One-liners won’t work in Jakarta. John Menadue

In his meeting with President Yudohono tomorrow, Tony Abbott will find that his one-liners that have been so successful in Australian politics will not have traction in Jakarta. It will require a lot more subtlety than ‘stop the boats’ and ‘axe the tax’.

Our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop has already been shown how Indonesian society and politics work. She was outflanked by the Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marty Natalegawa, who completed a doctorate at the Australian National University in Canberra. He understands Australia and Australian politics very well. At her meeting with Marty Natalegawa in New York, Julie Bishop failed to appreciate that the rhetoric of the coalition about border protection will not work in the complex environment of Indonesia.

In opposition, Julie Bishop kept repeating the mantra that the coalition ‘wasn’t seeking Indonesian permission, we are seeking their understanding’ on border protection and the turn-back of boats.The Indonesian Foreign Minister clearly  rejected unilateral action on border protection and turn-backs at sea. But Julie Bishop didn’t get the message. She again attempted to put an Australian domestic gloss on the meeting with Marty Natalegawa. We now find that the Indonesian record of the meeting that was made public spells  out the Indonesian position very clearly. Marty Natalegawa emphasised that “unilateral steps” such as “tow back the boats” would risk “cooperation and trust” between the two countries. He said that if Australia and Indonesia were to address these problems we should do it as joint chairpersons of the Bali Process.

The first serious encounter between the two foreign ministers was not promising.

In his meeting with President Yudohono it is to be hoped that Tony Abbott can undo some of the damage that Julie Bishop has caused and build a trusting relationship with Indonesia. I suggest there are three things that Tony Abbott will need to keep in mind.

The first is that President Yudohono is a good friend of Australia and he will be very polite. But he is criticised in Jakarta by many as being too friendly and accommodating towards us. His term expires next year and the next president, possibly Joko Widodo, may not be as accommodating. His reputation is that he is more nationalistic and protectionist. The real readings about Indonesian attitudes to Australia will not come from polite discussions with President Yudohono but will come from ministers like Marty Natalegawa, Indonesian members of parliament and officials. We have already seen that in the text of conversation between Marty Natalegawa and Julie Bishop. Only last week, Tantowi Yahya, a prominent member of the Indonesian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission, said that ‘Operation Sovereign Borders was offensive and [we] won’t accept it’.

The second is that countries like Indonesia and Malaysia don’t take the same legalistic approach to international relations that Australia often does. Has Tony Abbott the subtlety to understand this? Trust is so important as the basis for developing good relations. For example, the Jakarta Declaration of 20 August 2013 on Irregular Movements of People has been criticised in Australia because it was not legally binding. But with Indonesia and other countries in our region, most progress is made on the basis of trusting one another. With Indonesia, the political and moral leader within ASEAN, the way we build trust with Indonesia will be crucial.

Thirdly, Indonesia is no longer a highly-centralised political country as it was under President Suharto where word from the top carried the day. Indonesia has over 500 local government administrations with widely varying autonomy. It is a lesson which our politicians, business people and our media will have to learn.

The rhetoric of Australian domestic politics that Tony Abbott has so successfully used will not work in Jakarta. This meeting with President Yudohono will be a defining meting for him.

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