Richard Woolcott. Australia and Indonesia.

May 1, 2015

For Australia no bilateral relationship will be more important, complex and challenging in the future than that with Indonesia.

The relationship is, however, going through a difficult period at present, especially due to the reaction in Australia to the execution of the two Australian citizens for drug smuggling.  The necessary improvement will take time and require sensitive management by both Governments.  Efforts to improve knowledge and reduce suspicion in the wider communities in each country of the other will be necessary.

Globally, Indonesia is also of growing importance to major powers such as the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and India. This is because Indonesia ,with a population of some 250 million, is now the fourth most populous nation in the world.  It is the largest Muslim country by population.  Some 81% of its people are Muslim.

Despite a high degree of continuing poverty, it is a country with 94% literacy, an expanding middle class and a rate of economic growth of between 6 and 7% per annum.  Indonesia is a member of the G20 and the World Bank predicts it will have a larger economy than Australia within the next two or three years.  Australia needs to acknowledge the reality that its relationship with Indonesia is asymmetrical.  Indonesia is more important to us than Australia is to it.

Prime Minister Abbott has stated that Australia should pursue a more “Jakarta less Geneva” policy.  I consider that in the context of the great changes underway in the Asia Pacific region Australia does need a fundamental change in our national psyche.  We need to focus more on South East Asia, North Asia and the South West Pacific than on our well established links with the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.  We need a continuous and sustained approach rather than a spasmodic one more focussed on the countries of Asia.

The rise of Asia is closely linked to the unprecedented transfer of wealth from the West to the East, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which seems likely to continue into the foreseeable future.  This seismic shift is driven by the spectacular growth of China, in particular, but also by the rise of India and the established economic strengths of Japan and South Korea in addition to the growing potential of Indonesia itself and Vietnam.  This constitutes a historic global turning point to which Australia must respond, if we are not to find ourselves left behind.

It follows that the Australian Government will need to craft a more appropriate and updated balance in our relations with the United States and China, as the emerging superpower.  This will be necessary to reinforce the Government’s rhetoric about our role in the Asia Pacific region with action and adequate funding.

In what is widely referred to as the Asian Century, Australia should maintain an unambiguous policy to the Australian public, as well as to the United States and Chinese Governments, that while we are in a long standing alliance relationship with the United States and while we have some different values and a different political system from China, we welcome the rise of China and oppose policies directed at the “containment” of China.

A failure to co-operate with a rising China could, if mismanaged, lead to instability and frustrate progress towards Asia Pacific regional co-operation.  All countries in the region need continued peace and stability if economic growth is to be maintained and to deal with competition within the region for resources, including food and water.

Turning back to the Australia – Indonesia relationship, when the reaction to the executions is behind us, we need to resume regular and improved consultations on a wide range of policy issues.  Australia should consult Indonesia at Head of Government, Ministerial and Senior Official level, on major global and regional issues, especially those involving the current complexities in the Middle East.  On our continuing involvement in Afghanistan and our most recent additional involvement in Iraq we should consult Indonesia especially as it is by population the largest Muslim country in the world.

We have tended to consult mainly the United States, the United Kingdom and, on some occasions, Canada and New Zealand on issues such as the second invasion of Iraq in 2003.  In 1989 the Hawke Government consulted Indonesia and other South East Asian countries with Muslim majorities, like Malaysia, or substantial minorities like Singapore and The Philippines on our participation “Desert Storm” in Iraq.  Since 1996 we may have notified Indonesia of our major foreign and security policy decisions but I understand that high-level regular consultations have not taken place, as distinct from notification.  If we are serious about our role in our neighbourhood this practice should be reinstated.

A recent example of our failure to consult Indonesia in advance on policy issues which could affect that country was the hasty decision of the Gillard Government, subsequently rescinded, to ban live cattle exports to Indonesia.  Another was and still is the handling of the refugee / asylum seekers issue in the region, an issue which is much less of a priority for Indonesia than it is for Australia.

Another decision which was not fully canvassed in advance at a Head of Government level with Indonesia was a decision, announced during President Obama’s visit to Australia in November 2011, to rotate 2,500 US marines through Darwin.  Such a decision should have been announced by our Prime Minister in the Australian Parliament.

A group from the NSW branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, which toured Indonesia after President Obama’s announcement, said that one of the main impressions the group had formed was that Indonesia would like to see Australia follow a more independent foreign policy not based on either compliance with American wishes, or a fear of China.

Former Prime Minister Rudd put this well when he said that “compliance did not equate to alliance” in respect of the United States;  similarly, “understanding did not equate to agreement” in respect of China’s policies.

It is clear that Australians and Indonesians need to know much more about each other.  It is regrettable that many Australians still regard Indonesia mainly as a  mysterious and corrupt country in which the rule of law is weak.  According to the Lowy Institute’s polls many Australians still see Indonesia as a potential security threat.  This is largely because of historical fears, its size, its proximity, its assumed political instability and the violation of human rights in West Papua.

