Duta Besar Republik Indonesia
Canberra ACT Australia


'Indonesia - Australian Relations:
East Timor, Bali Bombing, Tsunami and Beyond'
by Ambassador Imron Cotan

Much has been said on the impact of the tsunami on Indonesia-Australia relations. The tragedy has indeed provided yet another opportunity to better Indonesia's rollercoaster relationship with Australia. In order to have an accurate projection on the future relationship between the two nations, especially after this horrific disaster, one should first briefly touch upon the nature of relations between Indonesia and Australia.

While Indonesia and Australia are close geographically, in many respects they are absolutely different from one another, notably in terms of history, culture and political orientation, to name but a few. It would therefore be naïve to expect that the relationship between the two countries will be problem free.

Past relations

The history of the relationship between Indonesia and Australia - which spans incidentally just a relatively short period of roughly 60 years - has been characterised for the most part by peaks and troughs, seldom has there been the stable, friendly, and cooperative long-term relationship that some would expect of close neighbours.

Australia's involvement in East Timor was one major turning point in Indonesia - Australia relations. The remarkably excellent bilateral ties up to that point nosedived to the extent that Indonesia, on September of 1999, decided to abrogate the security pact signed by Indonesia and Australia on 18 December 1995. Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Feisal Tandjung specifically asserted at the time it was terminated that Australia's actions in East Timor were inconsistent with both the letter and spirit of the agreement.

Indonesia also postponed, delayed or abandoned altogether almost all official contacts, including the Indonesia - Australia Ministerial Forum. Rather than every two years as was originally proposed by the two countries, the forum's meetings became highly irregular. The governments of both countries have then tried their best to relieve tension emanating from Australia's involvement in East Timor and to work towards a sound, sustainable and mature relationship.

In this context, a significant step was taken in the Sixth Indonesia - Australia Ministerial Forum in Jakarta in March 2003 in which the Australian Ministers reiterated the strong statements of support for Indonesia's territorial integrity stated by PM John Howard on various occasions, including the one he made during his meeting with President Megawati in February 2003.

The relations continued to prosper when Indonesia and Australia were confronted with common threats of trans-national crimes, notably people smuggling, money laundering and terrorism.

The Tampa incident led to close cooperation among countries of origin, transit, and final destination to stamp out people smuggling that, in turn, reduced or practically stopped the flow of illegal migrants to Australia.

This incident provided the opportunity for the two countries to significantly enhance their relationship, for example, the two countries co-hosted regional conferences, in Bali, on people smuggling, trafficking in persons and other trans-national crime respectively in 2002 and 2003.

The Bali Bombing in October 2002 that claimed 202 innocent lives - 88 of them were Australians - have further paved the way for Indonesia and Australia to enhance their relations. The police of the two countries have been closely working together in hunting down the perpetrators in Indonesia, leading to their arrests and prosecutions. Prior to this incident no one in Indonesia could have imagined AFP personnel working openly on Indonesia's soil, taking into account its history that had been bitterly tainted by colonization.

Indeed, this tragic incident has presented Indonesia and Australia with an opportunity to beef up regional cooperation to combat terrorism by organizing a series of regional conferences and meetings including one directed specifically at combating money laundering and terrorist financing immediately after the Bali Bombing in December 2002 and the Bali Regional Ministerial Meeting on Counter Terrorism in February 2004 that led, inter alia, to the establishment of the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC), a centre designed to improve the skills of the region's law enforcement officers to combat terrorism.

There are other less obvious, yet just as relevant activities in this context, where positive communication between the two nations has begun to occur. The Inter-faith dialogue, including one in Yogyakarta that was proposed by Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, is one good example. This event was designed among others to empower the moderates and underpin the key role of religious and community leaders in bridging differences and building harmony in the Asia-Pacific region to meet challenges such as extremism.

The Boxing Day Tsunami that has claimed around 250,000 Indonesian lives and inflicted horrendous damage on properties in Aceh and North Sumatra, has presented yet another opportunity for Indonesia and Australia to get closer, one to another.

While other countries were still trying to comprehend the massive scale of the tragedy, Australia was the first to come and help the victims to weather this indeed tragic calamity by immediately sending several transport planes loaded with emergency supplies and followed closely by around 1,000 defence personnel. President Yudhoyono spoke from his heart when he met Prime Minister John Howard in Jakarta recently during which he was quoted as saying: 'You were first on the phone. You were the first to have aircraft on the ground. That is a gesture I will never forget.'

