Australia and Indonesia: A relationship too important to fail?

Indonesia special forces participate in an anti-terror drill in Ngurah Rai International airport in Kuta, Denpasar on the island of Bali, on September 28, 2010.

Story highlights

  • Australia and Indonesia have quickly mended damaged military ties
  • Bust-up stemmed from "offensive material" at joint military training camp

(CNN)The sudden bust-up, and equally quick detente, between Australia and Indonesia over the past few days shows just how delicate -- and crucial -- the relationship between the two neighbors is.

Indonesia suspended all military cooperation with Australia last month after taking offense over an incident at a joint military training facility.
    There was a twist in the tale however -- Australia made a public apology on Thursday and Indonesia accepted it the very same day, downplaying a spat that had earlier seemed to have severe, and potentially long-lasting, repercussions.
    The grace displayed by both nations mended what could have been a very damaging rift.
    Natali Sambhi, a research fellow who focuses on Indonesian defense and security at the Perth USAsia Center, tells CNN the defense cooperation between the two countries is mutually beneficial to both militaries.
    She adds that there are a number of security challenges, including people smuggling and terrorism, where working together is more fruitful than working alone.
    "Military exercises and exchanges also help build good working relationships between personnel, which can help open vital channels of communication during times of crisis," she says.
    Mathew Davies, the head of the International Relations Department at The Australian National University, says Australia views its relationship with Indonesia as "centrally important", and warns the connection is still "delicate".
    "Without Indonesia, all of Australia's key partner states are a long way away."
    "A strong relationship helps Australia feel 'part of the region' -- ensuring that Australian interests are listened to and respected, and that Australia is not isolated."
    Indo-Australian relations had been warming prior to the recent kerfuffle; Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's leadership led to a thaw with Indonesian President Joko Widodo after a tumultuous few years of relations with Tony Abbott.
    However, Davies says there remain strong sensitivities on both sides, especially regarding the issue of mutual respect.
    "The continued sensitivity of the Indonesian military illustrates just how hard it is to build lasting trust between the two sides," he adds.

    Offense too 'hurtful' to describe

    The military misunderstanding between the neighbors was sparked off when an Indonesian special forces instructor found documents insulting the Pancasila, Indonesia's national philosophy, at a joint training camp.
    What is Pancasila?

    • Pancasila is made up of two Javanese words, originally from Sanskrit: "panca" meaning five, and "sila" meaning principles
    • It is made up of five principles: belief in one God, just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice for all

    Indonesian Armed Forces commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo said the documents questioned Indonesia's sovereignty on West Papua and were offensive about Indonesian soldiers who served in East Timor.
    When asked about the exact contents of the offending material, he refused to elaborate, saying it was "too hurtful" to say.
    He said he wanted a personal apology from Australia's army chief.
    "Why should I go to Australia?" he said. "It should be the other way around."
    Whatever they were, the offensive materials led to Indonesia suspending "defense cooperation," a stance that changed when Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne expressed regret for any offense caused. 

At a press conference Thursday, she promised the offending material had "most certainly" been removed and that it would be replaced by appropriate material.
    Her Indonesian counterpart, Ryamizard Ryacudu, accepted her apology.
    "Something like this should never happen, because as friendly countries, we are not supposed to let this kind of incident ruin our friendship," he said.
    He added the only halt in joint activities was in language training, while a "complete investigation" is done.
    Joko himself addressed the issue on Thursday, saying the situation had to be dealt with so it didn't get any "hotter."
    "I think our relationship with Australia is still in a good condition," he added.

    A long and tempestuous relationship

    The occasionally rocky relationship between Australia and Indonesia has steadily improved since the late 1990s, when Australia led an international peacekeeping task force into the then Indonesian territory of East Timor.
    Cooperation between the two nations was spurred on by joint security efforts to fight regional terrorism in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings and subsequent attacks in Jakarta, including the bombing of the Australian Embassy there.
    In 2009, it was revealed that Australian intelligence attempted to tap the mobile phone of then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. And in 2015, Indonesia executed two Australian prisoners in Bali, which led to Australia recalling its ambassador.