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

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.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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

  1. Avatar Rawdon Dalrymple says:

    Richard Woolcott’s article about our relationship with Indonesia makes good points about things we should avoid and others we should do. This comment addresses one of the latter. It is of course desirable that our education system produce more young Australians who are Indonesia-literate with a knowledge of the country and its history and a capacity to read and speak the language. But the fact is that the high point of the study of Indonesia here at school and undergraduate level reached a peak more that twenty years ago. Since then whole university departments have been absorbed into regional (multi-national) ones or closed down altogether. Some universities abandoned Indonesian studies altogether, as no doubt did some schools which had been offering it as a course. Over that whole period Richard and others (including me) have pointed out that that has been a development that runs counter to our national interest. Such representations appear to have had no effect. Educational institutions point out understandably that they have no choice but to respond to demand.
    When the demand for Indonesian studies was strong there was an expectation that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia would grow, including in business, journalism, diplomacy, trade promotion and that that growth would be self-sustaining as both countries’ economies and mutual trade grew.
    Business expansion has been gradual or sporadic and the recent decision to close down the operations in Indonesia of a major Australian bank is a further negative. There is as far as I can see (without professing extensive knowledge) no expectation in Australian business that companies here will have a need to employ young Australians with language and other Indonesia-literate knowledge. I discussed this situation with a successful Australian businessman with many years involvement in Indonesia. His view was that it was and would be no handicap for Australian trade engagement with Indonesia if we did not develop Indonesian speaking graduates. We could as necessary employ Indonesians who would be given working visas.
    There is clearly no simple, single answer to this. But an answer must be found. In the meantime there is a fairly general lack of knowledge about Indonesia here and worse still a fairly general lack of interest. For example I am not aware whether any attempt at government level has been made to engage the Indonesian government or a consortium of Indonesian business and academia to join in a student exchange scheme. Perhaps the same problem as explained above would still apply – would students be interested if there was no career opportunity in prospect?
    It may be worth considering the establishment of a committee to raise funds for scholarships (I assume it would be fruitless asking the government to fund such an enterprise in the present budgetary circumstances). There are strong national interest arguments for such an enterprise. Dick Woolcott himself has the contacts here and in Indonesia to run with such an idea. There are Australian academics and businesspeople and former diplomats who would join in the task.
    Rawdon Dalrymple (former Minister in the Australian embassy, Jakarta, 1969-72, Ambassador to Indonesia 1981-85).

  2. Avatar ian Hawkins says:

    A great article and one which all Australians would be well advised to read and work on to correct our to improve our understanding of this massive neighbour. I have to take issue with the respondent ,Frank Carter though. Nothing could be further from the truth regarding his observations that Indonesia is is far more entitled to sovereignty of Australia and would treat the original inhabitants with respect. Surely he`s joking..

  3. Avatar Frank Carter says:

    Australia is still occupied mainly by foreigners to this region – white, European and non-Islamic. We don’t belong here, and should go back to our lands of origin in the northern hemisphere (other than our Asian and Islamic migrants of course).

    Indonesia is far more entitled to sovereignty of Australia than we are. They would of course respect the Aboriginal culture and treat them as the original inhabitants.

    We are arrogantly racist in our attitudes to Indonesia. We fully deserve their censure.

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