RICHARD WOOLCOTT. Indonesia – Complexities, restraints, and opportunities for Australia

Jan 11, 2017

The importance of our relations with Indonesia in the future and in the wider context of the Asian century cannot be overstated. It is essential that each country acts to know more about its neighbour.  

All Australians, especially our political leaders, should be in no doubt that in the future no relationship will be more important to Australia than that with Indonesia. This importance coexists with a vulnerability and sensitivities linked to our different approaches to major issues.

The current rift and the suspension of all,or more likely some, of out military links at the time of writing is the latest example of the fragility of our relationship.

No two neighbours are as unalike as Australia and Indonesia. As former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans wrote in 1991, ‘We largely differ in language, culture, religion, history, ethnicity, population size, and in political and legal systems.

Although it seems likely General Gatot Nurmantyo alleged publicly that Australia had tried to recruit Indonesian officers as agents for Australia, he apparently did so without discussing it with President Jokowi. But Jokowi said on 15 January that he supported the decision as a matter of principle. In Indonesian politics it is not helpful to be regarded as being responsive to Australian pressure. This was the case, for example, with Australia’s persistent opposition to the execution of Chan and Sukumaran. Our continuing and excessive pressure in fact underlined that they would be executed. It was also seen in Indonesia as inconsistent because John Howard had supported the execution of Saddam Hussein and called for the execution of the Bali bombers.

General Nurmantyo visited Darwin recently, apparently to ascertain what the 2500 US Marines based there were actually doing. He also expressed concerns about possible Australian support for West Papuan independence and has argued in the past Australia originally opposed East Timor’s independence but changed its position when pressures built up. Now that Indonesia has democratised the General feels free to make comments that may not be supported by some of his colleagues.

Australia’s relations with Indonesia, as well as our relations with China, the United States, Japan, India and Russia are asymmetrical in that they are more important to us than relations with Australia are to them. We may not like this but it is a fact and means that the onus is on us to work hard to strengthen relations with these countries. Indonesia is of special importance to us because it is so close, so large (a country of some 250 million people, 81% of which are Muslim, and with a 90% literacy rate). Its middle class is growing rapidly. This offers so many challenges and opportunities if handled with sophistication.

The rise of Asia, including Indonesia, has been caused by the great transfer of wealth from the west to the east, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. This shift is driven mainly by the spectacular economic growth of China. It is also reinforced by the rise of India, the established economic strengths of Japan and South Korea, in addition to the growing potential of Indonesia and Vietnam. This constitutes an historic global turning point to which Australia must respond if we are not to find ourselves left behind.

The Asia-Pacific region is where the world’s major power relationships now most closely intersect. It is where the template for the United States-China relationship will be largely shaped. It is also the crucible in which the interrelationships on Asia-Pacific issues between Australia and Indonesia,as well as the United States, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and other regional countries will be forged.

The fact is that we are not doing as well with our engagement with Indonesia as the regular rhetoric and spin emerging from Ministerial offices would have the Australian public believe. The study of Bahasa Indonesia and Asian history and cultures in our schools and universities has declined in recent years. Indonesia  will never accept our ‘turn back the boats policy’. It sees Australia as a large country with a small population. A former Indonesian ambassador said to me last November, all those who had “come by boat in the last decade would not fill the MCG “. Indonesia would also be unimpressed by any provocative action by Australia   In the South China Sea.

I do believe Australia needs a fundamental change in our national psyche to focus more on Asia than our traditional links with the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Many Indonesians see Australians as part of the ‘Anglosphere’, as uncouth in terms of Indonesian culture, and still harbouring undertones of racism and religious intolerance as the re-election of Pauline Hanson (and her supporters) to the Senate last year would indicate. They also find our close involvement in the conflicts in the Middle East damaging and inconsistent with our claimed focus on the Asian and South West Pacific .

Indonesia welcomes a constructive United States involvement in the Asia-Pacific region but there is some concern about the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’, now referred to as ‘rebalancing’. The Indonesian government and think-tanks want to know what this will involve for us in United States strategic thinking. In Indonesia there will be concern if we are seen as bound to American military activities, especially if places like the Christmas and the Cocos Islands – so close to Indonesia yet part of Australia – might be used, including by drones, for security purposes in the South East Asian and South China region. As a matter of course we should keep Indonesia informed of what involvements we may be entering and the extent to which they might effect Indonesia.

It is,therefore,important that Australia has an Indonesian speaking,culturally sensitive Ambassador in Jakarta.

Sabam Siagian, a former Indonesian Ambassador to Australia and editor-in-chief of the Jakarta Post, told me last year that thinking Indonesians find it difficult to accept Australia as a ‘true strategic partner’. Australia,he added,needs to ‘speed up its transition to the changed global and regional situation and become an independent nation that stands on its own two feet’. He found it difficult to understand why Australia had not yet become a Republic,and how we could retain the Queen of England as our Head to State. The real issue,he said ,is the institution, the Monarchy, not the occupant.

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

Richard Woolcott AC a former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs,Ambassador to Indonesia,and Ambassador to the United Nations from 1982-88 ,during which he also represented Australia on the Security Council in 1985/86. He is the Founding Director of the Asia Society Australia Centre and has been a member of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue since 1992. He has a married daughter in Jakarta and visits Indonesia regularly. He maintains close contact with senior Indonesians,including the Foreign Minister.

This article first appeared in The Australian on January 10, 2017.

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