Australia has had for the past decades a good relationship with Indonesia, in many cases to reduce the influence of China, all of this despite involvement of Jakart in Human Rights abuses. 

By Jokin de Carlos Sola

Looking to Australia on a map makes it look like a very remote country, disconnected from the different geopolitical affairs that happen in the region. However, this is not the case, its position on the Asia Pacific and its historical alliance with the United States makes it a very important partner in the region. For the United States, Australia is a vital partner to collect security data in the Asia Pacific. For instance, in Australia is where Pine Gap is located, a surveillance satellite base run by the CIA and the NSA. 

This position, as America’s most important ally in the region, allows Australia to have a big voice in the many decisions that affect the people’s of Southeast Asia, yet no country has a bigger importance in Southeast Asia, for Australia and  the United States than the Republic of Indonesia.  

Indonesia, currently led by President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, is a country that has been involved in many actions throughout the many islands of the Malay Archipelago. Some of these actions have been criticised for violations of human rights or accusations of violence by the Indonesian military. Australia’s diplomatic presence in the region is really big and because the current tense relationship with China the diplomatic conection with Indonesia has a great importance. 

Australia and Indonesia 

The Archipelago Nation, stretching from all over the region, going from the coast of Malasyia to Papua New Guinea, home of 18.000 islands, the country is a crucial partner to have if anyone wants to achieve influence in Southeast Asia. Since its independence in 1949 from the Netherlands, the Republic of Indonesia has had a great importance for the strategists in Washington and Canberra, specially during the 1950s, 60s and 70s to contain the spread of communism in the region. 

It was during these years that Australia would start to develop its relations with Jakarta. During the Presidency of Sukarno the relationship tended to be more tense due to the close relationship between Sukarno and the Indonesian Communist Party. For issues like this, Australia would sometimes find itself against Indonesia diplomatically.  its border dispute with Malaysia, between 1963 and 1966 in which Canberra and the rest of the Commonwealth would side with Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta would be diplomatically supported by the Eastern Block. However,  the rise to power o Suharto rise to power  in 1968 solidified the relationship with Australia, do to the hard-line anti-communist policies of Suharto’s regime. It was during these period that Suharto would cooperate on security matters with Australia in Southeast Asia and in exchange Australia would support his regime and theterritorial integrity of Indonesia despite the many human rights abuses incurred by the Suharto regime

The fight against separatism is a constant in Indonesia since its independence. The country has thousands of island with hundreds of cultures and ethnicities with millions of people. Despite that the hart of culture and power in Indonesia is located in the island of Java, that amounts to half of the Indonesian population. Because of this each regime has been very uncompromising and harsh when dealing with separatist movements, even in the most remote of the islands. This is why the different confrontations in many islands would be of such importance when talking about the Australian-Indonesian relationship. 

The fall of Suharto would not change this dynamic and new relationship between the two countries, and the role of Jakarta will heavily increase for Australia during the 2000s war on terror. During that time an islamists group called Jemaah Islamiyah together with Al Qaeda would perform terrorist attack against Australian and Indonesian objectives, such as the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004, a bombing of Bali in 2005 and the attack on the Marriot Hotel in Jakarta in 2003. It was also during this period that both countries would start strong efforts to tackle the drug trafficking in the region, as this was being used as a method of financing by many terrorist organisations.

This doesn’t mean that there haven’t been tensions in recent years. In 2013 it was revealed by The Guardian that in 2009 the Australian intelligence had targeted the mobile phone of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife Kristiani Herawati, and senior officials of the government. In 2014, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa signed the Joint Understanding on a code of conduct between the Republic of Indonesia and Australia in implementation of the agreement between the Republic of Indonesia and Australia on the Framework for Security Cooperation.  This agreement had come as a result of the spying allegations and featured a section in which was specified that “the Parties will not use any of their intelligence, including surveillance capacities, or other resources, in ways that would harm the interests of the Parties”. 

