Thursday, September 18, 2014

Indonesia-Australia: The lame-duck gambit

Taking the one-page code of conduct between Jakarta and Canberra at face value as a signal of restored ties poses a real danger to the future of bilateral relations between the two neighbors. In practice, the document conceals the extent of bilateral damage and might be preventing it from receiving much-needed proper treatment.

Instead of “applying pressure” to the wound, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apparently opted to cover it with a piece of paper instead.

First, the outgoing president seemingly pushed the diplomatic process in an unnatural, hurried and somewhat suspect manner that left the public guessing. A “six-step” gradual process of rapprochement, like many aspects of Yudhoyono’s foreign policy, hardly reflects the diplomatic reality on the ground. It is doubtful that anyone other than Yudhoyono himself can feel, let alone claim, any ownership of the diplomatic process and the final signed document.

Despite the rhetoric of increasing people-to-people (P2P) relations, the code of conduct indicates that relations have taken a much more elitist turn. Understandably, this introduces a certain degree of volatility in bilateral relations should the next row erupt under president-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s watch. The Indonesian public is also left without proper closure since Yudhoyono could not even manage to extract a simple apology from Canberra. Claims that Australia “won the spy war” and “did not budge an inch” are correct. However, it leaves out the ironic fact that Australia did not win the spy war “against Yudhoyono”, but won it “with Yudhoyono” instead.

The latest leaked documents on a graft scandal surrounding the printing of Indonesian banknotes in Australia in 1999 (The Jakarta Post, Aug. 1, 2014) indicates that any future leaks might be — properly or wrongfully — associated with individuals working and events happening under Yudhoyono’s presidency. Understandably, it would be in Yudhoyono’s interests to quickly mend ties and keep himself on Australia’s good side. In contrast, there is very little interest for Jokowi to hand out “get out of jail free” cards to Australia.

Unfortunately, ever since the bilateral row took place, it has also become the Australian media’s favorite pastime to “intentionally misread” Yudhoyono’s actions and perceptions as representing the whole of Indonesia. However, such media biases are entirely understandable since the Indonesian public itself is having difficulty figuring out whether policy options concerning Australia are motivated by Yudhoyono’s own political interest or Indonesia’s larger national interest.

Second, the signing of the code of conduct should be seen as a note of caution about a larger political maneuvering in the last moments of Yudhoyono’s presidency. A lame-duck president might be tempted to hand out a number of strategic national leverages to secure last-minute praise from the West or simply to politically capitalize on the seemingly chaotic transition period.

Jokowi’s transition team has received a bad rap recently due to allegedly being unruly, bypassing procedures and “unnecessarily meddling” in the affairs of certain ministries. Despite being technically sound, these criticisms are substantively irrelevant. President Yudhoyono is currently handing over his “presidential briefcase” to Jokowi. Therefore, it is important for the latter’s team to thoroughly check the briefcase for ticking time bombs before it is passed on. To be fair, though, it is also natural for Yudhoyono to feel untrusted, offended and violated upon being frisked, but this might have more to do with his own insecurities.

Amid all the smoke and mirrors, the transition team should be guarding PT Freeport Indonesia renegotiations closely since Jokowi will be at the receiving end of all political externalities, economic consequences and diplomatic difficulties produced by the gold-mining operator. Despite clarifications, the current government is continuously sending mixed and unclear signals, ranging from postponing renegotiations for future leadership to drafting a legally binding memorandum of understanding (MoU) to seal negotiations early on. This is where the message should be made clear — no more last-minute deals behind closed doors.

The transition team needs to search thoroughly in anticipation of further “buck-passing” of the more difficult policy decisions to incoming president Jokowi. The postponing of the evaluation of special autonomy in Papua, the drafting of the special autonomy “plus” package for Papua and Yudhoyono’s rejection of requests to perform the long-overdue cutting of fuel subsidies are just a few examples of such buck-passing tendencies.

Third, wishful thinking that bilateral relations are fully restored by Yudhoyono’s one-page document is both naive and dangerous. The premature code of conduct swept the trust deficit under the rug and stole away the chance for both countries to learn and appreciate each other’s sensitivities, sensibilities and subtleties. It is the equivalent of breaking off a fight without resolving the underlying problem that initially triggered it.

The document unnecessarily placed Indonesia in a vulnerable position and might be incentivizing further breaches in the future. It conveys the wrong message that openly conducting large-scale intelligence operations from a Jakarta embassy and repeatedly breaching Indonesian sovereign waters will only cost a signature on a piece of paper.

Let’s not forget that Beijing is also keeping a very close eye on Southeast Asia’s largest country. Just to refresh memories, Chinese destroyers Wuhan and Haikou and the country’s largest amphibious landing craft Changbaishan were deployed for simulation drills through the Lombok Strait soon after the Royal Australian Navy repeatedly breached Indonesian waters six times in early 2014.

In Yudhoyono’s dealings with Australia, Indonesia looked entirely like a nation of coolies and a coolie among nations. Despite its growing international stature and being a larger economy than Australia, Indonesia under Yudhoyono has had to receive the coolie treatment from Australia. Jokowi will be walking into the G-20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, with the difficult challenge of dispelling the image of Indonesia as “the pushover nation, a nation of coolies and a coolie among nations”, thanks to Yudhoyono.


Pierre Marthinus, director of the Marthinus Academy in Jakarta.


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