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Smooth sailing? The prospects for Australia-Indonesia maritime cooperation

08 October 2018

The prospects for maritime security cooperation between Australia and Indonesia are strong but challenges still lie ahead, argued two experts from The Australian National University (ANU) at the annual CAUSINDY conference in September.

Dr Greg Raymond, Research Fellow at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC), and Natalie Sambhi, a PhD candidate also at SDSC, spoke to 30 young leaders from Australia and Indonesia at this year’s conference in Makassar.

Like the overall relationship between the two countries, Australia-Indonesia engagement in the maritime arena has been turbulent, beset by flashpoints like illegal immigration.

However, things may now be slowly improving.

“The relationship is amicable, especially with regard to the navy-to-navy relationship,” said Dr Raymond.

“While there are various cooperative activities such as officer exchanges and some exercises, there have also been tensions.”

Cooperation has been driven by a range of initiatives, from joint military exercises to combatting people smuggling.

“At the policy level, the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Australia signed a Maritime Cooperation Plan of Action in February this year designed to deepen across a number of areas including economic development, search and rescue and even maritime cultural heritage,” said Sambhi.

“Doing so helps build a sense of shared maritime identity.”

In particular, Sambhi points to the Bali Process to combat human trafficking as an example of how the two countries can work well together.

“Initiatives like the Bali Process, chaired jointly by Indonesia and Australia, are the gold standard on what happens when countries focus on cooperation on transnational maritime crime and security,” she said.

Shared interests in a safe and prosperous region may drive the two countries together.

“Both Indonesia and Australia share a maritime border and have an irrefutable interest in maritime shipping lines in Southeast Asia remaining open and secure,” said Sambhi.

However, Dr Raymond suggested concrete cooperation may take time to eventuate.

“Currently there are some growing strategic interests, such as shared concerns with regard to China’s actions in the South China Sea, but these are not strong drivers of cooperation at present.”

Paradoxically for two countries with substantial coastlines, Australia and Indonesia are still emerging as maritime powers.

In past research, Dr Raymond argued that the strategic culture of both Australia and Indonesia has been geared towards land rather than sea.

“It’s the legacy of history,” he said.

The Indonesian army’s key role in the Independence Revolution and the persistence of internal security threats through the New Order period played a role in the army’s ascendancy, he argued, whereas Australia’s focus on maintaining alliances with great powers has meant a significant role for its ground forces.

While both countries are increasingly looking to the maritime arena, Dr Raymond warned this shift is likely to be gradual.

“Strategic culture is by definition something which tends to change slowly,” he said.

“It’s a set of ideas and assumptions about security that go deeper than mere policy.”

In terms of non-traditional security issues, such as the oceanic environment, Sambhi argued more needs to be done.

“When it comes to non-traditional security issues, Australia and Indonesia are responsible for the health of the seas and oceans around them,” she said.

“It might be easier to think purely in terms of national interest, but fish, for instance, don’t do maritime boundaries!”

Overall, both argue that while the prospects for the relationship are strong, the potential for setbacks and miscommunication remain.

“Allegations of Australian naval incursions into Indonesian waters in 2014 is cautionary tale for how miscommunications can breach the diplomatic domain and undermine cooperation,” said Sambhi.

“The prospects for cooperation are good, but potential irritants, like illegal immigration, will come up from time to time,” said Raymond.

“Both sides have goodwill, but building trust takes time and setbacks have tended to be frequent.”

ANU College of Asia & the Pacific is a proud supporter of CAUSINDY 2018. To see all of the highlights from this year’s conference, visit our photo gallery.




Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team