top of page

​​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.

The Australia-Indonesia Relationship

Australia and Indonesia have provided significant support to each other in the aftermath of calamitous events, such as the bombings in Bali in 2002, the tsunami in Aceh in 2004, and the bushfires in Victoria in 2009. In the aftermath of these events, Australia and Indonesia have seen advances in defence and law enforcement cooperation and interoperability.

Australian-Indonesian defence and law enforcement cooperation is not restricted to the aftermath of such tragedies. Australia and Indonesia engage on security issues through a number of senior defence dialogues and military exercises each year between the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI). Joint exercises increase the capability of both forces to respond to a variety of contingencies, facilitate trust between the two nations, and develop greater interoperability between the ADF and the TNI. At the ministerial level, bilateral engagement includes the Annual Leaders' Meeting, Annual 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers' Meeting and the Ministerial Council on Law and Security.

In August 2018, Australia and Indonesia signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), building on the success of the 2006 Lombok Treaty. This is a non-binding agenda for the deepening and broadening of Australia and Indonesia’s bilateral relationship. The CSP sets out five key priorities for the development of the relationship, namely:

  1. Enhancing economic and development partnership;

  2. Connecting people;

  3. Securing our and our region’s shared interests;

  4. Maritime cooperation; and,

  5. Contributing to Indo-Pacific security and prosperity.

This commitment provides a useful framework for developing deeper cooperation on security issues and has already led to an increase in joint training between the TNI and the ADF.

Challenges and Opportunities

A significant obstacle preventing the deepening of security cooperation between the two countries is the entrenched perceptions of Australia that are prominent among Indonesian policymakers. A recent survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre revealed that many of Indonesia’s leaders remain suspicious of Canberra’s motives and dismissive of Australia’s capacity to be a significant strategic and economic partner. Despite numerous joint exercises and operations, this suspicion of Australia is especially prominent among TNI officers. Increasing the frequency of joint exercises is therefore only one part of the solution to this problem.

Significant opportunities for increased cooperation exist in the maritime domain. Both Canberra and Jakarta desire a stable and secure regional maritime order with unimpeded trade, adherence to international law, and freedom of navigation. In the 2018 CSP, Australia and Indonesia agreed to promote maritime trade and the sustainable development of the blue economy by combating transnational crime at sea and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. However, cooperation on these issues is hindered by the complex institutional architectures on both sides. Each country has a variety of government agencies involved in these issues. These agencies have very different names, functions and structures. In the future, a cross-border interagency approach will be necessary to allow maritime law enforcement agencies to achieve better outcomes.

Additionally, the Indian Ocean is likely to see greater strategic competition in the coming decades as regional and extra-regional actors, such as China and EU member states, look to increase their maritime presence in the region. Australia and Indonesia share a long maritime boundary in the Indian Ocean and therefore can benefit greatly from cooperation on maritime security issues. Both are active members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the West Pacific Naval Symposium. These multilateral fora, in combination with bilateral arrangements, facilitate greater cooperation between Australia and Indonesia on maritime security issues.

Australia should be especially open to activities initiated by the Indonesian government, such as officer exchanges, education and training, coordinated patrols, and joint exercises. Doing so will help develop important relationships between our respective officer corps and reduce fallacies within the TNI of the capabilities and intentions of Australia. A stronger bilateral security relationship will allow both Indonesia and Australia to prosper in a rapidly changing Indo-Pacific security environment.

Yet another challenge to Australia-Indonesia security cooperation is the lack of an effective and institutionalised arrangement for collaboratively developing defence technologies or cooperating in the defence industry. Conversely, this presents a significant opportunity for deepening cooperation, especially within the maritime defence industry. Indonesia needs modern equipment and material for building and maintaining ships, which could be provided by Australian industry.

Moving Forward

Looking further forward, over the next fifty years, it is likely that the effects of climate change within the region will generate a more pressing need for security cooperation between Australia and Indonesia. Predictions include intensified severe weather events, sea level rises causing a substantial loss of agriculturally productive territory, and ocean acidification causing harm to already strained fish stocks. This will create strain on limited resources and cause large-scale population displacement. These effects may transform territorial disputes and bilateral tensions, incentivise interstate competition for resources and exacerbate existing intrastate security threats.

Australia and Indonesia need to do more to work together. Doing so will help maintain regional stability, display regional leadership, and enhance the broader Australian-Indonesian relationship. Closer cooperation presents significant benefits for both sides in their pursuit of national security and regional stability. There are a number of challenges to be overcome before this can occur, however Australian senior strategists and defence personnel should not squander the opportunities of a more mature bilateral relationship. Canberra and Jakarta should work together to encourage regional actors to commit to maintaining stability, security and peace.


Lachlan Melsom is an honours year student in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia, with a research project assessing the implications of climate change for Australian national security policy. He is also an intern at the Perth USAsia Centre, sits on the Executive Committee for the Australian Institute of International Affairs’ Young Professionals Network (WA) and serves part time in the Australian Army (Reserve).



bottom of page