The relationship between Indonesia and Australia has always been like a roller-coaster ride.
Indonesia and Australia decided at the Foreign and Defense Ministers 2+2 meeting to deepen their security ties and realize joint military training in Australia for the first time. They also signed agreements on counter-terrorism, cyber security and support for Pacific island nations.
This kind of relationship has been on a steady rise. However, just like a roller coaster, hiccups sometimes occur, often due to Australian policies or behaviors that disrespect or even undermine Indonesia’s national interests.
Collaboration or Threat?
The Australian continent and Indonesia are only 240 kilometers apart by the sea, which means that the two countries share strong security interdependencies. This may pose a great threat to each other and may also be the greatest threat to split Indonesia.
Australia is worried that an increasingly powerful neighbor may pose a threat to it. When Australia issued statements on Indonesian sovereignty issues such as East Timor and Papua, Indonesia regarded them as interference in its internal affairs. Indonesia’s concerns are not unfounded. For example, Australia once recognized Indonesia’s sovereignty over East Timor, but later changed its position.
Australia is increasingly aware of Indonesia’s strategic role as a buffer against future aggression rather than a traditional military threat, and a positive relationship with Indonesia contributes to Australia’s security. Now, the extent of bilateral defense engagement had reached its highest level.
According to the Lombok Treaty signed in 2006, the two nations will show “mutual respect and support for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, national unity and political independence of each other, and also non-interference in the internal affairs of one another”. Australia turned to reservations about Indonesia’s domestic independence movement. It can be seen that Australia is only urging all parties to exercise restraint, although others hope that Canberra will do more in Indonesian provinces of West Papua and Papua affairs in 2019.
The problem is that despite the stability of bilateral relations, Australia’s lack of respect and coordination inevitably threatened Indonesia’s interests, and the bilateral relations had embarked on a roller-coaster decline, which has happened many times in history.
In 2011, the Rudd government, despite Indonesia’s commitment to playing a leader role in Southeast Asia, went ahead and announced the concept of a new Asia-Pacific community. In 2012, without prior warning to Jakarta, the Australian government announced that up to 2,500 U.S. Marines would rotate in Darwin during six-month deployments. After the violent unrest in West Papua, the West Papuan flag flying outside the Sydney local council was seen as a support for West Papuan independence.
Indonesia is the country with the largest number of Muslims in the world. But Prime Minister Morrison completely ignored the views of its important neighbor and proposed to move the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of U.S. President Donald Trump. Protests in Indonesia eventually forced the temporary closure of the Australian Embassy in Indonesia.
When President Yudhoyono addressed both houses of the Australian parliament in 2010, he articulated that the most persistent problem in their relations is the persistence of age-old stereotypes.
Australians see Indonesia as a military dictatorship, Islamic extremism, and even an expansionist power. Indonesians see Australia as separatist. The media in the age of cable television and the Internet either reinforces misconceptions or fails to correct them.
In a 2013 survey, 54 percent of Australians believed that “Australia is right to be concerned about Indonesia as a military threat” and 54 percent believed that “Indonesia is a dangerous source of Islamic terrorism.”
Indonesians are also aware of this misperception in Australia, with 55 percent agreeing that “Australia is a country that is suspicious of Indonesia.” Australia is an arrogant and superior neighbor.
Bilateral relations will be increasingly challenged by Australia’s misperceptions and indifference to Indonesia due to a decline in education about Indonesia and wider Asia.
Scandals and the Trust Deficit
The Indonesia-Australia relations is built on fragile pillars, which may suddenly become shacky because of unforeseen events and scandals.
In 2013, The Guardian and the ABC published leaked information concerning a sustained intelligence surveillance of President Yudhoyono, his wife and his inner sanctum by Australia’s Defense Signal’s Directorate Yudhoyono. And Australia failed to explain how monitoring the wife of Indonesia’s President was related to its national interests.
In 2014, the Australian Navy entered Indonesian waters several times during exercises directly without any permission. Although the government apologized and said it was unintentional, the advanced nature of GPS made this explanation sound incredible.
In 2017, Indonesia suspended all military cooperation with Australia due to its insult to Pancasila, which is the official, foundational philosophical theory of Indonesia.
Successive Australian Governments have still not realized that they should pay enough attention to their neighbor’s opinions when they made policy announcements of vital national concern to Indonesia. The apparent lack of consultation has been a catalyst for recurring bilateral tensions. If Australia continues this way, The roller coaster will suddenly hit the bottom one day.