How close are Australia and Indonesia?

In the wake of Indonesia’s abrupt suspension of military ties with Australia, the relationship between the two countries is once again under strain.

Over the years, the execution of Australian drug traffickers, territorial breaches of Indonesian waters by the Australian Navy, spying revelations and the cruel treatment by Indonesia of live cattle imported from Australia have hit the headlines in both countries.

But a closer look at the links between Indonesia and Australia tells a more complicated story – one involving billions of dollars worth of two-way trade and tourism, co-operation on counter-terrorism and people smuggling, and strong educational and cultural links.

For all the political bluster emanating from Canberra and Jakarta, the two countries need each other. With a population of 260 million (to Australia’s 24.3 million), Indonesia is Australia’s nearest major neighbour, and its status as the world’s largest Muslim population is an important consideration for Australia’s counter-terrorism strategies.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) describes the relationship with Indonesia as “one of Australia’s most important”.


The relationship reached a low point around East Timor independence, so it is no surprise West Papua seems to be at the centre of friction this week.

Some within Indonesia have clearly been stung by the Australian army “teaching materials”, which reportedly said West Papua was part of Melanesia and should have independence.

When asked about West Papua on Thursday, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne was quick to say her nation recognised “Indonesia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

The matter of territory also caused hostility in 2014, when Indonesia demanded Australia cease naval incursions into its waters. Australia admitted it had entered Indonesian waters “on several occasions” while combating people smugglers. It sent a formal apology to Jakarta.


The nations’ militaries began working together more closely in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people including 88 Australians, and the 2004 bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Defence exchanges, which stopped during the East Timor conflict, commenced again.

In December 2015, Indonesian police arrested nine people over an alleged terror threat after a tip-off that reportedly came from Australian Federal Police. The countries signed an anti-terror memorandum of understanding the same month.

In August last year, one expert rated the nations’ sharing of intelligence on counter-terrorism funding as among the best in the world.


The Indonesian island of Bali is a major tourist destination for Australians, with as many as one million visiting the island every year, according to the Bali Tourism Board.

It is not a two-way trade but Indonesia’s growing middle class of about 50 million people represents a major opportunity for Australian tourism.

Australia’s very high visa charges for Indonesians – about A$135 ($99, £80) for an individual compared to free entry for Australians – doesn’t help.


Although Australia’s brief suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011 garnered much attention, Indonesia remains Australia’s 12th-largest trade partner.

Australia’s two-way trade with Indonesia was worth A$11.2bn in 2015-16, according to DFAT.

Australia’s major export was wheat, while its biggest import was crude petroleum.

Trade in services is growing – more than A$4bn in 2015-16 – with Australia exporting education and importing travel services.

Political visits

Relations became strained in April 2015 when Indonesian President Joko Widodo ignored pleas from Australia to grant clemency to convicted drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who were then executed.

But a successful visit by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to Jakarta later that year was viewed as thawing of tensions.

Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Australia four times during his presidency, more than any of his predecessors.

In 2010, he was accorded the honour of addressing a joint sitting of Parliament – the first by any visiting Indonesian.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott attended the inauguration of Mr Widodo in October 2014.

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Airline Seeks to Thank Australian Veterans for Their Service. Vets Say No Thanks.

SYDNEY, Australia — Australian military veterans recoiled at a government-backed policy that would allow them to board some commercial airlines ahead of other passengers, calling the move a political stunt that smacked of tokenism.

The government announced over the weekend that Virgin Australia would offer priority boarding to veterans and also make in-flight announcements to acknowledge their service, part of a broader push to give veterans, who use a new national ID card, discounts at supermarkets and department stores.

Critics, including many veterans, said the policy was at odds with Australia’s egalitarian national ethos. The notion of a veteran singling himself or herself out for special treatment, some critics said, was distinctly un-Australian. Others described it as something even worse: an Americanism.

“It’s a very American thing to do, we’re not quite as loud or noisy as that,” said Mike Carlton, the author of several books about Australia’s military history. “Australians are a little more subtle.”

“It’s just not in our nature to do stuff like that, almost any veteran I can think of would be hideously embarrassed by being singled out like that,” Mr. Carlton added. “I’ve interviewed a lot of them for my books: World War II vets, vets from the Burma-Siam railway. They would hate the notoriety of being singled out like that.”

On Twitter, some veterans saw the move as a way to score votes for the Liberal government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Some critics said the policy could have a detrimental effect on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Some people suffering psychological illnesses don’t like attention drawn to them,” Neil James, the executive director of the Australian Defense Association told ABC Radio.

At least three American carriers offer some priorities or upgrades to United States military personnel, particularly those actively serving and traveling in uniform.

American Airlines automatically offers upgrades to troops traveling in uniform, United Airlines offers service members discounted tickets, and JetBlue offers discounts and priority boarding.

Members of veterans organizations can sometimes receive discounts when booking tickets, but veterans in the United States do not typically receive priority boarding.

Virgin said it was joining a campaign spearheaded by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. newspapers, and backed by the government, to honor the country’s servicemen and women in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the conclusion of World War I.

The announcement also comes as the federal government approved a 500 million Australian dollar, or about $360 million, upgrade of the national War Memorial, a sizable investment at a time when other national institutions are facing budget cuts.

The memorial’s director, Brendan Nelson, who has also served as defense minister, said troops who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq should have a greater dedicated space to highlight their experiences of war.

On Monday, Qantas, the national carrier, said it would not provide veterans with priority seats.

“We’re conscious that we carry a lot of exceptional people every day, including veterans, police, paramedics, nurses, firefighters and others and so we find it difficult to single out a particular group as part of the boarding process,” Qantas said in a statement.

Hours later, Virgin Australia seemed to suggest it was reversing its decision.

In three tweets, the carrier said it was “very mindful” of the response to its announcement, and said it was a gesture “genuinely done to pay respects to those who have served our country.”

The airline said it might have been hasty in announcing the proposal, adding that it would consult veterans, including those who work for Virgin, to “determine the best way forward.”

“If this process determines that public acknowledgment of their service through optional priority boarding or any announcement is not appropriate, then we will certainly be respectful of that,” the airline said on Twitter.

Jamie Tarabay covers Australia for The New York Times. @jamietarabay

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