Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Australia must build trust with Indonesia

The relationship between Australia and Indonesia stretches back to ancient maritime trade and fishing connections across the narrow seas.
But in the first half of the 20th century not many Australians had contact with Indonesians, and it was only during World War II that a larger number of Australians were exposed to their neighbour.

Post-war Australia supported the Indonesian struggle for independence against the Dutch, particularly in the newly-formed UN. For this, those who still remember in Indonesia are grateful. That episode was probably the high point in modern Australian–Indonesian relations.

It certainly feels like it has been downhill since then. Still, Australian governments on both sides of politics try to promote the relationship. Support for independence came under a Labor government, but successive Liberal–National (Country) Party governments built the relationship, through, for example, the Menzies government’s creation of Indonesian Studies departments in universities. Menzies was keen to extend Australian knowledge of Indonesia for security reasons — a wise judgement considering that a few years later Australian troops were fighting on the borders of Borneo against the Indonesian military. This ‘Confrontation’ was Indonesia’s stand against Britain, however, and was not directed at Australia as an identifiable enemy. When Suharto came to power in 1965 all parties welcomed him as an ally in the Cold War. They ignored the killing of 500,000 to one million people as he consolidated power. Successive Labor governments built close ties with the Suharto dictatorship: Prime Minister Whitlam gave the green-light to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, and Prime Minister Keating enjoyed close personal ties to the aging general.

But there was little public trust or affection for Indonesia and Australian politicians struggled to overcome popular views. Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor brought a public backlash in Australia and led to a marked decline in the study of the Indonesian language in schools and universities. In the hippy-influenced acme of the late 1960s, the University of Sydney had approximately 600 students studying the language and culture, by the late 1970s this had dropped to less than 120 (and they are currently around 60). Australian policy aimed to counter or ignore public opinion, since the priority was the strength of the relationship, based on a rationale of strategic interests and the hope of economic relations to come.

The Howard government changed things significantly. In 1999, Prime Minister Howard helped persuade Indonesian President B J Habibie to grant a referendum on independence for East Timor. But, after the vote, Australia misread the Indonesian military’s interference on the island and there was a breakdown in communication with the civilian leadership of Indonesia. Australia and Indonesia almost came into direct conflict. Antipathy on both sides was fed by hostile media reporting.

The Australian public’s picture of Indonesia was overwhelmingly negative: the violence surrounding Suharto’s resignation made Indonesia seem dangerous, a perception that was cemented by the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and the 2004 bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Negative images of Indonesia were furthered by the sensationalist coverage of the Schapelle Corby drug case.

Prime Minister Howard took a largely populist approach to these negative perceptions of Indonesia. Although he built good personal relations with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY, after he came to power in 2004, Howard manoeuvred around public anti-Indonesian sentiment rather than trying to confront it.

Yudhoyono has overseen a turnaround in Indonesia’s economy and made Indonesia a beacon of stability and leadership in Southeast Asia. While internal criticism of SBY has increased under his second presidency, this has had little effect on Indonesia’s international standing. The relationship with Australia seemed to be getting better, too. Under Prime Minister Gillard in particular, economic ties deepened as both countries benefitted from China’s boom. Negatives, such as controversies over live cattle trade and West Papua, did not disturb the momentum.

For Indonesia, the current issue of refugees that has dominated Australian politics is not a top priority. In a country of 240,000,000, a few thousand refugees do not represent a ‘national emergency’, as it has been described in Australia. Combating corruption, overcoming poverty and feeding the population all represent much more pressing problems for Indonesia. Although Australia’s new government has an appreciation of the wider picture of the relationship, it may have backed itself into a corner before it was elected by attempting to differentiate itself from the previous government’s refugee policies. For Indonesia, anything involving sovereignty is a sensitive issue, since the principle of national unity is one of the few points all sides of politics can agree on. Indonesia heads into a presidential election in 2014, and SBY is ineligible to stand for a third term, so it is likely that aspirants on the Indonesian side will also resort to nationalist rhetoric. Just when the relationship was looking up again, both sides are going to need to bend over backwards to keep things on a smooth keel.

Professor Adrian Vickers is Director of the Asian Studies Program and executive member of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, the University of Sydney.

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