Defence Minister Stephen Smith and Foreign Minister Bob Carr have been in Jakarta this week for the annual 2+2 Australia-Indonesia talks. It was a business-as-usual dialogue, with few major announcements. Australia is offering an additional five Hercules planes to Indonesia at 'mates rates', there will be some consolidation of combined maritime patrolling, and the defence ministers will update each other on the progress of their respective defence strategies.

There are differing judgments on the current strength of the Australia-Indonesia strategic relationship.

Stephen Smith judges that we are at 'the highest tempo of bilateral defence engagement, exercises and training in 15 years'. Others in the Defence Department have been more tempered, warning that the bilateral relationship has not yet returned to pre-1999 levels of trust. An Indonesian strategic analyst I spoke with recently believes Australia and Indonesia are not that far off a new and more comprehensive strategic agreement, echoing the Keating-era Agreement on Maintaining Security.

Much has been done in recent years to strengthen the bilateral defence relationship. Stephen Smith quite rightly points to the Ikahan network's success in developing trust and cooperation between the ADF and Indonesia's military forces (TNI). Ikahan was the brainchild of Gary Hogan, the recently retired Defence Adviser for Australia's Jakarta embassy (and new contributor to this blog). It is an alumni network for Indonesians who have studied with the Australian military and Australians who have studied with the Indonesian military. And it is a very active network indeed. 

Over 1000 TNI officers are members, regular seminars are hosted in Jakarta, a strategic advisory group of leaders provides an alternative track for bilateral discussions, and the recently launched Colin East Award brings the best and brightest from Indonesia's service colleges to Australia on study tours. In short, Ikahan is a model for defence diplomacy in the Asian century.

As always, there is more that could be done. Australia has comparatively few defence civilians or military officers embedded in the TNI (at present, there is one instructor in each of the TNI's service colleges and an officer posted to TNI's language school). This compares poorly to the large numbers of ADF officers embedded within the US military. The Australian Civil-Military Centre recently hosted a visiting fellow from the Indonesian Peacekeeping Centre. A smart follow-up would be to reciprocate with embedded Australian officers in the Indonesian Peacekeeping Centre, which remains a pet project of Indonesia's ex-peacekeeper president.

We have also missed opportunities. Indonesia is expanding its submarine fleet from 2 to 5 in the next decade, and has a patchy record in submarine rescue. Two naval officers died in a submarine rescue training incident last year. Australia has a strong record of conducting submarine rescue exercises off the coast of WA, so there might have been an opportunity for Australia to cooperate with Indonesia's emerging submarine force. But canny Singapore swept in with a submarine rescue pact last year, complete with smart phone app.

There remains no one-stop centre for information on Indonesia for the Australian Defence Organisation. There are intelligence analysts, language specialists, and personnel with TNI experience. But for junior defence personnel looking to get up to speed on our nearest neighbour and its military, there is not much to go on and no ready source. The ADF Journal has published only one article on Indonesia in the last decade. Perhaps an online portal to share Indonesia knowledge among government employees might help further strengthen relations.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.