Australian Embassy

Australia and Indonesia

Speech to Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club

27 November 2019

Gary Quinlan – Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia


Two weeks ago I opened an exhibition called “Two Nations: A Friendship is Born” at the National Museum in central Jakarta and then subsequently in Makassar. It is also showing in Surabaya and Denpasar. This year is the 70th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between our two countries but this exhibition shows the history of Australia’s support for Indonesian independence straight after the declaration of August 1945 and leading to 1949.  Australia was Indonesia’s strongest supporter.

Seven weeks after the proclamation of 17 August, Australia sent a diplomatic mission to meet President Sukarno to establish the basis for recognition of the Indonesian Republic.  We were the first foreign country to make contact.  But, the Commander of the Allied Forces in Indonesia – which were preparing the way for the return to Dutch control – refused to accept the credentials of the Australian mission and deported its members on a military plane to Singapore.

Three weeks earlier, a boycott by Australian workers of all Dutch ships transiting Australia to Indonesia had begun, generating widespread community support in Australia for independence. When the first military offensive against the independent Republic was launched in July 1947, Australia complained to the new UN Security Council – the first time such action had been taken in this just-established body.  The Security Council created a UN Good Offices Committee of three countries to help settle the conflict.  President Sukarno chose Australia to represent Indonesia in these UN discussions, which ultimately led to independence on 27 December 1949. Australia formally recognised Indonesian independent statehood that day. And Australia and India formally sponsored Indonesian membership of the UN.

Why was Australia such a strong supporter of Indonesia? Australia itself was only a young nation at the time, barely 45 years old. We had just fought a world war to preserve our freedom against Nazism, fascism and Japanese militarism. The right to self-determination was a vital part of that struggle for freedom and was embodied in the new United Nations Charter - of which Australia was one of the most active architects. The Pacific war had also starkly shown to Australians that the security of Indonesia and Australia, next to each other, was inextricably linked.

Today, we have had a proudly independent Indonesia – the world’s fourth largest country, third largest democracy and largest Muslim nation – for 70 years. But the fundamental geostrategic realities for both countries are the same.

No country in Southeast Asia is more important to Australia than Indonesia.  And only a handful of countries globally match that importance. 

Indonesia is the fulcrum of the single strategic ecosystem we both inhabit from the Indian Ocean across the north of Australia through to the South West Pacific. A resilient, prosperous Indonesia plays a central role in shaping the emerging Indo-Pacific regional order. Its strategic weight, traditional distance from great power competition, its influence within ASEAN and its democratic credentials, are major assets in what is the key theatre of the strategic competition of the 21st century. Its own sovereignty and territorial integrity – including in respect of the Papua provinces – are fundamental, as Australia has recognised through the Lombok Treaty of 2006.

Both our countries are at a strategic turning point in our relations – which is still evolving but is very definite – because the region is at a turning point: geo-strategically and geo-economically, as well as because of unprecedented technological and ecological change.  The resilience of both countries is being challenged and each of us has made a very deliberate choice to embrace the other more closely in this new era. We no longer spend much time talking to each other about ourselves – our bilateral challenges – but are increasingly talking to each other about everyone else and what we can do together to create a more resilient region. To do that, of course, our own relationship itself must be resilient.

Politically, between governments, our relations are not chronically fragile - as has sometimes been said in the past. They have in fact proven to be very resilient. Like any countries – especially neighbours with obvious differences in history, political origins, culture, and development – we can always be hostage to events. But both countries have a fundamental common interest in good relations and in limiting the occasional difference.

Functionally, we have some of the closest cooperation among any countries in the region. We are the closest partners on counter-terrorism and are very strong on law enforcement, defence, maritime cooperation, border management, transport, aviation, agriculture and education. All the things that close neighbours need to do, we are doing with each other. Over 50 Australian government agencies work with Indonesian counterparts in over 100 program areas of activity. Our state governments are involved. Our leading universities are increasingly working together including in research, as are non-government organisations and civil society.

A sophisticated and evolving development cooperation program has made Australia a partner of choice on policy and institutional development, on resilient economic governance, and in building technical and intellectual capacity.

All this is why Australia’s Embassy in Jakarta is the largest by far that we have, over twice the size of our next biggest.  We also have Consulates-General in Surabaya, Makassar and Denpasar.

Over the last year, both countries have completed two potentially transformative agreements with each other – a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) and the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).

