Bushmaster Brush: Indonesia says no thanks to Marles’ military gifts

by Rex Patrick and Philip Dorling | Mar 10, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

Defence Minister Richard Marles has proven through AUKUS that he’s a naïve and incompetent buyer. He’s also proven, through a failed sale of Bushmaster military vehicles to Indonesia, he’s no better at sales. Rex Patrick and Philip Dorling provide an update on his wheelings and dealings with Indonesia.

Bromancing the Stone

Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles made his third visit to Jakarta in nine months to continue the bromance with his Indonesian counterpart, Defence Minister and President-elect Prabowo Subianto.

After becoming the president-elect, both Marles and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese quickly extended their congratulations to Prabowo, a former army general with a grisly human rights record.

The United States Government stopped short of congratulating Prabowo personally, preferring instead to applaud the Indonesian people on a successful election. 

Marles wasn’t so nuanced, rushing to Jakarta to continue building his friendship with Prabowo in the hope of strengthening defence cooperation as a buttress to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.  

Defence alliance with Indonesia. Is Marles cuddling up to the wrong man?

In a media statement issued on the eve of his 24 February visit, Marles declared Indonesia to be “one of our closest partners”.  

“The Government is invested in our relationship with Indonesia, as demonstrated by the calls the Prime Minister and I made to Minister Prabowo last week”, Marles said.

“I look forward to meeting my friend Minister Prabowo again to discuss the opportunities we have to build on our significant defence partnership – now and into the future.”  

Lightning fast treaty negotiations

The details of Marles’ latest meeting with Prabowo remain secret, but after their talks both Ministers were upbeat about the prospects for signing a new defence cooperation treaty.  

In a joint statement, Prabowo and Marles confirmed the Indonesian and Australian Governments expect to sign a defence cooperation agreement within two or three months. “We are committed to maintaining and enhancing this relationship. So I don’t think there will be surprises”, Prabowo said.  

Marles was positively effusive, saying the conclusion of the defence treaty will be “the most important moment in this bilateral relationship.” 

“We are looking at the deepest, most significant defence agreement between our two nations in our respective histories. First time this will have occurred at a treaty level …It is a very a significant statement about the strategic direction of both Indonesia and Australia.  These are agreements which normally take many, many years, and we are very hopeful of being in a position to sign this in the next few months. If we can achieve that, that is a lightning-fast agreement.”

Both Canberra and Jakarta are pretty coy about the strategic thinking behind these negotiations; however documents released under FOI last year left little doubt that China’s rising military power and territorial expansion in the South China Sea are key elements in the strategic calculus.  

One key Australian objective disclosed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is to “to build greater alignment with Indonesia on maritime cooperation and the promotion of UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]”. Australian talking points included a commitment by the Australian Government to Indonesia to help advance “clear shared interests in maritime security”, including “supporting your efforts to protect your Exclusive Economic Zone across the archipelago.”

Bushmaster gift

However, behind such strategic calculations and Defence Minister Marles’ rhetoric of cooperation, a new Defence Department FOI release suggests that a reality check may be required on the practical implementation and scale of defence cooperation.  

A much touted component of the recent strengthening of bilateral defence cooperation has been Australia’s donation of Bushmaster protected mobility vehicles (PMVs) to the Indonesian Army.

The offer of 15 second-hand but refurbished Bushmasters was first announced by then Defence Minister Peter Dutton in September 2021 as a contribution to Indonesia’s capacity to contribute to United Nations peacekeeping operations.

Produced by Thales Australia at their facility in Bendigo, Victoria, the Bushmaster is a recent Australian defence industry success and the donation was intended to promote cooperation and showcase Australian military technology.  

However, the implementation of this modest initiative was sluggish at best. Australia’s proposed gift was subject to negotiation about training, spare parts and sustainment with the Indonesians looking for ongoing support to maintain the vehicles.  

It was not until April 2023 that Indonesia formally accepted Australia’s offer that included a training package and a six month supply of spare parts. The Indonesians will sustain the vehicles through commercial arrangements. 

In late June 2023 Indonesian troops took part in a Bushmaster operation and maintenance exercise conducted by the Australian Army’s 5th Battalion.  

The Bushmasters were eventually transferred to the Indonesian military in August 2023.  

Defence export fail

The fact that it took nearly two years to transfer just 15 vehicles suggests that the practicalities of bilateral defence cooperation might be characterised as something less than “lightning fast”.

Moreover, Defence Department briefings for Minister Marles now show that the Bushmaster donation was actually part of a defence export pitch that has so far failed to deliver any results.  

The Bushmasters have repeatedly featured in Defence’s briefings for Marles’ meetings with Prabowo.  

In November 2022 a Defence briefing for Marles on “what we want” from Indonesia urged him to “advocate for the sale of 50 Bushmasters to Indonesia’s army”.  

Salesman Marles (Source: FOI)

Salesman Marles (Source: FOI)

The Indonesian military had indeed expressed interest in purchasing Bushmasters and Defence proposed that Australia send “a trade mission to Indonesia to explore opportunities to cooperate on defence industry, potentially including helping it establish the capacity to repair and maintain Bushmasters.”  

However, in briefing prepared for Marles’ meeting with Prabowo in Canberra on 10 February last year, the Defence advised that “discussions have stalled”.

Sales Dead End (Source: FOI)

Sales Dead End (Source: FOI)

The reasons for this have been redacted from the FOI release on the grounds that disclosure would potentially damage Australia’s international relations; specifically that it would “negatively impact our bilateral defence relationship with Indonesia”.  

Since then it appears the prospective sale of Bushmasters to Indonesia has not moved forward. 

If it does it would be somewhat problematic anyway, since these vehicles are especially well suited for counter-insurgency operations, the type of activity in which the Indonesian Army has been notorious for human rights violations and abuse, most notably in recent decades in West Papua.  

None-the-less, the failure so far to secure an export sale suggests that behind Defence Minister Marles enthusiastic spruiking of a new defence cooperation treaty, the realities of policy implementation are not all that impressive.  

Need for scrutiny

This and the wider aspects of bilateral defence cooperation may be something for the Australian Parliament to explore through Senate Estimates hearings, the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, or when the much hyped Defence cooperation treaty is signed and referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) for review before ratification.  

Although JSCOT’s membership is solely comprised of Labor and Coalition MPs who are unlikely to have much argument with deeper defence ties with Indonesia, the necessary inquiry process for a treaty-level agreement should provide a rare opportunity for public submissions, debate and scrutiny of a relationship that has proved controversial; in the past and may well prove to be problematic in the future.   

Human rights and other civil society organisations should certainly have an opportunity to offer their perspectives on Defence Minister Marles cuddling up with the politician who is set to be Indonesia’s next president, but who also has a disturbing history of political violence, human rights abuse and authoritarianism.  

For that reason, don’t be surprised if the Albanese Government also moves “lightning fast” to truncate the parliamentary review process and expedite ratification well before Australia’s next election.

Marles Mauled: Rex Patrick demolishes Defence sophistry on AUKUS, submarines, nuclear

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

Philip Dorling has some thirty years of experience of high-level political, public policy and media work, much of that at the Australian Parliament.

He has worked in the Australian political environment from most angles, in both the national and state levels of government including as a senior executive; as a senior policy adviser for the Federal Labor Opposition and for cross bench Senators; and as an award-winning journalist in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.

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