Defence Minister David Johnston has underscored respect for sovereignty and intelligence-sharing at a Jakarta forum, where future opportunities to defrost the bilateral relationship were flagged.
Senator Johnston’s participation in the annual Jakarta International Defence Dialogue on Wednesday is not being presented as a breakthrough moment in the tense period.
But he was well received by Indonesian counterpart Purnomo Yusgiantoro, who says the nations are close to setting a date in the near future for “two-plus-two” talks – both nations’ defence and foreign ministers – to be held in Australia.
Senator Johnston took the opportunity to convey to Jakarta – and forum delegates – Australia’s respect for its neighbours.
“I believe we should aim to strengthen each other’s security by respecting each other’s sovereign territory and helping to reinforce each other’s capacity to protect our territorial waters,” he wrote on the forum’s website.
“We should aim to share information on security issues of mutual concern.”
Defence co-operation was wound back late last year after reports of Australian intelligence monitoring the phones of Indonesia’s leaders.
Then Australia apologised to Indonesia when it learnt its vessels had breached its territory during operations to turn asylum seekers away.
In his remarks, Senator Johnston made special mention of the Indonesian relationship.
“Australia and Indonesia are at our best when we co-operate,” he wrote. “Whatever the momentary fluctuations in our relationship, we will be better off if we commit to help bring out the best in each other.”
Earlier, the minister told reporters Australia came to the multi-national forum as “an honest player looking to make good relationships across the board, particularly with Indonesia”.
But he conceded: “I don’t think we’re in a breakthrough situation”.
In the wake of the spy scandal, Indonesia proposed a six-point plan to restore bilateral ties with Australia, but little progress has been made.
Both ministers, however, insist some co-operation in their portfolios goes on.
Dr Yusgiantoro told reporters the defence relationship with Australia endured, even when other difficulties persisted.
“I don’t see any big deal from here, except that we ceased joint exercise and military exercises,” Dr Yusgiantoro told reporters.
“We have to differentiate between bilateral and multilateral.”
Also at the Jakarta forum was Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who has repeatedly criticised the policy of turning back asylum-seeker boats.
Dr Natalegawa, who views the six-point plan as stuck at point one, says he will meet his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop next week, on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in The Netherlands.