However, two of the greatest examples of how Canberra handles its relationship with Indonesia, is their attitud regarding the different crisis that happened in East Timor and West Papua. 

East Timor 

East Timor or Timor Leste is a former Portuguese colony, located in the island of Timor, north of Australia. In 1974 after the Salazarist regime in Portugal was overthrown the colony achieved its  independence. However, a year later in 1975 the Indonesian government under Suharto invaded the country and annexed as a province of Indonesia. These events had counted with support and even encouragement, by the Australian government, at the time headed by Labour Gough Whitlam and later Liberal Malcom Fraser, all of this according to a report declassified in 2001 of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The reasons for this support were clarified on the files of the Department of Foreign Affairs. On the one hand the different governments of Australia had sought good relationship with Indonesia, as it was Australia’s largest neighbour however there was a biggest reason for supporting Indonesia’s invasion: oil. The waters that surround East Timor are rich on oil and gas and at the time the Australian government thought that the best way to guarantee its interest in the region and the access of Australian companies was through Indonesia. Timor Leste had faced severe civil conflict during its short independence so policy makers in Canberra thought that Indonesia could bring the stability needed. 

There were protest in Australia against the actions of Indonesia, specially when the Indonesian military killed five journalists when they conquered the city of Balibo, the so called Balibo Five, and later they would execute the Australian journalist Roger East when he went to investigate their murders. However, none of these events would change the Australian policy towards East Timor, and many efforts would be taken to instead cover these actions, as well as the many atrocities committed by the Indonesian military. What would however change it was the fall of Suharto in 1997. That was when the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, started to support Timor’s independence. In 1999, in a referendum the East Timorese voted for independence but that resulted in violence of pro-Indonesian groups which in turn lead to another intervention by Indonesia. In this case however Australian forces under the mandate of the UN intervene against Indonesia, securing the country’s independence, with finally achieving victory in 2001. 

Things however, would be so simple, as Australia still had its interest in the region. In 2006 Australia and East Timor would sign an agreement, regarding the maritime space between the two countries, which contains most of the resources in the so called “Greater Sunrise field” (calculated to be worth over 10 billion dollars) falls under the sovereign control of Australia or in a shared territory where Australian companies like Woodside Petroleum can operate an extract the oil and gas. The treaty was signed in 2006 with Howard Government and ratified in 2007. 

It was revealed by an Australian whistle-blower in 2013 called Witness K that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) had bugged the government buildings of the Timorese government amidst the signing of the agreement. The leak had also showed there where connections between many people of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Woodside Petroleum, including Alexander Downer who went to work for them after he left politics in 2008. 

Timor Leste, took this case to the International Criminal Court with the plan of having Witness K as a witness, however his passport had been seized in 2012 and the offices of his lawyer had been raided by ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organization) soon after. Both of them are now at a long judicial fight that has been determined secretive by the Australian government under reasons of National Security. 

West Papua 

Another Island that has tested the relationship between Australia and Indonesia is Papua. Half of the Island is under the independent country of Papua New Guinea but the other half, West Papua is under the control of Indonesia, who invaded the Island in 1962 after the end of the Dutch Colonial rule. 

Similar to Timor, West Papua is rich on resources, but in this case is not oil and gas but gold and copper, having on the biggest copper mine in the world, the mine of Grasberg. However, similar to Timor Leste, there has been a great opposition to the Indonesian occupation by native populations, which has been severely cracked down by the Indonesian military.  The case is similar to the one of Timor but much more present nowadays since is a current conflict. According to various UN reports 50.000 people have been displaced due to conflict and many acts of protest against actions of Jakarta, such as administrative reform, are met with heavy violence by the Indonesian military

Australia has been trying to avoid diplomatic conflict with Indonesia while avoiding getting involved in the human right abuses that might have been committed by the Indonesian military in West Papua, with varying degrees of results. Australia keeps being one of the main partners of Indonesia when it comes to military supply and military training, many of those soldiers and weapons having ended up in West Papua. At the same time it seems that, similar to Timor, it was of interest of some Australian politicians to guarantee the stability of the region under the boot of the Indonesian military to extract resources, one of the main companies involved in the extraction of gold and copper from the Grasberg mine is the Australian Rio Tinto. 

