Australia-Indonesia Relations After the Executions

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Australia-Indonesia Relations After the Executions

Public outrage at the execution of the Bali Nine ringleaders runs into political, diplomatic and economic reality.

Australia-Indonesia Relations After the Executions
Credit: REUTERS/Rob Griffith/Pool

On April 29, 2015, Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed by firing squad in Indonesia following a decade of legal challenges, intense Australian government and diplomatic pressure, and impassioned public opinion on both sides of the Timor Sea. As Australia continues to mourn this loss of life, and as Indonesia continues to justify its decision, attention now turns to the future of bilateral relations.

In the wake of the executions, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has made it clear that bilateral relations will not simply continue in a “business as usual” fashion, while Foreign Minister Julie Bishop took a similar position, stating that the executions would “have consequences.” Speculation on the possible repercussions has followed, with some commentators specifically turning to the question of a potential reduction in Australian foreign aid to Indonesia as part of the upcoming May budget.

At a highly publicized press conference in the wake of the executions, Abbott and Bishop announced that Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Grigson would be recalled. Other countries had already taken the same step in the wake of earlier executions in Indonesia, but this was a first for Australia. Still, while the seriousness of the recall should not be understated, there is little indication that it will be the harbinger of a more permanent freeze in relations. Indeed, shortly after the announcement, Indonesian Attorney-General Muhammad Prasetyo reportedly dismissed the withdrawal as a “temporary reaction.”

Close Neighbor

Indonesia is one of Australia’s closest neighbors, the two countries sharing robust political, security, economic, aid, and people-to-people ties. While resuming standard, cordial relations with Indonesia so soon after Chan and Sukumaran’s executions would certainly invoke the ire of many Australians, a long-term rupture in relations would hardly be in Australia’s interests.

Politically, Indonesia is important to Australia for the role the former plays in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A stable relationship with Indonesia is needed for a cooperative and productive working relationship with ASEAN.

Indonesia is also the most populous country in the region and boasts one of the largest military forces in Southeast Asia. It is little wonder that Indonesia already dominates and wishes to increase its influence over ASEAN, given the country’s interests in having a stable, rules-based regional forum (headquartered in Jakarta, no less) in which it can project significant influence.

Indonesian aspirations for enlarging its role as regional steward have been reflected in recent comments by the head of the country’s armed forces, General TNI Dr. Moeldoko, who foreshadowed Indonesian aspirations of playing a “big brother” role in ASEAN and in the region, especially in the realm of security.

Increasingly, Australia has realized the importance of ASEAN in guaranteeing regional stability and thus Australia’s domestic security. This has predominately been via ASEAN-led security institutions; namely, the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

In recent years, Australia has worked vigorously to guarantee its security, foreign aid, and development interests by fostering a close relationship with the EAS. This is most evident in Australia’s role in steering the EAS’s policy agenda towards topics like the Korean Peninsula, maritime security, and developmental issues relating to education, health disaster management, and water resources. The EAS has not only helped guarantee regional security, it has facilitated cooperation among its members. For example, Australia and Indonesia jointly hosted the successful rapid disaster response workshops for EAS members in September 2013 and June 2014.

Canberra has also enjoyed a productive working relationship with the ARF to guard against, and adequately respond to, unexpected ruptures in regional security. Australia has made real contributions to the ARF security agenda, as exemplified in its co-chairing with the Philippines of the Second ASEAN Regional Forum Seminar on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in May 2014. This and other efforts have proved helpful in containing regional threats directly affecting Australia, such as the flow of illegal arms, drug-trafficking, and people-smuggling.

Given the depth of the political and security relationship between Australia and ASEAN, a move that would see Canberra dismantling its Indonesian relations in the long-term, and simultaneously ties with ASEAN, would have a debilitating effect on Australia’s wider political and security interests in the region.

While relations with Indonesia connect Australia to ASEAN, on a bilateral political level, cordial dealings with Jakarta are crucial if the Australian government is to achieve its domestic security objectives.


Of all the issues where Australia-Indonesia cooperation is essential, there is perhaps no greater policy challenge than people-smuggling. Australian diplomatic officials have long appealed to Jakarta for its support in stemming the flow of illegal maritime asylum seekers from Indonesia – a common transit point on the sea route to Australia. And historically cooperation between the two countries on this issue has been considerable. Further, Australia and Indonesia are both co-chairs of the important Bali Process – an international forum seeking to foster greater cooperation between states to prevent people-smuggling, human-trafficking, and transnational crime. Australia has also been able to use its position within the Bali Process to promote greater capacity-buildingto in the criminalization, detection, arrest, and enforcement of people-smuggling crimes in member countries, like Indonesia.