The first – the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) – sets out an ambitious program of increased cooperation between us in five areas.  Four of them are bilateral – economic, security and defence, maritime, and people-to-people links.  But significantly, the fifth program uniquely establishes joint cooperation between us to shape the Indo-Pacific region in ways we both agree we want it shaped. Australia only has three such comprehensive strategic agreements: the first with China in 2014, and then with Singapore and now with Indonesia.  Indonesia has only three: China in 2013 and, in the last year two more – India, then Australia. This partnership is not just fancy diplomatic speak. It is in fact very deliberate messaging from each of us about the importance of each to the other, as well as messaging from both of us to everyone else about our partnership and the fact that partnership is important.

Strategic cooperation between us, of course, is not new.  Both countries have always worked together at critical junctures to shape the region. And Australia has always invested intellectual and political capital in our region’s future. We worked together to turn APEC – an Australian initiative in 1989 – into a Leaders’ Summit, the first in Seattle in 1993; and we were hand-in-hand in developing APEC’s Bogor Goals for open trade and investment adopted in 1994. We worked to support Indonesia on the Cambodia peace settlement in the early 1990s, providing much of the operational heft. And on establishing the ASEAN Regional Forum on regional security. Indonesia ensured that we were included in the original membership of the East Asia Summit, the region’s only Leaders’ forum that seeks to manage strategic risk.

We stood up to support Indonesia when we opposed the dangerously prescriptive IMF economic program for Indonesia during the Asian Financial Crisis over 1997-99, thereby helping the transition to the new Reformasi era. In 2002 we created, and still co-chair the Bali Process on People Smuggling and Human Trafficking. And, confronted with the shared threat of returning foreign terrorist fighters, in 2017 we established and co-chair the Sub-Regional Meeting on Countering Terrorism and Foreign Terrorist Fighters among a group of neighbouring countries.

Our new Comprehensive Strategic Partnership elevates this cooperation to a new level with the aim of making it both more systematic and routine. Not just episodic as the need arises.

Both countries strongly support the rules-based order on which we depend for our security and prosperity, and our cooperation reflects this fundamental commitment. We are working on WTO reform in order to preserve the multilateral trading system, at present under serious threat. We are strong advocates of the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. We cooperate on consolidating the Law of the Sea; the future of the South China Sea is a common interest. And we have begun working on the new oceans initiative on marine plastic debris which Prime Minister Morrison is bringing to the G20. As G20 members we have also been working together to prevent terrorist exploitation of the internet following the shocking terrorist murders in Christchurch. We are doing more and more together on counter-terrorism and both talking to each other about how to effectively combat extremist radicalisation.

Both the East Asia Summit and APEC remain central areas of cooperation. Indonesian leadership within ASEAN is a key part of our strategic partnership.  Australia has been ASEAN’s first, closest and most comprehensive partner. We are very strong supporters of Indonesia’s lead in developing the new Indo-Pacific Outlook, which has been so important in reasserting ASEAN centrality regionally and maintaining ASEAN’s strategic freedom of choice.

We have taken the lead together to strengthen the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the Indian Ocean’s only ministerial level forum which includes 22 member states and is the only vehicle in the region for cooperation in areas like maritime security and safety, women’s empowerment and the blue economy.

Both of us are also engaging together in developing partnerships with smaller groups of countries within the Indo-Pacific. Indonesia, Australia and India have a trilateral partnership and both countries, of course, have comprehensive strategic partnerships with Indonesia.  Other possibilities are being considered. Such partnerships provide extra strategic depth to the region.

The second transformative agreement is the Comprehensive Economic Partnership, IA-CEPA. Implementing legislation to allow ratification of the agreement was approved in the Australian Senate yesterday, which will allow it to be ratified formally in December. Ratification is currently proceeding through Indonesia’s Parliament.

IA-CEPA is more than a trade agreement; it’s designed to expand partnerships between businesses, institutions and individuals in both countries and to shape our bilateral relationship for decades to come by creating a serious framework for the first time for a new chapter of economic engagement across our economies – businesses, primary producers, service providers and investors.

Despite our proximity as neighbours, our economic relationship has been seriously underdone. Indonesia is Australia’s 13th largest trading partner and Australia is Indonesia’s 13th. But the actual dollar figures - $17.6 billion dollars last year in trade, and just less than $6 billion in Australian investment in Indonesia – speak for themselves. Relative to our other trade and investment relationships, those figures are small. As the two largest economies in Southeast Asia, next to each other, both G20 economies and now strategic partners, we need to do much better. IA-CEPA is a very good agreement for both of us and once in force, can be a genuine catalyst for new economic opportunities.

This will require a lot of advocacy by government and business and will have to reflect genuine implementation of the agreement and demonstrated business success stories in order to encourage other businesses to engage in each other’s markets.  This will not be easy, but the openings will be there.