The great majority of Indonesians are largely ignorant about Australia.  Those who do know Australia still tend to see it as part of the “Anglosphere”.  In terms of Indonesian culture many see Australia as uncouth and still harbouring undertones of racism and religious intolerance.  These suspicions go back to the days of the White Australia policy and more recently to public statements of politicians, such as Pauline Hanson, which are considered in Asia to be racist.  The fact that Australia’s Head of State is still the Queen of England also reinforces our association with the “Anglosphere”  and detracts from a more distinctive international and regional Australian identity.

Many Indonesians I have encountered still express uncertainty about the depth and sincerity of our commitment to our Asian and South West Pacific neighbourhood.  While Indonesia, like Australia, welcomes a constructive and continuing United States involvement in the Asia Pacific region there is some concern in both countries about what the “pivot to Asia” – now referred to as “rebalancing” – really involves.  What is expected of Australia?  How will Indonesia react to this?  I am aware of concerns in Indonesia that the Cocos islands, so close to Indonesia and Malaysia and now part of Western Australia, might be used, including by drones, for security purposes in the South East Asian and Southern China region.

In the context of global Islam and the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, Indonesia is the most tolerant of all Islamic countries.  Historically it is mainly Sunni but Islam in Indonesia has been influenced and softened by Hinduism and Buddhism.  Indonesia has generally dealt firmly and effectively with Islamic extremists and domestic terrorism.  Despite occasional acts like banning Lady Gaga from performing in Indonesia, it remains a moderate, secular state.  That it is so is of fundamental importance to Australia and other countries in the region.

The election of Joko Widodo – known generally as Jokowi – formerly a small businessman with limited experience of international affairs and who is not a member of the established political elite, was seen as an important break from Indonesia’s past.  Jokowi was largely seen as a man of the people who would govern for the “orong kacil” (the poor and less influential people ) and who was seen as a challenge to the established elite.  In fact, after eight months in office Jokowi, according to a number of commentators in Jakarta and Australia, has not so far lived up to the hopes expressed after his election.

In this context it is of interest to note that when President Jokowi ceased to be the Governor of Jakarta and became President of Indonesia, he was succeeded as Governor of Jakarta by his Deputy who is a Christian, ethnic Chinese.

Time Magazine, in a cover story last October on Jokowi, described him as “A New Hope” which indicated a break from a corrupt political elite dominated past and a fresh beginning.  Initially, in Indonesian polls he enjoyed 75% support.  Recently, however, this has dropped to 60%.  It has been a problem for him that Jokowi  does not lead a political party and secured the Presidency in part through the support of a former President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the current leader of the PDI – P.

Megawati has used her position as party leader to play a role in nominating the Cabinet, some members of which were not Jokowi’s choices.  Also, for example, Budi Gunawan was pushed by Megawati for the role of Police Chief.  Initially Jokowi did not withdraw Budu’s nomination although the Corruption Eradicaton Commission (KPK), one of the most respected institutions in Indonesia, had announced he was under investigation. He has since done so.

Jokowi is aware of the need to streamline investment procedures, including in respect of mineral developments.  He has established co-operative relations with a number of Indonesian business leaders.

Australia’s relations with Indonesia, as I have noted, are complex and have entered another difficult phase when the Australian Governments’ and Parliaments’ pleas for clemency for Sukurmaran and Chan have failed.  This will reflect a perception that Australia is still essentially a Western country, more influenced by the other Anglosphere countries, especially the United Kingdom, than it is by its neighbour Indonesia.

Under President Jokowi Indonesia remains a nationalist, sensitive, post-Colonial society which will not buckle under what it sees as intrusive Western pressure.  As I warned both the Government and the Opposition in January – too late as it turned out – public political pressure could be counter productive and would actually reduce the prospects of clemency.

The pressures, related to widespread domestic opposition to the death penalty, were also seen as inconsistent (the Howard Government had supported the death penalty for Saddam Hussein and the Bali bombers), “gesture” politics related to Australian domestic politics, which put Jokowi, a new and nationalist President, into a position in which he and his supporters considered he could not yield to foreign, including Australian, pressure.  We would be well served if we lectured less and consulted and listened more.

Jokowi also has difficulties with the Indonesian Parliament (DPR) as up till now he and his supporters do not command a Parliamentary majority.  This is a complicating factor which could change depending on Indonesian domestic policies as Jokowi’s term unfolds.

To conclude, the importance of our future relations with Indonesia, and in the context of the Asian century, cannot be overstated.  It is essential that each country comes to know more about its neighbouring country.

As a nation we need to be genuinely and continuously engaged – not just in a rhetorical sense or in going through the motions – with our very large neighbour of increasing regional and global importance.  It is vital that Australia does not allow single issues, such as the problems related to East Timor, or the execution of the two Australians convicted of drug smuggling in Indonesia, to influence excessively a bilateral relationship of paramount scope and importance.   Both countries will share this neighbourhood for the rest of time.


RICHARD WOOLCOTT AC, Founding Director, Asia Society Australia; Former Ambassador to Indonesia (1975-78); Former Ambassador to The U N ( 1982-88); Former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (1988-92); Chairman, Australian Indonesia Institute (1992-1998)

This article was first published in the Asia Society Australia Newsletter. 



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