There have been many calls from scholars, activists and West Papuan refugees in Australia for Canberra to stop its partnership with Indonesia, but this is very unlikely to happen in the current geopolitical situation. 


China and Australia enjoyed a good relationship in the past, specially under the government of Kevin Rudd, however that period seems long gone, and both Beijing and Canberra seem to be in a constant state of diplomatic tensions. There are a variety of reasons for it. For one it has been the more aggressive actions of the Chinese government in the South China Sea with the very direct opposition of Australia, and in connection with this there have been an increasing number of accusation of of activities of the Chinese intelligence on Australian soil, as claimed by former Australian Secretary of Defence Dennis Richardson during the Premiership of Malcolm Turnbull. These actions have lead to many Australians not only to feel mistrust over China but also unsafety, due to its expansionist policy. 

Also, the lack of transparency regarding the Covid Pandemic lead to confrontations of both countries in many International Organisations. Australia has also taken a more frontal approach towards the Human Rights abuses of China against the protestors of Hong Kong and the people of Xinjiang. All of this did not make diplomacy or communication between the two countries any easier. 

Overall the Foreign Policy of Xi Jinping that has had the objective of expand the economic power of China globally and its military power regionally has had the inevitable consequence of clashing with Australia. 

All of this plus many other policy actions from both governments, as well as the more ideologically pro-American Scott Morrison would lead Australia to sour its relationship with China. Now, if Australia has a tense relationship with China that means that it needs to have a good relationship with Indonesia, since its is biggest neighbour to the North, the biggest and most populous country in Southeast Asia and a very important and strategic maritime actor in the region. Even the election of Labour Prime Minister Anthony Albanese doesn’t seem to be changing the course that much when it comes to foreign policy. True that the tone seems to have dropped in comparison to the more confrontational attitude of the Morrison government but overall it seems that apart from a question of semantics there is still a sense of mistrust between Canberra and Beijing. This of course, leads to Indonesia.

Indonesia and Australia will continue its long partnership, since its size and strategic importance are of interest to Australia, but most importantly they are of interest to Washington. Right now, President Jokowi seems interested in maintaining the stability of the country. With factions of militarists, leftists, islamists and nationalists spread over all the islands, every action will have its reaction and this will need its own plan. The most important political eventuality in Indonesia is the replacement of the currently highly popular President Joko Widodo, whose term finishes in 2024 and that will end his 10 year presidency. Indonesian democracy is young and it is very much unpredictable the power that the military and islamists organisations might try to enact over the country. 

At the same time Australian governments tend to support the policies in Southeast Asia that also benefit their companies. As it can be seen there have been a  lot of connections between the Australian government on the one hand and a series of different companies on the other. Even if these relationships are legal it is certainly of interest to see how much the objectives of Australian mining and energy companies influence and direct the actions of Australian foreign policy. This can even lead to contradictions, it seems that the Indonesian occupation of East Timor was of interest to Canberra until it suddenly it wasn’t and it seemed that a small new impoverished country could be easier to manipulate (as it was seen with the bugging done by ASIS). In those cases then Australia would establish itself as a guarantor of independence, as it was seen with the defence treaty signed by both countries in 2022. 

In conclusion, Australia does play a big role in the geopolitics of Southeast Asia, sometimes for economic benefit sometimes for policy interest but its role cannot be forgotten, specially as it is the main ally of the United States in the region and it has also seen to have a lot of impact in the actions of Indonesia on its most remote regions and islands.

Image by CIA from Wikimedia Commons