Uniquely, under the agreement, both countries will partner on a program of economic cooperation and research activities through innovation in key areas like agribusiness, technical and vocational education and training, health, standards, finance and other R&D. This is designed to maximise future benefits for us both through greater synergy as technology and our economies change.

I should conclude by referring to what diplomats call ‘people-to-people links’. In many ways, this is the most difficult area in which to measure progress since it ultimately depends on what Australians and Indonesians know about each other and how familiar and comfortable we are with each other. The polling data available shows that we don’t know anywhere near enough about each other.

Australia’s best universities have some of the world’s most outstanding Indonesianists. Our National Library has probably the world’s best collection anywhere of post-colonial Indonesian publications, of every kind. Our National Gallery has one of the top collections of Indonesian textiles. It has just concluded the biggest exhibition of contemporary Indonesian art shown anywhere overseas. It commissioned some of the works and has bought many to build a new collection. But these are the exception. The average Australian knows too little of Indonesia or often has an outdated image of the country. Media reporting does not always help; nor does the squeeze on resources facing most overseas media organisations.

This is starting to change – and youth in both countries are instrumental. Their facility with social media is a very conductive vector.

Educational contacts in particular are vital in this. Around one quarter of Indonesians who study overseas do so in Australia and effective alumni networks across the archipelago – including the Australia Indonesia Youth Association (AIYA) founded in 2012 - are reinforcing those links, including among young entrepreneurs. The Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP) has been successfully running since 1981 and the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) places some of the best Australian undergraduates into Indonesian universities.

The Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan – which provides for Australian undergraduates to spend time in an Indo-Pacific country during their university studies – is developing a big new cohort of younger Australians with real experience of our region. Indonesia is the country of choice among 40 locations for over half the students. By the end of next year, just short of 10,000 Australian students will have participated in Indonesia – all in the first full five years of the program.

The skills package in IA-CEPA, which includes a significant increase in the numbers eligible for the annual Work and Holiday scheme, and new provisions for internships with business and other institutions between both countries will further increase this familiarity.

Our BRIDGE program (Building Relationships Through Intercultural Dialogue and Growing Engagement) establishes direct links between Australian and Indonesian schools, including madrasah. The data shows that younger people benefitting from all such schemes often stay in touch.

Tourism can be a powerful agent.  After New Zealand, Indonesia is the country Australian’s like to visit more than any other. Last year over 1.3 million Australians visited Indonesia, staying the longest and spending the most. Too many – 1.1 million – restrict themselves to Bali.  As Indonesia develops the 10 New Balis, we hope to see Australians experience more of this extraordinary archipelago.

Australia is a growing destination for Indonesians, especially as its consumer class increases; around 215,000 last year. This year has seen a 16% increase already.  Tourism Australia has just opened a local office in Jakarta. Indonesia – with India – is one of the two main target markets.

Cultural exchanges between our arts bodies and exhibitions and performances by individual artists take place. And the Embassy and our Consulates-General have an active Public Diplomacy program. But the market is very competitive and – as with everything – funding always in short supply. And reaching out across such a vast country is inevitably a challenge.

One area of special importance is the growing depth of our interfaith exchanges.  We have had a successful Muslim exchange program since 2002. And a program to strengthen research and teaching at Indonesian Islamic Universities through doctoral studies programs at the Australian National University.

Prime Minister Morrison has taken a lead on this with President Widodo. In their first discussions as leaders in Bogor in August last year, they agreed to promote even more interfaith engagement among our youth. Australia’s first interfaith dialogue with Indonesia – bringing together members of the main faiths – was held in Bandung in March this year. The Australian Muslim community has its own connections with Indonesian counterparts. The Australian National Imams’ Council has just agreed a program of cooperation with Indonesia’s Ulema Council. The establishment next year of the International Islamic University of Indonesia – based on traditionally tolerate Indonesian Islam –  will offer a new opportunity for even greater collaboration between our Muslim communities. 


Last year, two outstanding Australian academics on Indonesia – Tim Lindsey and Dave McRae – published a collection of essays titled “Strangers Next Door?: Indonesia and Australia in the Asian Century”. Their title was not a judgement, but a question.

Much of their analysis across the key elements of our relationship showed how much more effort is needed to bridge the gaps that still exist with each other. That is hardly surprising. But equally, the authors were struck by what they described as “the surprising depth and diversity of links between the two countries” – clearly a good basis to create an even stronger foundation.

The newly unpredictable and volatile world in which we both live has certainly galvanised the shared political will to forge both the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and IA-CEPA in deliberate and rapid succession over the past year as potentially transformative instruments in that foundation.

I’m sure we’ll experience hiccups in our relations from time to time but I believe that the new regional calculus we confront has very definitely moved the dial and in the right direction.