​​Australia’s security cooperation with Indonesia: Challenges and opportunities

Source: Australian Embassy Jakarta, DFAT / Timothy Tobing

Lachlan Melsom

In his address to the Australian Parliament in February last year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo stated that, “We cannot choose our neighbours. We have to choose to be friends.”

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is volatile and prone to shocks, but is nonetheless incredibly important. This was made clear in the 2016 Defence White Paper, which stated that a “strong and productive relationship with Indonesia is critical to Australia’s national security”. Both Australia and Indonesia are multicultural democracies with many shared security interests.

From a strategic perspective, Indonesia is an incredibly important factor in Australia’s national security. The concentric circles model theorises strategic priorities for defending Australia in terms of a series of geographical circles. This model has been highly influential in Australian defence planning. It posits that, in order for it to prevent a direct attack from a hostile power, Australia must prevent such a power from being able to gain a foothold in maritime Southeast Asia. This was illustrated in World War Two, when Japan was able to use airfields in Southeast Asia to launch direct attacks on Northern Australia. Since World War Two, the logic of denying a potential adversary from gaining a foothold in maritime Southeast Asia has been a key motivator behind Australia’s efforts to promote stability in the region. Australia has contributed significantly to stabilisation operations in East-Timor and has provided extensive assistance to Papua New Guinea, such as through the AFP’s Policing Partnership.

Indonesia plays a leading role in this narrative. With its large population and rapidly expanding military and economic weight, Indonesia is itself a potential threat. Therefore, maintaining positive relations with Indonesia is essential for preventing a hostile power from having a foothold in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood. Additionally, a strong and stable Indonesia acts as a strategic shield, deterring a potential extra-regional adversary from becoming an immediate threat.

Indonesia’s potential as either a partner or a threat will only become more pronounced in the future, with Indonesia predicted to become the world’s fifth largest economy and surpass Australia in military capability within the next three decades. Additionally, cooperation with Indonesia will be essential in managing growing strategic competition between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific.