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

Australia’s DCP priorities — whether education and training or project assistance — cannot be disentangled from the tumultuous history of Australia–Indonesia relations, particularly the Timor experience. A realignment of defence cooperation priorities should therefore be conducted. To that end, policymakers could consider the following:

1. Recalibrating existing DCP education and training programs to focus on joint maritime challenges.

Education and training programs have been the primary components of Australia’s DCP with Indonesia over the past two decades. These include, among other things, joint training exercises, language training, logistics planning, staff college exchanges and Indonesian participation at the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, postgraduate scholarships for TNI officers and civilian defence officials, maritime surveillance cooperation, and dialogues and seminars on a variety of regional security challenges.

Between 2006 and 2012, around 40 Indonesian students were enrolled in DCP education and training programs each year. This number increases significantly when shorter courses are included. The growth in the number of participants and courses correlates with the decline in DCP funding. One possible interpretation is that with less funding, DCP increased the number of shorter (presumably cheaper) courses to bring in more students. For example, from 2000 to 2006, there were over 63 Indonesian participants on average annually enrolled in more than 20 programs and courses. After the Lombok Treaty, there were over 117 participants on average enrolled in over 32 programs annually. If this interpretation is correct, increasing the number of short courses to bring in more participants as funding declined allowed the student-per-course ratio to become relatively stable at 3.69 or around four students per course annually between 2000 and 2015. 

According to a survey of TNI officers, Australia’s education and training assistance has helped the TNI to develop better-qualified personnel in their respective fields. However, looking at the content and nature of the education and training programs and the ranks of the participants, several patterns emerge. First, the obvious dominance of short courses compared to other types of education and training programs. Second, most of the participants were junior and mid-ranking officers ranging from lieutenants to colonels, with very few flag-rank officers and academy cadets participating.

Third, while the focus on operations, organisational development, and strategic studies is growing, language training has been disproportionately offered for almost two decades. This is in part because language training is often a prerequisite for a wider range of other defence-specific courses or training programs and partly because of the lack of high-quality foreign language training infrastructure within Indonesia’s defence establishment.

Improving Indonesia’s own foreign language training capabilities would mean that valuable places in the DCP could be reallocated to maritime-related courses. Maritime-related programs (courses, training, or postgraduate degrees) have not been a priority. Of the top ten education and training courses — which almost half of the Indonesian participants completed — none were exclusively maritime-related. There were only 82 TNI personnel over time (around five per cent) who undertook seven maritime-related courses.

Those courses ran for an average of six weeks, compared to English language programs, which were twice as long and had almost 300 participants. Further, what seems to be an effort to maintain student-course ratios amid declining funding has created less meaningful and impactful engagement. Shorter stints mean shorter interactions and less time on deep reflective engagements. It is also unclear how the short courses correspond to the TNI’s long-term organisational requirements. 

2. Formulating long-term plans for the “conventional” modernisation of the TNI, focusing on tri-service integration, maritime power projection, its and defence industrial base.

One of DCP’s priorities in the 1970s and 80s was provision of military hardware. Today, some analysts dismiss Australia’s military technological assistance as “less relevant” than the need to improve Indonesia’s maritime security policymaking. However, the reality remains: the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) needs hardware. More broadly, the TNI needs assistance in its modernisation efforts. Its “conventionalisation” process under the Minimum Essential Force blueprint developed in the mid-2000s could also help accelerate the professional development of TNI officers.

As the 1986 Defence Review noted, Australia was well-placed to assist with training and exercising and the transfer of skills and doctrine necessary for operating modern equipment. Yet according to a survey of Indonesian recipients of Australian education and training programs, the lack of technological cooperation remains one of the stumbling blocks in defence cooperation. Most TNI officers realise that technological modernisation is imperative to maintaining long-term operational readiness and regional strategic relevance. Australia’s lack of support in this effort might signal that it is less invested in the TNI’s long-term capability development.

From 1969 to 2016, Australia sent light transport aircraft, patrol boats, fighter aircraft and light transport and maritime patrol aircraft to Indonesia. These platforms make up over 92 per cent of the weapons transferred over almost five decades. Australia transferred most of the major weapons it has given to Indonesia before the Lombok Treaty.

If maritime security development was a priority then, it is no longer the case today. The last patrol boats were delivered in 2003, and the next technological project centres on land power. In late 2016, Australia and Indonesia signed an agreement to collaborate on jointly developing an armoured vehicle based on the design of Thales Australia’s Bushmaster multi-role protected vehicle. Moreover, most of the major weapons transferred are now on average around 40 years and too old to operate properly.

Any long-term plans to rebuild Indonesia’s maritime capabilities should consider the possibility of developing the defence industrial base in both countries. Since the 1990s, neither country is dependent on the other for strategic materials, defence equipment, or logistic supply; both depend on third countries.[72] Nevertheless, both countries’ naval shipyards have witnessed periods of growth in recent years. Given the pressing needs of maritime security, long-term cooperation and joint development in naval shipbuilding is a viable consideration.

3. Increasing maritime-related exercises and combined or joint TNI–ADF exercises at the tri-service level built around maritime challenges.

Indonesia and Australia have increased the number of joint military exercises and training in recent years. The fanfare surrounding these activities suggest their significance in defence relations. Indeed, the development of TNI–ADF interoperability — from communications procedures and fuel standards to operational concepts and procedures — not only increases familiarity across both militaries but also the likelihood that they can work together in emergencies.

