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

Conclusions and recommendations

This analysis establishes the case for a maritime recalibration of Australia’s defence engagement activities with Indonesia. Additionally, the paper demonstrates how the politicisation of defence cooperation helps explain the “sawtooth trajectory” of defence relations, and how the two countries can correct that pattern. Finally, the paper proposes several key policy recommendations for Canberra:

  1. Canberra should de-emphasise the traditional narrative that Indonesia is Australia’s “most important security partner”. This does not fit the available evidence and raises unnecessary and unrealistic expectations of what defence cooperation can achieve.
  2. Canberra should make it clear that defence engagement activities, including education and training, are not designed to “socialise” the TNI into certain norms of professionalism, whether defined by the degree of emulation of the ADF or non-defence standards such as democracy or human rights.
  3. Canberra should recalibrate existing DCP education and training activities to focus on joint maritime challenges, including expanding the number of specifically maritime-related courses and reducing the number of short courses.
  4. Canberra should formulate long-term plans to assist the “conventional” modernisation of the TNI with a focus on tri-service integration and maritime security operations while considering possible mutual defence-industrial base development. This follows from the support Australia has expressed towards the TNI’s modernisation process in the 2016 Defence White Paper. This support also signals Australia’s willingness to help the long-term capability development of the TNI and helps reduce the lingering trust deficit.
  5. Canberra should increase navy or maritime-related exercises, and consider possible combined or tri-service TNI–ADF exercises built around maritime challenges and informed by regional multilateral exercises, while reducing the number of Army special forces exercises.

The challenges to these proposals are considerable but not insurmountable. The sawtooth trajectory of defence relations is not immutable and the shared maritime geography does not have to become a permanent source of risk. This analysis suggests how Canberra could deepen, sustain, and facilitate the CSP by providing a maritime recalibration of the TNI–ADF relationship. If properly done, a strengthened CSP underpinned by maritime-based TNI–ADF ties could reduce the volatility of bilateral ties over the long run.

A stronger and more stable TNI–ADF partnership could also shape the broader Indo-Pacific security architecture. While the recalibration will not be explicitly designed with China in mind, it could provide an additional strategic hedge for both countries by bringing together their strategic assets. Together, Indonesia and Australia could realise their shared potential as a stabilising anchor of the Indo-Pacific.

This story originally appeared on The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.