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Glitch underlines the priority of Indonesia–Australia cooperation

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Indonesian military Chief Gatot Nurmantyo talks to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia, 5 January 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta).

In Brief

It’s not yet clear exactly what went on at the SAS’ Campbell Barracks in Perth last November that has prompted the latest hiccup in Australia–Indonesia relations. Media reports suggest that a provocative essay on West Papua by an Australian soldier, and disrespectful posters at the base, caused offence to a visiting Indonesian special forces officer.


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Other reports suggest that training materials contained discussion of anti-communist massacres in Indonesia in the 1960s, and made disparaging references to the Indonesian military.

While there is no cause for the Australian army to censor critical discussion of the darker realities of our defence partners’ histories or contemporary affairs, if experienced Australian soldiers are causing gratuitous offence to foreign partners through plain ignorance, then the Australian Defence Force has some explaining and some work to do.

The response of the Indonesian military on the surface seems disproportionate. But only the facts will tell.

Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne has said she was aware of the matter in November. That same month, Australia’s Chief of Army and Chief of the Defence Force wrote to their Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) counterparts to reassure them that whatever happened in Perth, it did not reflect the opinions or policies of the Australian Defence Force.

The senior level at which this communication took place should have provided reassurance to Indonesian counterparts that the Australian defence leadership took the incident seriously and was committed to making sure it did not get in the way of continued defence cooperation.

TNI’s outspoken commander, General Gatot Nurmantyo, does not appear to have thought so.

Gatot’s background appears important to understanding why the incident in Perth has blown up so spectacularly. Gatot has emerged as a leading voice of nationalist posturing in Indonesia after being appointed to his post by President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in 2015.

Wariness of foreign meddling in Indonesian affairs runs deep and wide across the political spectrum in Indonesia. But the country’s most senior military officer promotes nationalist ideas stridently, and his publicly stated worldview is infected with a whiff of paranoia beyond the norm. He’s argued that the world’s major powers are playing a long game to steal Indonesia’s natural resources in anticipation of a Malthusian crisis due to hit the world in coming decades. He’s claimed that social problems like drug abuse are deliberately introduced by foreign powers to weaken Indonesian society as part of a ‘proxy war’.

Australia and the United States are in Gatot’s firing line. He’s speculated about what ulterior motives they might have behind the rotation of US Marines through the Northern Territory, noting their proximity to West Papua and oil and gas fields in Eastern Indonesia. And he’s openly expressed his bitterness towards Australia for its role in securing East Timor’s independence referendum in 1999, a sentiment shared with much of Indonesia’s political and military elite. Gatot’s apparent fears that Indonesian personnel are being recruited by Australia against the Indonesian state are part of this package.

Significantly, Gatot seems to have acted unilaterally on the Campbell Barracks incident. President Jokowi’s spokesman told Reuters that the decision to suspend defence cooperation temporarily was Gatot’s alone — the presidential palace obviously wants to distance itself from the action. Jokowi has engaged constructively with Canberra over the past half year after his decision to have two Australians executed for drug trafficking in 2015 soured relations, and is likely irritated by this turn of events.

Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, himself a rock solid nationalist, said he was satisfied with the Australian government’s explanation of the issue in November. He also said Gatot acted without consulting him.

It seems unlikely that suspension of these military training activities is part of an across-the-board national decision to retaliate, and it’s unlikely that we are in for another prolonged downturn in relations.

Most in Jakarta understand that it is in Indonesia’s interest for defence cooperation with Australia to continue. Boosting TNI’s capabilities amid maritime disputes, illegal fishing and domestic terrorism are more important priorities than punishing political faux pas by individual Australian army officers.

Despite some good years under the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the going in the Indonesia–Australia relationship remains hard. This latest ‘technical glitch’ in military cooperation underlines that the ‘cultural divide’ between the two countries is real and continues to be a background hazard in bilateral ties. Australia must attach a high priority to getting the relationship right, whether elements in the Indonesian leadership seem interested or not. Both countries have their own demons to deal with. It serves Indonesia no purpose to perceive strategic threats to its national security that do not exist, while failing to confront the ones that do.

President Jokowi’s appreciation of the benefits of engaging with foreign partners has grown in the second year of his presidency, as a more confident foreign policy emerges from his government. Now is still the time to invest in the Australia–Indonesia relationship. That is more likely to raise the chance — through sharing policy and operational experience between the two countries in the areas of both economic and security cooperation — that Indonesia and Australia can together negotiate their problems in a world that has suddenly become more complex more successfully than might currently seem possible.

Liam Gammon is a research scholar in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University.

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