The Australian Defence personnel have since worked relentlessly with their counterparts in those affected areas and later on were joined by thousands of volunteers from around the world. Again, both Indonesia and Australia have to appreciate the fact that no one resented the massive presence of ADF on Indonesia's soil, indicating that the ill-feelings emanating from the East Timorese debacle have vanished as was also correctly portrayed by PM John Howard when he recently stated that: 'the close relationship between Australia's military and Indonesian troops in Jakarta's hour of need proved both countries had turned the corner from the strains of East Timor in 1999'.

'Out of this dreadful tragedy the people and governments of Australia and Indonesia have worked together harmoniously, purposefully and in a compassionate way to bring relief. And, we look to the future', he further stated.

The Indonesian Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare, Dr Alwi Shihab, who is in charge of the emergency relief operations, expressed a similar view. He was quoted as stating: 'This is an historic moment for us here to build better relations with Australia and forget the past.'

At the government-to-government level, Indonesia and Australia now have a post-tsunami mechanism for cooperation namely the Australia - Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development (AIPRD) directly chaired by the president and the prime minister and equipped with a joint commission of their foreign and economic ministers. This body will oversee the utilization over the next five years of Australia's A$ 1 billion assistance package to help rebuild the devastated areas in Aceh and North Sumatra. This is over and above the A$ 800 million, over five years, already committed by the Australian Government under the Official Development Assistance programs across the entire country.

The generosity of the Australian people is also amazing. Over $260 million has been raised nationally. Hopefully this fund will be properly channelled to help the Tsunami's survivors in those affected countries.


With regards to Australia - Indonesia relations in the broader context, on the regional front, Indonesia has always supported the full integration of Australia into the region for obvious reasons. Geography dictates that Indonesia and Australia should work together to confront common threats and to provide stability and prosperity in the region. Indonesia firmly believes that there will be no political stability and economic prosperity in the region should Indonesia and Australia fail to cooperate.

This firm conviction has led Indonesia to support the full integration of Australia into the regional networks. It is indeed in the vital interests of Indonesia to constructively engage Australia, for politically it may serve as the bridging brick between a western-based civilization of Australia with eastern-based civilization of Southeast Asian countries whilst economically this may prove to be the key to the survival of both parties.

From the economic point of view, ASEAN is also very important for Australia. Looking at some of the figures, the ten countries of ASEAN have a combined population of around 550 million; a total GDP at around US$ 682 billion, and grew in real terms of roughly 6% per annum for at least in the last two years. ASEAN is a major market for Australian exporters, accounting for 11 per cent of Australia's total exports as well as an important destination for ASEAN tourists and students. In 2003 - 2004, the value of Australia's total imports from ASEAN countries reached nearly A$ 26 billion. Australia's total exports to ASEAN totaled roughly A$ 18 billion.

The Australia - ASEAN - New Zealand Free Trade Agreement that was announced on 30 November 2004, with negotiations to commence shortly, also offers a golden opportunity for Australia to further economically excel together with countries in the region.

At the bilateral level, the trade volume between the two countries is also encouraging. Indonesian exports to Australia were US$ 2.46 billion (Jan-Nov 2004) and our imports from Australia, $US 2.19 billion (Jan-Nov 2004), leaving the balance of trade in Indonesia's favor at US$ 273 million.
Tourism also shows positive signals as the Australian public traveling to Bali has resumed in earnest and is moving back towards the pre-bombing levels.

Taking into account the afore-mentioned factors, it is in the best interests of Australia to help Indonesia succeed in its endeavors to become a united and prosperous country, for otherwise it may pose serious political and economic challenges to Australia and indeed to the entire region.

Going beyond the tsunami

It is interesting to note that the recent improvements of Indonesia - Australia bilateral ties were achieved not by design but basically by default or dictated by divine intervention through tragedies, such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters. It is therefore high time for the two neighboring countries to put in place well-drafted policies geared to smoothen and strengthen the relations, although Indonesia and Australia should always expect differences to come up from time to time.

It is against this backdrop that Indonesia and Australia need to consult and discuss matters of common concern in order to avoid any misunderstandings and misapprehensions and to prevent distrust from reigning again. The two nations should be able to address tactfully, again, through dialogues and consultations, all the sensitive issues, especially those directly affecting Indonesia's national interests such as issues relating to travel warnings, pre-emptive strikes, missile defence systems, and the recently introduced Australian Maritime Identification Zone.

As the proverb says, every cloud has a silver lining, and it is not the wish of the two nations to have a tragedy whenever they want to improve the relations between them.

It needs to be emphasized once again in this context the importance of the two nations having a well-designed policy based on dialogues and consultations. Failing to do so would run the risk of annihilating the huge political and economic investments painstakingly invested by the two. Indonesia and Australia cannot therefore afford to fail.

Canberra, 1 March 2005

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