Friday, June 19, 2015

Indonesia: Dangers of rocking our giant neighbour's boat

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When Tony Abbott was pondering the serious business of being Prime Minister he singled out one country as being centrally important to the strategic objectives he wanted Australia to pursue. It wasn't super power America, or its challenger China, but the vast, weakly-governed and sometimes-chaotic archipelago that forms the heart of Southeast Asia: Indonesia.

Australia's partnership with the Republic of Indonesia was "in many respects our most important overall relationship", Abbott told The Australian newspaper, upon assuming the top job in September 2013. "Indonesia is a land of promise for us and we do not want the relationship to be defined by boats."

Our military strategists know that the regional push back against Chinese territorial aggression lacks ballast and credibility without deep co-operation from Indonesia, in its role as the non-aligned power centre of south-east Asia. ... there's little prospect of making progress while high-level political and military links are in the deep freeze.'' 

A year earlier, in opposition, he promised to resist the temptations of the political news cycle and "never make decisions that impact on Indonesia without discussing them first".

Abbott knows, or at least he knew back then, that Indonesia's importance extends far beyond its status as a staging ground in the asylum-seeker trade. His words were not a passing acts of neighbourly flattery, or charity, but a hard-headed assessment of Australia's long-term national interests. He was talking about a proud and vibrant young democracy which is home to a quarter of a billion people, including the world's largest Muslim population, and an economy growing so fast with such potential that he even compared it with 1980s China.

In other words, building ties with Indonesia is a realpolitik investment in Australia's future.

After 20 months in power it's clear that the Prime Minister runs a professional national security regime and has kept relationships in Asia in good shape. Except, that is, with Indonesia, which is becoming a gaping hole in his international program.


President of Indonesia Joko Widodo and Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott. Photo: Pool

This week's nadir with Indonesia, lower than anything since East Timor's independence, was triggered by a series of Fairfax reports of Australian officials paying wads of cash to people-smuggling crews to get them to turn their human cargo back to Indonesia.

Indonesian leaders and officials were ambushed by these revelations and have lined up to condemn Australia on legal, diplomatic and moral grounds.

Indonesia's vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, who some see as the most Australia-friendly senior figure in the Joko Widodo administration said: "It is wrong for a person to bribe, let alone a state. Such an act is definitely incorrect in the context of bilateral relations."

In the world of elite diplomacy it doesn't get much stronger than that.

Australian cabinet ministers initially denied the Fairfax claims, presumably because they seemed too preposterous to be true. But the denials stopped, and domestic point-scoring began, as the Abbott government realised it had struck the same vein of electoral gold that had helped bring it to power in 2013.

In stark contrast to his stance when he became prime minister, Abbott last week said: "There's really only one thing to say here and that is that we have stopped the boats."

The Jokowi administration is hardly blameless in the collapse of elite-level bilateral ties and erosion of public support. This week's Lowy Institute poll shows Indonesia's stocks have fallen so far that it ranks alongside Russia on Australia's popularity charts, in the wake of the execution of repentant drug convicts Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Two important neighbours are being reduced to caricatures in each other's eyes. Ultimately, this undermines the Abbott government's national security goals.

Unlike the Australian citizens who have joined ISIS, and the Indonesians who returned from the battlefields of Afghanistan and planned the Bali bombings of 2003, there is not yet any evidence that the 300-odd Indonesians who have travelled to join ISIS plan to bring their intra-Islam fight back home and target Westerners. But Australian counterterrorism officials are deeply worried that this could quickly change.

Since Bali, the risks have been mitigated as the Australian Federal Police and Australian Secret Intelligence Service have shared intelligence with their Indonesian counterparts and helped them build a far more professional system. While intelligence links have so far held up, the high-level police ties have been largely frozen since Abbott came to power.

Australia's other great security worry is the risks posed by a rising and uncompromising China, as highlighted in recent months by events in the South China Sea. Our military strategists know that the regional push back against Chinese territorial aggression lacks ballast and credibility without deep co-operation from Indonesia, in its role as the non-aligned power centre of south-east Asia. Again, there's little prospect of making progress while high-level political and military links are in the deep freeze.

Abbott's hope is that the "stop the boats" policy will be so ruthlessly effective that it will eliminate the primary cause of bilateral irritation. There is logic to this. However, the risk, exposed over the past week, is that whenever a boat slips out into the Java Sea the Abbott government will not be able to resist the domestic political temptation to trumpet its hardline virility at the expense of Jakarta.

It could push so hard that it breaks the tight collaboration that has enabled Australian police and ASIS officers to disrupt people-smuggling syndicates on Indonesian shores.

From the opposition benches in 2012, Abbott said: "The time will come soon enough when Indonesia is far more significant to Australia than the other way round."

How does Abbott reconcile what he's doing now with the statesmenly sentiments he expressed back then? With heroic acts of wishful thinking.

It is in Australia's interest to do what it can to assist Indonesia to become the prosperous, stable, regional power it wants to be. The virtues of having 250 million people on our doorstep consuming Australian beef and working to preserve the regional rules-based order are as obvious today as they were when Abbott was making the transition from opposition.

Abbott must return to his earlier realpolitik commitment to Australia's deeper bilateral interests because he knows, as he has always known, that these interests will only grow with time. As he said in opposition: "Our country needs to earn Indonesia's respect and affection now if we are to have it when we need it."

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


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