Jakarta recognizes the importance of this bargaining-chip; that is, Canberra’s interest in containing people-smuggling. This has been clear in comments made by Indonesian officials pointing to the potential loss of goodwill on people-smuggling cooperation should Australia continue to ruffle too many feathers in Indonesia. Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno was recently quoted as saying his country would  create a “human tsunami” of illegal maritime asylum seekers to Australia if Canberra continued to “displease” its northern neighbor.


Australia is also unlikely to forsake its Indonesian relations for economic reasons. Indonesia is Australia’s twelfth largest trading partner, with two-way trade in 2013 amounting to almost A$15 billion ($11.9 billion). In recent years, considerable effort has been expended by both Canberra and Jakarta to bolster the trade relationship. This has manifested itself in numerous high-level ministerial visits to promote business and investment in both countries.

Economic and trade advisers in Canberra would also hesitate to recommend trade bans, which would trigger significant financial losses redolent of those experienced by Australian graziers during the 2011 ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia following allegations of animal cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs. While Indonesia simply sourced meat products from other markets, it is estimated that the month-long ban resulted in losses in excess of A$600 million for the Australian cattle industry.

Although two-way trade has now returned to a healthier level, the conclusion of a comprehensive free trade agreement would further stimulate trade by providing a swathe of the usual FTA benefits to both countries. Negotiations on the Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement commenced in September 2012, though have since stalled following the conclusion of the second round of negotiations nearly two years ago. Without a doubt, the last thing Canberra needs is for Jakarta to use this latest incident as a reason to delay its wider free trade objectives.

Foreign aid and people-to-people considerations may also prevent a more permanent Australian departure from its Indonesian relations. Currently, Indonesia is one of the largest recipients of Australian development assistance. More than just raising living standards, Australia’s recently reformed aid delivery program is focused on improving health, education, food security, and governance to create stability and prosperity, and thus reduce the incidence of human and natural risks that could potentially threaten Australia.

Further, with almost one million Australian tourists flocking to Bali annually, as well as the high numbers of Indonesian students and expatriates in Australia, a move that would sour relations with Indonesia and unfairly victimize everyday Indonesians seems unlikely for the Abbott government.


What can be said, however, is that while Canberra may be reluctant to close its doors to Indonesia in the long term, widespread outrage in the Australian community in response to the pair’s executions casts a grimmer picture for the enduring attitudes of the Australian people towards Indonesia.

Perhaps with the exception of the Bali Bombings in 2005, never has Australia been so united in such collective compassion and grief as it has been in the weeks and days preceding the executions of Chan and Sukumaran.

But just as the pair’s execution sparked widespread outrage in Australia, the majority of Indonesians remained steadfast in their support for the death penalty and the need to uphold Indonesian sovereignty. In early March, one of Indonesia’s largest newspapers, Kompas, published an opinion poll revealing that 86 percent of Indonesian respondents agreed that Chan and Sukumaran should be executed irrespective of Canberra’s petitions, while 57.8 percent supported the severing of diplomatic relations with countries that did not respect Indonesia’s sovereignty, including Australia.

To many Australians the protracted saga has shown that, despite the rhetoric of the Asian Century, which blithely extols overtures of prosperity and harmony, cleavages will always exist, just beneath the surface, between the people and values of Asia and Australia. Indeed, while the beloved values of justice and “a fair go” dictated to many Australians that the pair be reprieved, just as many Indonesians, including the government, justified the execution on the reasonable communitarian basis that drugs represent one of the greatest threats to Indonesia’s social fabric. This latter position is widely shared within the region; indeed, Singapore’s late founder Lee Kuan Yew often spoke about the virtue of communitarian Asian values, while criticizing Western countries for the proliferation of social ills like drug addiction.

So whilst Canberra and Jakarta are undoubtedly “facing their most serious rift since the East Timor crisis,” necessary work on politics, security, economics, and foreign aid will demand an eventual resuscitation of relations. The real work will be repairing the idea of Indonesia in the minds of everyday Australians. That is a task that could take some time.

Jarrad Harvey is currently a postgraduate in the Department of Government & International Relations at the University of Sydney. The views expressed here are his own.