perception of its immediate maritime neighbourhood as a source of threat rather than seeing it as a strategic benefit. Conversely, Indonesia is an archipelagic state with a continental tradition.

The country’s high levels of social, political, and economic diversity, exacerbated by the geographical challenges of an archipelago consisting of thousands of islands, created an army-centric national security state seeking to maintain domestic stability. If there were maritime security problems, they were viewed through a domestic or internal security lens by Jakarta. As such, perhaps Indonesia has a more severe case of “sea blindness” than Australia, whose maritime security focus is underdone rather than completely absent.

This unevenly developed maritime outlook requires careful management on both sides, especially by their military forces. The core of any plan to execute a joint maritime vision rests with the quality of TNI–ADF relations. This is particularly the case on the Indonesian side, where maritime security governance remains a chaotic patchwork of a dozen agencies and organisations with overlapping authority. Yet the bilateral defence relationship remains underdeveloped, subject to broader bilateral political dynamics, and more driven by Australia’s engagement initiatives than a mutually formulated long-term plan. Australia’s existing defence engagement policies need to be better aligned to fit a maritime-based strategic partnership, but to do that, a historical pattern must first be broken.


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