The relationship between Australia and Indonesia has reportedly been the best under President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. (Reuters Photo/Darren Whiteside)

Love but Distrust Thy Neighbor: A Glance at Indonesia-Australia Relations


APRIL 02, 2018

Jakarta. It should be natural that close neighbors, like Indonesia and Australia, seek to forge strong relations and mutually beneficial cooperation. Geographic proximity, however, does not always guarantee this.

Indonesia and Australia established diplomatic ties in 1949, and have had rather steady relations in politics, economy, security and education. In recent years, the ties have been tested by unfavorable public opinion, misunderstandings and governmental tensions, especially after Australia reportedly spied on former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2013, and when Indonesia executed two Australian nationals for drug smuggling in 2015.

According to experts, distrust and anxiety regularly emerge in the bilateral ties.

During a seminar on Indonesian public diplomacy toward Australia in November, Evi Fitriani, head of the Miriam Budiardjo Resource Center (MBRC) at the University of Indonesia, said the relations, which she likened to a rollercoaster ride, have historically been dependent on the attitudes of the countries' leaders. 

Riefqi Muna, a senior researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said, however, that all crises between Indonesia and Australia tend to normalize quickly.

"Australians have yet to understand Indonesia's development throughout the years, especially in terms of democracy. They still assume it is authoritarian and militarized, though this [presumption] is increasingly less common," Riefqi said during the seminar.

So far, according to Evi, the relations have been the best under President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, although strong cultural differences and limited understanding of Islam in Australia often strain them.

Latest Developments

The improvement in bilateral ties is illustrated by the high level of engagement between top officials, such as the recent meeting between Jokowi and Turnbull during the Asean-Australia Special Summit on March 17, and the fifth "2+2" meeting of foreign and defense ministers ahead of the summit.

While Jokowi and Turnbull discussed stepping up cooperation in education and industrial development, the ministers signed an action plan on maritime cooperation to strengthen maritime security, combat transnational crime and maritime pollution.

Meanwhile, pending are the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) and an agreement on common foreign policy priorities in the Indo-Pacific region.

"Right now, many countries are starting to mull over how the Indo-Pacific region can be a peaceful, prosperous and stable. Indonesia has some thoughts on this, and we have been sharing them with our friends in Asean, but also with the United States, India, China, Japan and Australia," Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi Retno said after a meeting with her Australian counterpart Julie Bishop prior to the "2+2" session.

Indonesia and Australia will also soon revisit the 1997 Perth Treaty on Maritime and Law of the Sea and are going to discuss their maritime boundaries, following Australia's recent deal with East Timor to resolve similar disputes.

In 2002, the two countries initiated and have since been co-chairing the Bali Process, an international forum with 48 members comprising of countries and international agencies, to facilitate discussion and information sharing about issues relating to human trafficking and transnational crime.

Education Nurtures Friendship

Cooperation in education is one of the main highlights of the relationship between Indonesia and Australia.

In January, Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education Muhammad Nasir said Indonesia will open its doors to foreign universities. Science, technology, engineering, mathematics, business and management were identified as priority subject areas.

The minister said the University of Melbourne and the University of Queensland were among the institutions that expressed interest in opening their Indonesian branches.

According to data from Unesco's Institute for Statistics on the global flow of tertiary-level students, in 2016 there were 10,676 Indonesians studying in Australia, significantly more than in other countries, with 8,922 in the United States, 8,039 in Malaysia and 2,761 in the United Kingdom

Florischa Ayu Tresnatri, an Indonesian student pursuing her master's degree at the Australian National University in Canberra, said she liked the culture and the fact that Australia is not that far from her country.

"The culture is good, here they really appreciate one another … I think [in Australia] the courses taught are more practical, compared to other countries where they seem very theoretical," she told the Jakarta Globe.

In 2018, more than 2,100 Australian students will come to Indonesia to live, work and study under Australia's New Colombo Plan mobility program.

According to the Australian embassy, from 40 destinations in the Indo-Pacific region, including the Philippines, Fiji, South Korea and Nepal, Indonesia is the students' top choice.

Lachlan Haycock, a recipient of the 2016 New Colombo Plan scholarship, who studied at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta and interned at the Jakarta Globe, explains this in the following way:

"The decision to choose Indonesia made a lot of sense, considering Australia's geographical proximity and strategic links with Indonesia. ... However, it was mostly of high personal value for me as a student, traveler and individual."

Challenges Now and Then

Looking at Indonesian-Australian relations, one needs to consider the role each country played in the history of East Timor.

In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor and made it become one of its provinces. The move was not opposed by Australia, which proved to be quite controversial, especially as five Australian journalists were killed during the annexation.

Later, Australia was one of the countries that supported East Timor's will to become an independent nation in 1999. This sparked tensions with Indonesia.

Riots, which followed the 1999 independence referendum, claimed the lives of 1,500 civilians, while a quarter of East Timor's population, nearly 250,000 people, were forced to leave their homes until the arrival of the International Force East Timor (Interfet), multinational peacekeepers led by Australia.

East Timor officially became independent in 2002, after a decades-long struggle to secede from Indonesia.

Another critical moment in the relations between Indonesia and Australia came in October 2002, when 209 people, including 88 Australians, were killed in a bomb attack in Bali. The tragedy was, however, followed by increased security cooperation, with Australia helping Indonesia to establish the National Police's counterterrorism unit, Densus 88, and the Jakarta Center for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC) in Semarang, Central Java.

In 2004, the relations were strained when an Australian beautician, Schapelle Corby, was arrested on drug smuggling charges and sentenced to 15 years in jail. In 2012, her prison term was reduced by five years by President Yudhoyono. The decision was reportedly linked to the release of Indonesian minors convicted of human trafficking in Australia.

In 2013, the president and Vice President Boediono were allegedly targeted by Australian intelligence. In order to ease the situation, both countries agreed to set up a hotline to improve communication.

In 2015, despite pleas by Australia's top officials, Indonesia executed Australian citizens Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who were sentenced to death for drug trafficking.

It appears that tensions between the two countries have also been used by politicians from both sides as means of gaining popularity, especially during election seasons.

Over the years, one of the key problems has been the issue of asylum seekers transiting from Southeast Asia to Australia. Food has also been at stake, with Australia banning live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011.

Additional reporting by Dhania Putri Sarahtika