Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Australian-Indonesia relations in a mess

THE Gillard government has made a mess of the critically important relationship with Indonesia. This has been partly concealed by the politeness and pro-Australian disposition of the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa. But the evidence is there for all to see, not least in the President's visit this week. 

At the same time, Tony Abbott now has a much more pro-active and forward-looking policy towards Indonesia than Gillard does. Labor is being outflanked by Abbott on what it used to regard as a core strength, its relationship with Jakarta.

There were plenty of signs of all this in the presidential visit. First was the extraordinary decision that neither the President nor the Foreign Minister would take questions from the Australian press. Almost uniquely, in this visit there was no joint press conference between Prime Minister and President.

SBY and Natalegawa are the most gracious and urbane of men, both long in office and effortlessly able to deal with questions from Western journalists. SBY and John Howard always had joint press conferences on official visits, even at the height of the West Papuan asylum-seeker crisis.

For a visiting Indonesian president not to accept a single question takes us back to the days of Suharto and his visit to Townsville in 1974. It can only be seen as a big step backwards in the relationship, a partial de-normalising -- a return to a state of institutional fraughtness, so to speak.

This is a decision the Indonesians took and it's fair to speculate on their motives. The government can counter that it has annual heads of government meetings, but SBY's strategic decision that he wants a co-operative relationship with Australia long pre-dates Gillard's prime ministership. In fact, it partly shields Gillard. Almost certainly, Indonesia's next president will not be so pro-Australian as SBY. If we got a president remotely inclined to nationalist exploitation of foreign policy issues, and then repeated a fraction of the litany of mistakes Gillard has made, we could pay for it very dearly.

The media has ignored another big development on this visit, namely Abbott's emergence into the centre of the relationship, just as Kevin Rudd as opposition leader emerged into the centre of the China relationship. SBY held a half-hour meeting with Abbott. He began, in front of the cameras, by praising Abbott's "wonderful speech last night" and said: "I recall working with my good friend John Howard, laying foundations for enhancing our bilateral co-operation".

SBY is the most sophisticated of leaders. He knows exactly what he is doing in everything he says, and he knew what he was doing in publicly praising his good friend John Howard.

The media has also missed Abbott's profoundly important policy moves on Indonesia. It is all very well for the government to characterise Abbott as "relentlessly negative" but too many commentators have swallowed this caricature whole and as a result don't pay diligent attention to the positive policy commitments Abbott makes.

Abbott has committed to making Indonesia his first overseas visit as prime minister, subject only to the president's availability to receive him at the time. This is not a throwaway line by Abbott, nor is it a visit designed to be restricted to, or even primarily about, asylum-seekers.

Abbott told me yesterday: "I want to establish the precedent in the future that incoming Australian prime ministers make Indonesia their first overseas visit, not Washington, not London, not Beijing, not Tokyo, but Jakarta, because in some respects Indonesia is our most important relationship."
This new line of Abbott's, that Indonesia is in some respects Australia's most important relationship, marks a significant breakthrough in his thinking and in opposition policy. It may be an attempt to transcend the boatpeople issue, or specifically the opposition's turn-back-the boats policy, in his maturing relationship with the Indonesians.

Abbott has pledged that he will run a "no surprises" policy with the Indonesians, which is a well-earned backhander for the Gillard government's bizarre decision to suspend the live cattle export trade to Indonesia without advance consultations with Jakarta.

In another under-reported initiative, in his speech to the Liberal Party federal council meeting in Melbourne last weekend, Abbott announced he would implement "a new Colombo Plan", but this time it would be designed to send Australians into Southeast Asia to study as well as bringing Southeast Asians to Australia. Abbott said: "We should better appreciate not just how much Australia can give our neighbours but how much they can give us, in cultural insights as well as in trade benefits. That's hard when there are, for instance, 17,000 Indonesians studying here but only some 200 Australians studying there."

Abbott also committed to ensuring that within a decade 40 per cent of Year 12 students study a foreign language, including a big boost to Asian languages, the study of which has declined disgracefully in recent years.

Taken together, these initiatives give Abbott a much more pro-active, constructive and comprehensive policy of engagement with Southeast Asia in general, and Indonesia in particular, than the Gillard government has.

Overall, the SBY visit was a strategic failure for Gillard. Her policy towards Indonesia has been a long series of tactical and strategic blunders, none more so than the live cattle fiasco. In one of the stupidest acts of modern Australian diplomacy, Labor suspended this trade without consulting the Indonesians. When it resumed, Jakarta halved the quota of Australian beef it imported. Since then the Indonesians have looked to increase their domestic industry and find alternative foreign suppliers.

The damage to Australia's reputation as a reliable supplier is grave and probably irreversible. We threatened Indonesian food security and demonstrated that in a conflict between domestic politics and the Indonesian relationship, Gillard will choose domestic politics every time.

To sense how the Indonesians feel, imagine the Chinese reaction if we declared that environmental concerns meant we would suddenly suspend iron ore exports to China. There would be hell to pay, and rightly so.

The reduced quotas have seriously damaged the Australian industry and weakened our links with Indonesia. Gillard got nothing from SBY on this issue on this visit. The quotas will not move. He politely invited Australians to invest in Indonesia's domestic cattle industry instead.

Similarly, Gillard got nothing from SBY on the boatpeople issue. The Indonesians were aghast, and made their feelings plain, at the Captain Emad fiasco. The Indonesians believe, quite rightly, that the Rudd and Gillard governments created the boats problem by abandoning Howard's successful policies. And every episode along the way, from the farcical East Timor solution right through to Captain Emad, has confirmed for them our incompetence, irresolution and hypocrisy. We are in no position to lecture Jakarta on people-smuggling.

We also failed in our consultation with the Indonesians over the plan to regularly rotate 2500 US marines through Darwin. We should have been consulting the Indonesians at the highest levels every step of the way in our thinking on this issue. If we had done that we would not have received the sharp, negative reaction from Jakarta that the move got.

Gillard has done almost nothing to enhance people-to-people links, with the collapse of Indonesian language studies in Australian schools and universities.

SBY's forbearance and good humour should not obscure the magnitude of the government's failures on Indonesia. Greg Sheriden for The Australian

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