However, these exercises need to be viewed in perspective. Based on Australian Defence Department annual reports, bilateral exercises with Indonesia amount to around eight per cent (37 out of 449) of all ADF bilateral exercises between 1997 and 2015. The United States, New Zealand, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, and Malaysia have had more exercises with Australia than Indonesia. Again, this does not fit the “most important security partner” narrative.

In the 1990s, up until the East Timor intervention, there were at least three to four exercises annually. Since the Lombok Treaty, there have been on average more than five to six exercises per year (which from 2015 increased to a dozen annually). Since 2007, there have been at least 55 TNI–ADF exercises in total (spread over 18 different exercise formats). However, most military exercises are oriented towards the army (almost half of all exercises comprise both TNI–ADF and army special forces or Kopassus) rather than navy or air force.

There seems to be a steep decline in maritime-related exercises in the past decade compared to the previous three decades. The decline appears to have taken place in conjunction with the rise of exercises involving Kopassus. Over the past decade, the TNI and ADF had more special forces exercises than any other type, likely a consequence of the 2002 Bali bombings and the subsequent prominence of counterterrorism cooperation.

Any serious discussion of maritime defence realignment should therefore consider reducing special forces exercises, which tend to be controversial in both countries given the history of Kopassus. The reduction of special forces exercises would not be detrimental to bilateral counterterrorism cooperation. After all, counterterrorism cooperation between the National Police (POLRI) and Australian Federal Police (AFP) has been exceptionally productive. Both Indonesia and Australia can afford to reduce Army special forces exercises to give way to maritime ones.

Additionally, Australia and Indonesia should consider formulating a combined TNI–ADF exercise involving all branches of the armed forces and increasing the number of multilateral exercises that will bring in other regional partners. Australia has had almost 300 multilateral military exercises with over a dozen countries between 1997 and 2015. However, less than 7.5 per cent of those included Indonesia. Joint TNI–ADF exercises could develop more scenarios involving shared regional maritime challenges. These could be better informed by increasing the number of regional multilateral exercises involving elements of both the TNI and ADF.

Challenges for a maritime-based strategic partnership

This analysis argues that to better implement and sustain the newly signed CSP, bilateral defence engagement should be recalibrated. The previous section focused on how Australia could make this happen. That bias to the Australian side was deliberate — the overarching architecture of the defence relationship has traditionally been drawn by Australia rather than Indonesia. This is not to say that Indonesia has been passive, and the political and strategic appetite has at times been mutual. However, the initiative for engagement tends to come from Australia. Unlike Australia, Indonesia’s defence establishment has never had a well-developed and institutionalised international defence engagement system or policy infrastructure.

There are other challenges to the proposals made here. First, even after the CSP is signed, there is no guarantee the relationship will not fall victim to bilateral and domestic politics in future, although this analysis argues that institutionalising defence relations on a maritime basis could reduce volatility. Setting up a special desk located in Canberra and Jakarta could provide an additional bureaucratised infrastructure to better implement the CSP.

The desk could be located within the offices of the Indonesian President and Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and be guided by a bilateral commission chaired by foreign ministers. Indonesia has never done this for its other strategic partners, such as the United States and China. A special desk would thus increase the political importance of the new CSP.

Second, perhaps the most difficult challenge to re-craft defence relations would come from the Indonesian defence establishment. Australia has clearly demonstrated its interests in engaging the Indonesian defence establishment and provide resources to support it. Indonesia’s energetic and high-profile defence diplomacy activities under Yudhoyono have not been replicated by the Jokowi administration. As such, it would be incumbent upon the TNI to take the lead.

However, the TNI leadership is more concerned with domestic problems. Its recent strategic narrative is filled with antiquated concepts of “proxy warfare” and “state defence” at the expense of international engagement and military modernisation. Under such conditions, the asymmetry of strategic cultures between externally oriented Australia and inward-looking Indonesia is likely to be amplified.

Indeed, the rise of conservative TNI generals also means the possible reinjection of the 1999 East Timor intervention into the national security discourse. The “sea blindness” discussed earlier also makes it difficult to get the TNI to push for a new maritime-based defence, which could be seen as reducing the role of the army as the dominant service.

Still, strategic cultural differences have never been deal-breakers in defence cooperation. Dozens of countries have strong defence relationships even if their militaries have different outlooks. What is salient here is not so much strategic culture as the trust deficit between the TNI and ADF, best exemplified by the East Timor experience.

This acrimonious history cannot be erased within two decades or papered over with formal agreements, although there has been commendable progress since the Lombok Treaty. However, if the defence recalibration proposals could be explicitly grounded in the CSP, and Jokowi could demonstrate his commitment to implement it, the TNI is likely to follow what the government has agreed.

Furthermore, one cannot judge the prospect of defence cooperation with Indonesia based only on a small sample of senior generals in the Jokowi administration. The current class of TNI leaders has publicly demonstrated its inward-looking and conservative conceptions of national security. However, the next generation of TNI leaders — particularly those who graduated from the military academy in the 1990s — is likely to have a different outlook.

As these officers would have developed in the military during the late New Order era and after, they are more likely to be concerned with technological modernisation and the regional environment than with purely domestic concerns. Also, following the departure of General Nurmantyo and the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto as TNI Commander in late 2017, the defence policy focus has shifted to completing organisational overhauls and arms procurement. Indonesian strategic culture, then, is not immutable.

These challenges do not represent the entire gamut of problems that could hinder the maritime recalibration of TNI–ADF ties. Budgetary constraints and bureaucratic politics, for example, matter too. Also, I do not suggest that it is only Australia’s “burden” to improve defence relations or that Indonesia should just wait and see. However, for all the reasons discussed, the best place to start thinking about the path ahead is in Canberra.


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