Australia and Indonesia: Rebuilding Relations after East Timor

By Chalk, Peter | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Australia and Indonesia: Rebuilding Relations after East Timor


Chalk, Peter, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Australia's intervention in East Timor in late 1999 caused a major rupture in the country's relations with Indonesia, which are currently the worst they have been in three decades. Rebuilding a stable partnership with Jakarta remains imperative, given the Republic's proximity to Australia and the key role that the archipelago plays in wider Southeast Asian multilateralism. Achieving this will not be easy, given the absence of the sentimental ballast that had come to characterize government-to-government relations for much of the 1990s. Any policies that are instituted will have to build on those diplomatic openings that do exist while moving to ensure that potential pitfalls -- of which there are many -- do not escalate to assume unwarranted significance and importance on the bilateral agenda.

Introduction

In late 1999, Australia undertook a commitment to one of the country's most significant external military operations since the Vietnam War -- the intervention to stem the violence and bloodshed that was unleashed following East Timor's August vote to separate from Indonesia. The action represented a major shift in Canberra's traditional accommodationist policy towards Jakarta, undermining a key relationship that for much of the 1990s had been emphasized as the crucial linchpin for Australia's wider engagement with Southeast Asia.

This article analyses the current impasse between Australia and Indonesia, and assesses the future prospects for relations between the two countries. It considers what sort of partnership is realistically feasible under present conditions and outlines basic building blocks to further bilateral co-operation and interaction. The potentially explosive issue of defence ties is also discussed and gauged in terms of the extent that these can (and, indeed, should) be re-instituted. The central theme running throughout the article is that despite several very real challenges, a renewed Canberra-Jakarta partnership built on practicalities (rather than sentiment) is certainly possible. Provided this is carefully managed, relations between the two countries may yet recover and, indeed, prosper.

Background to the Breakdown in Australian-Indonesian Relations: The East Timor Intervention

The main priority that has guided Australian foreign and security policy for most of the 1990s has been to shape and consolidate a partnership with Indonesia -- Canberra's most important regional partner and the state upon which its wider Southeast Asian engagement policy depends. During the Paul Keating era (1991-96), Indonesia became the principal focus of Australian foreign policy. Between April 1992 and December 1995, the Prime Minister made no less than six visits to the country, achieving the unprecedented Agreement on Mutual Security (AMS) in 1995, which committed both states to consult one another and, if necessary, implement joint measures to meet common challenges. [1]

Although perhaps not as explicit in his overtones towards Jakarta, the current Liberal-Nationalist coalition led by John Howard has been equally cognizant of the need to manage a stable relationship with Indonesia. In 1997, the government secured an important Maritime Delimitation Treaty (DMT), which settled all frontiers between the two countries in the Arafura and Timor Seas and eastern Indian Ocean. [2] This was then followed by a period of intense diplomatic activity aimed at lobbying the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to relax the conditions attached to the restructuring of Indonesia's loans at the height of the Asian financial crisis. [3] Rationalizing the policy in New York, Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, made the point, "being seen through the IMF to bully and cajole [Jakarta] into a particular political paradigm will [merely]... invite a negative and lasting backlash from Indonesians [to the complete detriment of our regional engagement effort]." [4]

East Timor has functioned as something of a test for Canberra's longstanding policy of seeking closer relations with Indonesia. …

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