Australians warmly welcomed the election victory of President Joko Widodo. It seemed to portend a vibrant new chapter in the bilateral relationship and to present an opportunity to move beyond the difficulties experienced in recent times. Those difficulties have been most visibly manifest over the issue of beef, boats and spies – that is, the abrupt and unhelpful cessation of the live cattle trade from Australia (since resumed), the relentless approach to stopping people smugglers sending refugee-laden decrepit boats to Australia (since stopped) and Edward Snowden’s stories of espionage (since addressed by a joint declaration).
Australian short-sighted and sometimes hypocritical approach to relations with Indonesia has set a poor tone for bilateral relations and left little room in Indonesia for sympathy towards Australia.
Despite these hiccups in the relationship, Australian officials have long recognised the importance of being respectful and deferential towards Indonesia, its most important neighbour, as well as the importance of effective collaboration with Indonesian authorities across a range of areas. That collaboration is for the mutual benefit of both countries and for many years Australia has quietly but effectively collaborated with a range of Indonesian government agencies in support of the interests of both countries. Diplomatic collaboration has included partnership in ending the war in Cambodia, cooperating to bring about the APEC leaders meetings, the Bali process to counter people smuggling and terrorist financing and shared membership of MIKTA grouping within the G20.
Successive Indonesian governments have recognised that mutual benefit and worked closely with Australian counterparts. This has been helped by the tone set from the top. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono knew Australia well and recognised that beneath the informal and sometimes abrupt style of his Australian counterparts, lay a genuine warmth towards Indonesia, stretching back to support for Indonesian independence after World War II.
In the face of droughts, floods, tsunamis and terrorist attacks, Australians have repeatedly responded with goodwill and generosity. But SBY recognised also the limits to what a democratically elected Australian Government was able to achieve. He knew that Australians have reacted negatively against excesses in the past. He had an appreciation for the importance of strong and constructive bilateral ties with Australia and the pitfalls that can derail relations. One wonders if his successor, Jokowi, has the same appreciation. A willingness to consider clemency may well demonstrate that same astuteness.
Today, two Australian citizens, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, face imminent execution by firing squad. The Indonesian foreign minister is right to declare that this is an internal matter of law and order and is for the Indonesian justice system to deal with. But in this case the issue is now much more than that, with legal, social, strategic and wider international ramifications that are closely connected.
Legally, there are important provisions which should constrain Indonesia’s desire to apply the death penalty. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Indonesia is a party, stipulates the sentence of death may be imposed only for ‘the most serious crimes’. It is widely considered that drug trafficking does not fit into this category. Jokowi recognises this in principle by appealing for leniency for Indonesian citizens facing the death penalty abroad. But not so for those not fated to be Indonesian citizens yet jailed in Indonesia.
Socially, the two Australians sentenced to death have made considerable efforts to reform and make amends for their crimes and have sought to reinvent their lives and to make a positive contribution to those around them.
The combination of legal and social aspects have generated a strong reaction in Australia, with potentially significant strategic ramifications. All living current and former Australian prime ministers have appealed for the death sentence to be averted. A majority of parliamentarians have joined in appeals for clemency. These statements are symptomatic of a growing groundswell of concern and disappointment in Australia that Indonesia does not listen to its neighbour and does not seem to care.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in his own clumsy way, sought to remind that Australia provided significant financial and material aid following the Tsunami that struck Aceh a decade ago. His manner may have irritated officials in Jakarta, but he did this to bring to Jokowi’s attention the gravity of the situation, not to gloat.
Australia is eager to foster closer ties and recognises it has little if any leverage over Indonesia; yet when it helps, its support is meaningful and significant. But what appears a minor issue to Indonesians is, in Australian eyes, becoming a defining moment in the bilateral relationship.
Proceeding with the executions may limit Australia’s future policy options for engaging with Indonesia. Feeding strong and hostile sentiments is not in the interests of either country, but the Australian people likely will demand that their government do something. This does not need to be the case.
From Jakarta, this might seem a bit overblown and worthy of dismissal. Indonesian officials recognise that stable and constructive relations with Australia are in the interests of both countries. They also recognise that in a vibrant and sometimes turbulent democracy like Australia’s, a prime minister cannot ignore a strong popular groundswell in reaction to issues that happen in the region. Abbott is no exception.
Perhaps Jokowi can prove to be the more mature leader, recognising that despite Australian clumsiness and apparent tactlessness, it serves Indonesia to be conciliatory in this instance. A considered second look at the matter would demonstrate to Indonesians and the world that Jokowi is not only tough on crime, but also is a man of compassion; that he is responsive to reasonable overtures, and strategically savvy, recognising the utility of seeking to enhance not undermine bilateral relations with Australia. Jokowi is president of a proud sovereign and independent and much larger nation, so he can chose to ignore such appeals.
Despite their differences both countries need to get along. Indeed, they are both greater when collaborating than when arguing. Indonesia, for instance, faces a range of diplomatic and domestic challenges on which Australia could be a willing and creative partner. Clemency would not only demonstrate Jokowi’s recognition of there being a path of restoration, but would be an astute strategic move, demonstrating how a great leader rises above emotional responses to calm public passions and help bolster ties.
Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.