‘Heated Situations’: Australian-Indonesian Military Ties Suspended

In January, Australia and Indonesia severed military relations regarding language training. Indonesian military officials took insult at Australian Army teaching materials at an Australian language-training base in November. The Indonesian Special Forces group was at Campbell barracks in Perth to train with Australia’s Special Air Service troops. The material at hand claimed that the Papua province of Indonesia should be independent and poked fun at its principles. The ideology the language materials mocked were Indonesia’s founding principles, Pancasila. These principles are ‘belief in one god, national unity, just and civilised humanity, democracy and social justice.’ The word Pancasila is of Javanese origin, consisting of two words five or ‘panca’ and principles or ‘sila.’ Rather than using the correct word for these five principles, the materials altered the last syllable from ‘sila’ to ‘gila,’ which means ‘crazy.’ Indonesia has been accused of war crimes in East Timor, which was also covered in these materials. This episode was quickly blown out of proportion with some media outlets reporting a severance of all diplomatic and military ties. The suspension of cooperation in language programmes was also confusing as the media originally had information that General Gatot Nurmantyo had ordered defence ties to be suspended. The Indonesian Security Minister, Warinto, clarified that only language programs were affected the following day. He said that the army had ‘temporarily suspended cooperation in language training’ following ‘a small incident that has offended our dignity as a nation.’ President Widodo’s spokesman, Ryacudu said that the severance of language training ‘was not a decision of the president’ and used the Indonesian word for “shrew” to characterise the military personnel responsible. Australia’s Defence Minister, Marise Payne, responded to this by saying that ‘The Australian army has looked into the serious concerns that were raised and the investigation into the incident is being finalised.’

Image courtesy of PACAF © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of PACAF © 2012, some rights reserved.

The clash was caused by language training content, regarding West Papua and Timor-Leste. The Indonesian military is sensitive to both of these conflicts and has reacted poorly to other countries’ perceptions of these issues in the past. The relationship between the two countries has been tenuous since the 1990s. This was somewhat reflected in President Widodo’s statement ‘that robust relationship can be established when both countries have respect for each other’s territorial integrity, non-interference into the domestic affairs of each other and the ability to develop a mutually beneficial partnership.’ To some, this statement implied that the president felt Indonesia’s territory had been interfered with previously.

Other examples of rocky relations between the two countries include rumours that in 2009 Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government was trying to tap President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s phone in addition to that of his wife and an official close to him. Tony Abbot denied the story with a somewhat typical line concerning the normalcy of phone tapping for national security. Following this, diplomatic ties were severed for nearly a full year in which a ‘code of conduct’ was established. In addition to this, the Bali Nine, who were executed in 2015, were Australian citizens. Australia had made concerted efforts over ten years to prevent their executions. Further, Australia has historically supported the independence of East Timor from Indonesia, but not directly opposed the annexation. The Indonesian president had also cancelled his 2016 visit to Australia due to protests in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, over assertions that a Christian Australian governor had spoken ill of Islam. It is interesting to note, that even with the president’s recent visit to Australia, this particular visit has not been rescheduled. Australian Prime Minister Turnbull commented, ‘We agreed the postponement will not affect the need for continued and enhanced cooperation across a range of shared interests and challenges, including the threat of terrorism to our region.’ Australia has also had to deny the accusation that it attempted to recruit spies from Indonesia’s military.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo visited Australia in the last weekend of February. He helped to ensure that ties between the two countries were fully restored. This was following renewed cooperation from within the defence departments. Angus Campbell, Australia’s army chief initially helped to restore ties between the defence sectors in early February. Jokowi’s visit served to reinforce this gesture. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced to the press in Sydney that ‘the full restoration of defence cooperation, training exchanges, and activities’ had taken place. Both leaders followed this by emphasising their respect for national sovereignty, which was perhaps the underlying issue for the diplomatic faux pas.

Maintaining the diplomatic and defence relationship is beneficial for both countries. A stable relationship between these two Indo-Pacific countries would improve the general stability of the region and allow for more areas of cooperation, including trade, peacekeeping, and counter-terrorism strategy.

Previously, the two countries had discussed joint patrols of the South China Sea, an area of much contention in the region. Neither party discussed this during the recent visit except for a joint statement full of basic language regarding the maintenance of free navigation and flight in the area. The Indonesian president also met with leaders of Australian business on his visit, promoting further socio-economic ties between the two countries. Trade between the countries is already strong. Widodo said that he hoped for a free trade deal in 2017, and Turnbull promised tariffs on Australian sugar and Indonesian pesticides and herbicides would be cut. This would benefit the palm oil and paper industries in Indonesia.

In light of these ‘too hurtful’ offenses to the Indonesian military, it is important that Australia and Indonesia continue to foster good relations due to their proximity to each other. Their cooperation largely stems from the regional counter-terrorism following the Bali Bombings of an Australian Embassy and other buildings in Jakarta in 2002. Australia’s inclusion into the Indo-Pacific region makes cooperation like this possible. The Indonesian president concluded that he thinks ‘relations with Australia are still in good condition.’ He also said he hoped that more measure could be put into place to prevent ‘heated situations’ in the future.