• HMAS Anzac sailors line the decks for fleet inspection at Lombok, Indonesia.
    HMAS Anzac sailors line the decks for fleet inspection at Lombok, Indonesia. Defence

A report released this week by the Lowy Institute has called for Australian policymakers to focus on developing a shared maritime vision with Indonesia, potentially involving defence industry collaboration, in order to stabilise historically volatile military ties.

Author Evan Laksmana opens with an observation that despite cooperation in other areas, ties between the ADF and its Indonesian counterpart have stopped and started in recent years.

PM Scott Morrison visited Jakarta after just a week in office, reinforcing an Australian tradition of sending new PMs to Indonesia before any other international destination. The visit saw the conclusion of a free trade agreement and the elevation of bilateral ties.

Defence relations, on the other hand, have been rocky. News emerged in 2013 that Australian intelligence had intercepted high-level communications between Indonesian politicians, and 2016 protests made by visiting Indonesian soldiers over training materials used in Campbell Barracks in Perth did not help the relationship.

The historical rockiness between the ADF and the Indonesian armed forces stem from inherent strategic tensions. The 1976 White Paper allowed the ADF to disregard possible threats from India, China, and Japan, leaving Indonesia as the only state credibly able to mount a direct armed attack against Australia. The capabilities of the ADF were consequently designed to protect against threats from or through Indonesia, and it is hard to form a good relationship with an organisation you’re built to defeat. Indonesian White Papers, meanwhile, hardly mentioned Australia.

Those times, the report argues, have passed as great power competition returns to Asia. Moreover, both Australia and Indonesia suffer from ‘sea blindness’: “a condition where states vastly underrate the importance of the maritime domain or acknowledge it but delay protective measures.” Australia’s strategic culture is built on a sense that “the country is first and foremost a continent,” in which maritime approaches are seen as a source of threat rather than a benefit, whilst Indonesia’s diverse population has created an ‘Army-centric’ national security apparatus with a similar continental tradition.

There is room, Laksmana argues, to rectify this ‘unevenly developed maritime outlook’. First, it will require both states to avoid overly-politicising defence cooperation, which causes significant ebb and flow in the military relationship. Second, Canberra should “de-emphasise the discourse” that Indonesia is its most important security partner in order to avoid unnecessary expectations for defence cooperation. Third, the ADF should not seek to “professionalise” the Indonesian military over human rights as there is “no systematic proof” that foreign education shapes norms development in Indonesia, and attempts to do so “foster a fear of foreign intervention.”

It also requires a rebalancing towards joint maritime training activities. Indonesia was included in less than 7.5 per cent of multilateral exercises involving Australia between 1997 and 2015. Even amongst those, Laksmana notes that there has been a significant focus on the Army as a result of the Bali bombing and counterterrorism cooperation. Canberra should therefore recalibrate training activities “to focus on joint maritime challenges.” The report also argues that Special Forces exercises should be reduced as they “tend to be controversial.”

Laksmana also calls for the development of a mutual defence-industrial base as Indonesia modifies its military. The maritime environment faced by both states’ navies is sure to create commonalities in equipment that might be best served by Australian companies with an expertise in local conditions.

Much needs to happen for these goals to realize, but if the government is serious about making Australia a top ten defence exporter, perhaps the Indonesian Navy should be made a priority customer.

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