Australia’s
move to reach a broad-ranging agreement with Indonesia over security
co-operation is a logical outcome of the strengthening of ties between
the two countries in the wake of growing joint counter-terrorism
measures and Australia’s post-tsunami emergency and financial
assistance. It is, in a large sense, a renewal of Australia’s security
treaty with Indonesia reached by the Keating government in 1995,
scrapped in 1999 in the wake of East Timor’s independence vote and
destruction.

The main drivers for this renewed treaty are
Indonesia’s desire to move closer to Western countries, especially the
US, with Australia seen as a gateway to that wider relationship.
Indonesia’s relationship with the US administration has been steadily
improving, especially given the perception by Bush and Company of the
role that Indonesia can play in its anti-terrorism struggle. This
agreement will now assist the US administration in getting the more
reluctant Congress on side, especially on issues of military to
military co-operation and arms supplies.

Australia’s Department
of Foreign Affairs and Trade also has a long history of seeking closer
ties to Indonesia, very often at the expense of the wider concern of
Australian citizens over human rights and related issues.

The new agreement is today reported to contain a clause which stipulates
that Australia will not interfere in the internal affairs of Indonesia
and will respect its territorial sovereignty. At one level, such a
clause is a conventional recognition of the sovereign independence of
another state. Yet such clauses are also rare in bilateral agreements,
as sovereign respect is assumed as a given.

In the case of
Australia and Indonesia, such a clause reflects lingering doubts over
Australia’s long term intentions, especially for the now divided
province of Papua. There are some in Jakarta, especially in the
legislature’s foreign affairs and defence committee, who believe that
Australia is intent on dismembering Indonesia, following its
intervention in East Timor in 1999. Such a clause is intended to allay
such fears.

However, there will also be many in Indonesia who
will view such a clause as limiting Australia’s capacity to speak
critically on particular issues within Indonesia, should such concerns
arise. This has the potential to raise objections to any Australian
criticism or commentary that is not perceived as supportive, and may be
held as applying not just to the government but to the media and
non-government organisations.

There has been a long history of
Indonesian sensitivity to Australian criticism, especially by the
Australian media, and to claims of interference by some NGOs,
especially on human rights issues. The inclusion of a non-interference
clause, then, could open the way for the Indonesian government to
request official pressure on the Australian media to curtail their
Indonesia-focused observations, and for NGOs to limit their activities
in relation to that country.

Peter Fray

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