Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Controlling the Indonesia-Aussie spat

Indonesia-Australia relations have been damaged by the turn of events these last few days. Just how damaging, and the more pertinent question of how soon can they be recovered, depend on how Jakarta and Canberra handle the situation.

·        President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has recalled his ambassador in Canberra in response to fresh media revelations that he, his wife and eight other members of his inner circle have been the target of Australia’s phone-tapping activities. Indonesia has been aware of this surveillance, but President Yudhoyono must have been hurt personally, prompting him on Monday to take matters into his own hands, instead of relying on the usual diplomatic channels.

Via his personal Twitter account on Monday, Yudhoyono singled out Prime Minister Tony Abbott for not showing any guilt. The newly elected Abbott said he did not see any need to apologize, particularly since the phone-tapping happened under previous Labor governments. Abbott also insisted that all governments spy one another, a claim Indonesia quickly denied it is doing to any of its friends, including Australia.

Clearly, there does not seem to be any meeting point between Yudhoyono and Abbott even though they had only just met last month. But Indonesia-Australia relations are not, and should not be defined solely by their leaders. Besides government-to-government ties, there are other dimensions in this relationship, including people-to-people and business-to-business contacts to consider.

Sure, when our two governments have good rapport and when our leaders have cordial ties, they tremendously help overall relations. But these relations and contacts can go on with or without the support of the government.

When our leaders fight in the open, verbally, as they have done this week, it should not affect these other dimensions. The thousands of Indonesian students in Australia will continue to study, Australian tourists will continue to vacation in Bali and our business leaders will continue to invest and trade with each other as opportunities arise.

Relations between Indonesia and Australia have broadened and deepened to such an extent, that it is difficult to see them being rolled back over personal disagreements between our leaders.

The two countries have gone through so much together because we are destined to be neighbors. The Bali bombing in 2002, the Aceh tsunami in 2004 and the growing perceptions that the two countries face similar security challenges are just some of the episodes that have brought our two countries and people closer together.

The cordial relations that Yudhoyono established with successive prime ministers since 2004 have facilitated and strengthened relations even further. But as with any neighbor relations, there are bound to be hiccups from time-to-time. This week is one of those downturns in the relationship.

If President Yudhoyono now decides to review overall cooperation with Australia, he would do well to be selective and be sure not to affect the overall long-term rel
ationship that he helped build. Jakarta Post

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