Thursday, May 7, 2015

Indonesia and Australia don't take each other seriously

Executions aside, it is far too early to write off Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo.

When the lights fade on Australia's most disturbing reality television show, after  this week's Sydney funerals for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, it would be tempting to write-off Joko Widodo's Indonesia. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her diplomats worked tirelessly to shift the Indonesian president from his merciless course. They mobilised a lobbying effort that was unprecedented in breadth, intensity and sophistication. And all that emotional energy which helped to power (and was powered by) an Australian media frenzy, has proved futile. 

Distorted perceptions are already setting hard, as if the messy and undignified executions of two repentant Australian drug smugglers should define the Indonesian president and his huge and unwieldy young democracy. One emerging view is that Jokowi's gratuitous disregard for international opinion in a globalised world has shown him to be incompetent. Another is that he is the puppet of Megawati Sukarnoputri, heir of the Sukarno dynasty, and he has been desperately using the executions of foreigners to cloak his servility in a tough theatrical guise. A third theory is that Jokowi has revealed himself to be a Mahathir-like figure who simply revels in making life miserable for Australia.

Any one of these diagnoses, if correct, would be disastrous for Australia, which depends on Indonesian co-operation for all of its most pressing security challenges. All have been circulating not only within the Australian media but also in the Indonesian sections of Australian universities and at the highest levels of government in Canberra.

But perhaps they reveal less about the objective state of play in Jokowi's Indonesia than the national pathologies that tint perceptions on both sides of the Java Sea. Put simply, neither Indonesia nor Australia have ever quite managed to see each other as the serious countries they imagine themselves to be.

Jokowi has no particular warmth, or cultural affinity, or even curiosity towards his southern neighbour, despite exporting furniture here and educating a son in Sydney. Nor does he have ill-will.

It's just that all the things that really matter to his country, in his view, are to be found in Northeast Asia, the United States or Europe. Australia is neither more nor less than a source of minor irritations.

When Jakarta correspondent Michael Bachelard and I sat down with Jokowi in October, he urged Australians to step beyond the tourist strips of Bali to explore one of the world's most diverse and colourful archipelagos. He also warned the Abbott government against pursuing narrow parochial interests, like turning asylum seeker vessels back to Indonesia, at the expense of international norms and expectations. "We have international law, you must respect international law," he said.

Beyond these sensitivities, Australia barely featured on the presidential radar. That was the only interview with the Australian media that the otherwise media-friendly leader has bothered to give.

The failure of Indonesia and Australia to treat each other as serious nations belies their respective strategic interests, which are becoming increasingly aligned. Australia, for example, first informed Indonesia's under-resourced military that two Chinese destroyers were sailing down between Java and Sumatra in an unprecedented show of force in February last year, according to senior Australian sources. Australian officials privately acknowledge they could not hope to manage territorial tensions in the South China Sea without Indonesian counterparts on their side. And the scourges of extremist terrorism and people smuggling can hardly be addressed without the help of the world's largest mostly-Muslim nation which stretches across Australia's north.

Yet when Australia and Indonesia think about serious things like security, technology and money they both look further north. The parochial politics of asylum seekers, or drug smugglers, or being seen to act tough towards each other, keep getting in the way, despite some herculean individual efforts on both sides. Each nation has shaken off its colonial and post-colonial baggage - except when they face each other.

At the time of our interview, on the eve of Jokowi's inauguration, he faced a parliament controlled by a rampaging former general, Suharto's son-in-law Prabowo Subianto​, who had the means and the will to make Jokowi's governing task impossible. Pundits were growing pessimistic but Jokowi laughed at the challenges ahead, saying he would fulfil his election promises and reverse what seemed to be a hopeless minority position in Parliament within six months. 

Seven months later, Jokowi has been badly outmanoeuvred in a battle with corrupt police leaders, damaging fragile democratic institutions that voters had counted on him to support. He has also been publicly humiliated by his political matriarch, Megawati.

But what has been forgotten is that he has already fulfilled ambitious election promises including scrapping petrol subsidies that were burning a staggering 20 per cent of fiscal revenues, while his counterparts in Canberra failed at the comparatively trivial hurdle of petrol excise indexation. These savings have enabled Jokowi to press ahead with infrastructure commitments, as promised, despite a precipitous decline in his country's terms of trade. 

Even Jokowi's implacable parliamentary opponent, Prabowo Subianto, has been brought to heel. "Under Prabowo, we would have almost certainly seen a democratic reversal, not the kind of minor democratic slipping we experience now," says Marcus Meitzner​, one of the closest observers of Jokowi's rise to power. Those who judge Indonesia's rule of law and commitment to human dignity entirely through the prism of two Australian felons are failing to see the forest for the trees.

Jokowi is an inexperienced president at the helm of a vast and fractious nation that is only part way through its passage from dynastic patronage to democratic institutions. He has been excessively cautious with his own political machine, obstructing his progress and opening him to attack. But while he has been taunted as the puppet of Megawati, she has also attacked him as a "traitor" for refusing to be just that. Writing off Jokowi just seven months into his tenure would be wildly premature.

John Garnaut is Fairfax Media's Asia-Pacific editor.

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1 comment:

  1. The Australian government is set to significantly slash its development aid to Indonesia, likely pushing the strained relationship between the two neighbors to a new low.
    While authorities Down Under may indeed be aiming to cut back on spending, the timing of it suggests that it is more likely connected to the recent execution of two Australian drug convicts by President Joko Widodo’s administration. Canberra’s latest move suspiciously looks like a retaliatory backhand aimed at Jakarta.
    The 2014-15 Australian budget saw over A$605 million ($480 million) allocated to Indonesia to fund infrastructure, education and health programs throughout the archipelago.
    For our neighbors in the south, the policy is their show of disappointment, with many Australians feeling that Indonesia has not appreciated all Australia has done for the archipelago. Joko’s rejection of multiple clemency pleas for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran despite endless calls for mercy from Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and millions of Australian citizens has been seen as Jakarta’s blatant disregard of the two country’s friendship.
    For Indonesia, the aid cut will be seen as an Australian display of cockiness. The move will only solidify Joko’s support of capital punishment, while strengthening nationalistic sentiment and reminding Indonesians of former president Sukarno’s rejection of US aid in the mid 1960s, when he famously stated, “Go to hell with your aid.”
    The future of Australia-Indonesia relations looks bleak, which is a waste of years of hard work. For now, it’s best for Joko and Indonesian elites to refrain from overreacting in response to the aid cut and allow the heated situation to cool off in hopes that Australia will grow friendlier after its election. Editorial Jakarta Globe