Indonesia is edging back into Australia’s foreign-policy debate. With its huge population, growing economy and strategic location Indonesia is not only projected to become one of the world’s major economies within a few decades, it is also regarded as a global swing state that will have increasing influence in international affairs.
At the government level, Australia is considered a very close partner of Indonesia’s. The two countries are negotiating a comprehensive economic partnership agreement, and coordinate diplomatic efforts well in many regional and international fora.
But the relationship is still quite asymmetrical. Australians tend to pay more attention to events in Indonesia — especially negative ones — than the other way around. Except when there is high bilateral tension, Australia is not often a topic of discussion among Indonesia’s chattering elites.
There is also a sense in Indonesia, even when the relationship is strong, that dormant issues could quickly flare up. Many in Indonesia are still suspicious of Australians in general — if not of the government, of those members of the public that are openly critical toward Indonesia, especially those questioning its territorial integrity.
This is a hangover of the East Timor issue. Some Indonesians still strongly believe that the separation of East Timor from Indonesia resulted partly from Australian pressure. Despite the 2006 Lombok Treaty, in which Indonesia and Australia affirmed their mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity, there are continuing concerns about Papua. Indonesia’s central government is trying to accelerate the region’s development, but with increased violence a business-as-usual approach is not sustainable. So while Jakarta tries to address problems internally, it is always on the lookout for signs that its partners might not be totally committed to Indonesia’s territorial integrity.
There is also a sense that too much is expected of Jakarta on the issue of asylum seekers. It always seems to Australia that Indonesia is not doing enough. But Indonesia is a very open maritime country, with naturally porous borders. It has a relaxed visa system in order to promote tourism, so it is quite easy for people from West Asia and other places to enter as tourists — or illegally — and then to join the refugee underground.
Indonesia’s capacity to monitor small ports and fishing boats, and find those engaged in refugee smuggling, is still limited. Such capacity needs to be built up over time. Corruption among officials has also made law enforcement more difficult.
Indonesia and Australia look at the region and the world from different historical and cultural perspectives, and this sometimes leads to their leaders speaking at cross purposes. This was made quite clear during the president’s July visit to Darwin. While Prime Minister Julia Gillard focused on security issues, the strategic environment and the asylum-seeker problem, Yudhoyono emphasised the opportunity to expand economic ties, promoting Indonesia as a land of opportunities for trade and investment. For Indonesia, sustaining its economic growth in the midst of a global downturn and increasing competition is a priority, to ensure both its development momentum and political stability.
Indonesia continues to stay true to its ‘free and active’ foreign policy, a key feature of which is not being allied to any particular military power. This is why the Indonesian government’s response to last November’s announcement of the posting of US marines to Darwin (through the statement of Foreign Minister Marty Natelegawa) was a cautious one, expressing hope that such a troop presence would not lead to increased tension or misunderstandings.
There is also suspicion among some Indonesian politicians, non-government organisations and students that the Darwin positioning of the US marines is not so much a counterweight to Chinese influence, but that rather it is aimed at enhancing American leverage over Indonesia itself. Some even consider the ‘real target’ to be Papua. This reflects Indonesia’s insecurity about its territorial integrity, and suggests that it has not forgotten American and Australian involvement in the Dutch attempt to separate Papua from the rest of the former Dutch East Indies.
During official visits, Indonesian leaders have raised the decline of Indonesian language study in Australian schools and universities as an issue, along with unequal cultural exchange in general. With more Indonesians studying in Australia than the other way around, over time there will develop greater first-hand knowledge of Australia among young, educated Indonesians than knowledge about Indonesia among Australia’s elite.
This asymmetry in knowledge is not a good thing. Australia is not doing itself any favours by neglecting its knowledge on Indonesian culture. As ASEAN becomes more integrated — with Indonesia at its centre — Jakarta will feature more and more prominently, not just in the regional arena, but internationally.
Australia should have a comparative advantage when it comes to working with Jakarta. Historically, it has put a lot of time and energy into developing the world’s best corps of deep intellectual expertise about Indonesia. It should be able to leverage that expertise, not just for strategic security considerations, but for its own economic benefits. The decline in interest about Indonesia, at a time when Indonesia is on the rise, is mystifying. Author: Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Jakarta East Asia Forum