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

Recalibrating defence cooperation

Analysts have suggested that the maritime domain provides a strategic opening to improve ties between Indonesia and Australia. While their proposals highlight the set of shared maritime interests discussed above, their prescriptions on defence cooperation fail to account for the broader existing policy structure, especially the Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) activities that constitute the bulk of engagement. Since the 1960s, the DCP has been a centrepiece of Australia’s defence engagement with the region, designed to build and develop close and enduring links with regional partners to support their self-defence capabilities and work effectively with the ADF.

At the outset, two principles could help guide the recalibration of defence engagement. First, Canberra should de-emphasise the discourse that Indonesia is Australia’s, “most important security partner” because it is historically and comparatively inaccurate, as will be shown below. The discourse also raises unnecessary expectations of what defence cooperation can accomplish. After all, Canberra crafted the narrative to underline Jakarta’s importance and reduce the volatility in the bilateral ties, not because both countries have historically and consistently tackled security challenges together.

Second, while it has never been an explicit policy, Canberra should state that it does not and will not seek to “professionalise” the TNI, especially over issues such as human rights. While such discourse has been relatively muted in recent years, pressure groups are likely to push for the inclusion of human rights or professional reforms in conversations involving TNI–ADF engagement. Not only is this narrative flawed conceptually — there is no systematic proof that foreign education has or could shape the TNI’s professional norms development — it also raises unnecessary fears of ‘foreign intervention’ in Indonesia.

Australia’s DCP with Indonesia: historical context, goals, and trends

Indonesia–Australia defence cooperation originated in the late 1950s when a small number of Indonesian officers took specialist training courses in Australia. Official DCP activities did not begin until 1968. According to the 1971 Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy, the intention then was to provide, “opportunities to develop our defence and security relationships with Indonesia … and assist in the improvement of Indonesian military capability for internal security and for defensive weapons”.

Such capabilities were presumably designed to ensure domestic stability under the New Order and avoid giving Jakarta the tools for another Konfrontasi. The DCP has since then included technical aid, training assistance, joint exercises and consultations, as well as hardware transfer (eg. Nomad aircraft and patrol boats).

Prior to the Jenkins affair in 1986, project assistance and technological transfer constituted the bulk of Australia’s DCP activities with Indonesia. By the early 1990s, Australia was focused on human capital development, including training, study visits, personnel exchanges, strategic and higher management dialogues, conferences, working groups, and combined exercises. While this shift was rarely explained clearly and consistently, it seemed to be underpinned by three key assumptions.

First, militaries that have close training or educational links — due to their intimate knowledge of each other — are unlikely to engage in hostilities. Second, joint development of skills and training could lead to higher levels of interoperability. Finally, close military-to-military links could generate bonds of trust and close cooperation, allowing both sides to advise their governments to maintain good relations. Building on these assumptions, Australia’s defence establishment pushed further for education, exercises, and training.

By the mid to late 1990s, over two hundred Indonesians had trained in Australian military institutions annually. After Timor, most DCP activities were again frozen. After a slow rebuild up to the signing of the Lombok Treaty, DCP funding to Indonesia averaged around AU$5 million per year (US$4 million). After Lombok, it fell to AU$4.4 million annually on average from 2007 to 2017 . When compared to other DCP funding recipients, Indonesia is not “the most important security partner.” That title belongs to Papua New Guinea (except for East Timor in 2008). Even when compared to only fellow ASEAN members, Indonesia was not always the highest funding recipient . Compared to all DCP recipients over the past two decades, Indonesia ranked second highest twice (2006/07 and 2016/17). Most often, Indonesia ranked third (12 years), fourth (two years), fifth (three years), or sixth (once in 2000/01).

This trend mirrored a decline in DCP funding for Southeast Asia. Contrary to previous assessments claiming that the weight of the ADF’s engagement had shifted to Southeast Asia by the mid-1990s, Australia has instead devoted significantly less DCP funding to Southeast Asia (relative to the South Pacific and Papua New Guinea) since the 1980s. In 2001, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific states received 53 per cent of DCP expenditure while Southeast Asia received 41 per cent; by 2014, that share was 57 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively.

Southeast Asia’s DCP share declined as that of Papua New Guinea and Pacific states spiked. This is understandable given the collapse of Soviet-led communism and the growing economic and defence maturity of Southeast Asian states beginning in the 1980s, while the Pacific Islands and Papua New Guinea became increasingly vulnerable at the same time.

These trends suggest that Indonesia has historically not been Australia’s most important security partner. Even among other Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia has not been the largest recipient of DCP funding since the 1970s until very recently. The DCP itself may not be the only form of defence engagement but historically it constitutes the bulk of it, and the available DCP data provides a powerful measure of defence engagement that is difficult to ignore.