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Good neighbourly gestures

By Tony Kevin - posted Friday, 17 November 2006

We ordinary members of the public have still to see the text of the new Australia-Indonesia Agreement on the Framework for Security Cooperation, signed in Lombok by Australian and Indonesian foreign ministers on Monday.

Senior Australian journalists and the Federal Opposition’s foreign affairs spokesman were advance-briefed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Well-informed commentaries quoting slabs of agreement language were in the media by Tuesday, along with a conditional welcome from Kevin Rudd. Defence Minister Nelson offered reassurances that the Australian public will have its chance to study the text and put views before the Federal Parliament ratifies the treaty.

It seems that the government is hoping through news management to create a favourable bandwagon effect, to ease the treaty’s reception by a sceptical Australian public.


This is no ordinary treaty. It marks the latest stage in an historically prickly relationship. Relations are quite good now, but they were quite good before 1996 too. And an Indonesian president, angered over what he saw as Australian treachery in the secession of East Timor from Indonesia, tore up the Keating-Suharto security treaty in 1999. John Howard initially responded with equanimity, saying the jettisoned treaty was no loss.

Yet for at least the past four years since 2002, Australian officials have worked to negotiate a new, broader-range treaty with Indonesia. Now finally, they have achieved it - two years after they hoped. This treaty is driven by hard-nosed national security considerations at high state level on both sides. There is little public depth of support for it in either country.

There has been a third, silent partner, at the table. Washington has been unhappy to see at times tense relations between two of its most important security partners in its war on terror. Washington wanted its two mistresses comfortably in the same bed, not bad-mouthing each other. There would have been American pressure on both Howard and President Yudhoyono of Indonesia to tidy things up between their countries on paper as well as in practice.

Co-operation in areas especially of counter-terrorism, drugs trade law enforcement, disaster relief and border security has worked well since 2002. One blip was Indonesian fury at the Australian acceptance of 42 West Papuan boat people as refugees. Yudhoyono was quick to warn that Indonesia would review co-operation with Australia aimed at curbing people smugglers who used Indonesia as a stopover point. This was no empty threat. In two years - from 1998 to 2000 - the numbers of boat people through Indonesia exploded from 200 to 4,000 a year.

The new treaty has potential fringe benefits for both sides, but mostly I think for Indonesia. In addition to the usual language pledging respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, Australia pledges not to interfere in Indonesia’s domestic affairs or to “ in any manner support any person or entity which constitute a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity” of Indonesia. The relevance is clearly to West Papua.

But the pledges are reciprocal. Some commentators see this reciprocity as meaningless, but maybe Howard’s advisers did not see it that way. They might think such words offer protection against powerful Indonesian national security elements that might again be tempted to instigate mass boat people movements to Australia as they possibly did in 1999-2001.


The Federal Government reacted with panic then, seeing the people smuggling surge as indeed threatening Australia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Might they see this reciprocal language as insurance against a recurrence, and might they be ready to sacrifice human rights in West Papua to that goal?

Such paper treaties are worthless if not backed by real understanding between the two nations. I don't see that now. The relationship is skin-deep: Indonesian studies in Australia are stagnating. The relationship is a skin-deep, national security-driven relationship. Indonesian Muslims - and Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world - don’t like the way Canberra is hounding Australia’s Muslim communities. Australians don’t like the way Indonesia pardons Bali murderers while pursuing vengeful justice against Australian petty drug mules. And so on.

This treaty is an aspiration that good-neighbourliness will triumph over all other considerations - human rights, hot pursuit of terrorists, and so on.

Australian defence planners should put little trust in it, until such time as we have genuine democratic-pluralist governments in both countries that pass and implement domestic laws according with natural justice and human rights for all. Neither Australia nor Indonesia meets those standards yet.

So this treaty may vanish under pressure as suddenly and completely as did the last one.

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A shorter version was first published in The Courier-Mail on November 14, 2006.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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