Can the Abbott government develop an understanding of Indonesia?
Last week, Australia’s Abbott
government was forced into an embarrassing climb-down when a boatload of asylum
seekers called for help just 57 nautical miles from the Sunda Strait. An
Australian customs craft, HMAS Ballarat went to assist. But when the Ballarat
sought permission to drop off the asylum seekers at the nearest Indonesian
port, the Indonesians turned them down.
The standoff continued in the Java
Sea for a couple of days until Australia backed down and ferried the asylum
seekers to Christmas Island in Australian territory.
What was ugliest about the stand-off
was not the events on the sea, but the exchanges between both governments that
took place during and after the incident. It dovetailed with irritation over
Premier Tony Abbott’s pre-government campaign pledge to “turn back the boats”
of asylum seekers to Indonesia and took place against the backdrop of revelations
of Australia spying on Indonesia from its embassy in Jakarta and a number of
cyber attacks on Australian business and government websites by Anonymous
In short, what came out of these
exchanges was that Indonesia strongly believes that Australia should not act
unilaterally and that the two should seek a comprehensive bilateral solution to
the problem.. In contrast, Abbott in a radio broadcast said he was not happy
about the Australian vessel being refused permission to drop off the asylum
seekers, who were picked up within the Indonesian search and rescue zone.
The Australia-Indonesia relationship
has always been testy, going back to 1980 when Indonesia, insulted by what it
called slander by the Australian media, changed
immigration rules without notice when a group of Australian tourists were
mid-flight on a Garuda flight to Bali, forcing their return. It was only when former
Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating placed great importance upon the
Australian-Indonesian relationship in the 1990s that the relationship improved
However this failed to evolve under
the Howard Government, which re-emphasized the Australian-US relationship.
Since then annual ministerial meetings between the two countries have focused
on the smaller issues like people smuggling, asylum seekers, live cattle
exports, and Australian prisoners in Bali, rather than important regional and
As a result, the Australian-Indonesia
relationship has not grown into a mature one, being very little above
transactional, with few deep personal engagements between the leaders of both
countries. This lack of personal rapport was partly to blame for the situation
that nearly led to major clashes between TNI and Australian troops in East
Timor back in 1999.
Relations have cooled significantly
with the Sept. 13 arrival of the Abbott government in Canberra. Accusations
over the Ballarat incident have gone back and forth, but the message Jakarta
seems to be giving is that Australia can't take Indonesia for granted.
This blunt response is not the usual
style of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The decision to refuse
permission for the Australian vessel to drop off the asylum seekers would not
have been taken lightly, as SBY would be well aware that Abbott would lose face
domestically with his “turn back the boats” policy in tatters. However,
Abbott's policy put the Indonesian president in a predicament with the
opposition forces, with an election due next year.
Although Indonesia has drastically
changed over the last 15 years, some of the older generation still regard
Australia with suspicion over Australia's role in East Timor (now Timor Leste)
and blame Australia for its loss. Within this group the perception still exists
that Australia believes itself to be superior to Indonesia, something that can
be easily exploited by opposition forces within Indonesia. Should SBY choose to
do nothing, the opposition could fan nationalist sentiments which could be
destabilizing and exploited politically.
SBY cannot afford to let the people
see him weak. If some government anger is not shown to Australia, there will be
opportunities for others to vent anger for political ends. Those who have
watched SBY's usual style know that showing anger is very counterintuitive for
One must remember that the young,
educated Indonesian middle class have warm feelings towards Australia, and can
distinguish the difference between Australians and their government, which is
perceived to have shown great insensitivity towards Indonesia with the spying
and boat people incidents of late.
The actions taken by Indonesia are
only of a low level, with the nation's top leadership largely. There have been
no demonstrations outside the Australian Embassy, unlike the Malaysian Embassy
when Indonesian maids were mistreated in Malaysia. So the positive side is that
this 'spat' between Australia and Indonesia is not a major one. Only the
Indonesian leadership felt it was necessary to draw a line with Australia.
There is deep frustration in Jakarta
that the Australian government still doesn't have a fundamental understanding
of Indonesia. Damage to the relationship is currently minimal, as both
countries know that there is a need to improve bilateral relations. However
there is now a special onus upon the Abbott Government to show in some way that
the relationship has a high priority and is truly valued.
Indonesia is on its way to becoming a
major power in the region. Indonesia’s GDP (PPP) is already larger than
Australia at US$1.212 trillion, the 16th largest economy in the world. This
growth is occurring through the whole Indonesian archipelago, rapidly
transforming the country into a much more advanced economy. With a consistent
annual growth rate of around 6 percent despite current economic troubles,
Indonesia’s influence within the region will grow dramatically.
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating in
his delivery of the Keith Murdoch Oration Lecture in November 2012 stated
“Policy towards our nearest, largest neighbor Indonesia has languished, lacking
framework judgments of magnitude and coherence. It’s as if Indonesia remains as
it was before the Asian financial crisis, before its remarkable transition to
democracy, and before the refiring of its wealth machinery”.
At face value, it appears that
Australian policy makers still have a lot of thinking to do about the
Indonesian relationship. Although the “Australia in the Asian Century” white
paper calls on Australians to learn more Indonesian language at school and more
cultural exchanges between the peoples of the two countries, the Department of
Foreign Affairs and trade (DFAT) regularly issues travel warnings to Indonesia,
effectively telling Australians not to visit.
In addition the halting of live
exports of cattle to Indonesia and stationing of 2,500 US marines in Darwin
without first advising the Indonesian government does little to develop trust
and openness between the two countries. Aid is also not the answer. Australia’s
relationship with Indonesia must go far beyond aid to build up any much deeper
Indonesia has a much more
sophisticated view of the world than Australian policy makers have given credit
for. This view sees the issues of energy, food, and water security becoming
paramount concerns when the world’s population approaches 9 billion people. SBY
speaks of the need for a new global architecture, seeing China and the US as rivals
who need each other.
Indonesia s one must play a role in the regional power
structure along with both China and the US in promoting and maintaining peace
and cooperation. In terms of the China-US rivalry, Indonesia is pursuing a
policy of dual co-existence where the legitimacy of both powers in the region
is recognized and respected. Consequently Indonesia doesn’t see itself as
having any foreign policy obstacles in dealing with both powers.
Indonesia is interested in developing
the rules for the road in managing conflicts and disputes in the South China
Sea. In picking up this role as an indirect conduit between Beijing and
Washington, Indonesia sees this as the most productive role it can take in
maintaining a peaceful region.
Australia must recognize Indonesia’s
emergence as a new regional power and treat it as such, understanding that
Indonesia has its own view of the world. The strong Australia-US relationship
as we have seen with the spying revelations, sometimes gets in the way of other
bilateral relationships just as important to Australia.
Australia must see that it needs
Indonesia more than Indonesia needs Australia. This needs to be understood in
Canberra. This 'stand-off' was not just about negotiating a fair and equitable
agreement about the handling of asylum seekers, but a message that a new
understanding is required for the relationship between Australia and Indonesia
Finally, the latest episode in
conducting both foreign policy and playing to the domestic electorate at the same
time, has proved to be a very dangerous game. The pandering to domestic
electors is now holding back both parties from forming a genuine partnership
and moving forward. Abbott must also ensure that his neighbor has room to move.
It is to be hoped that the Abbott government has learnt this lesson early in
its first term as government and will be aware of this trap in future. ‘Asia