Richard Woolcott. Indonesia under President Widodo.

Aug 23, 2014

Australia will be dealing with a new Indonesian government in just two months. This will involve challenges and opportunities for both countries.

The Constitutional Court in Jakarta has now confirmed the election of Joko Widodo as President-elect with 53.15% of the eligible vote. The Court’s decision is not appealable and he will be sworn in as President on the 20th of October.

All Australians, especially our political leaders and senior officials, should be in no doubt that no bilateral relationship will be more important in the future than that with Indonesia.

Indonesia stretches across our north, a distance from Broome in Western Australia to Christchurch in New Zealand. It is a country of some 250 million people, 81% of whom are Muslims. It has a literacy rate of 94%, an increasing middle class, and its economy is growing rapidly.

Prime Minister Abbott has described the relationship with Indonesia as “our most important relationship” in many respects. His policy that his foreign affairs approach would be “more Jakarta and less Geneva” was shorthand for this approach.

Our relations with the United States, China, and Japan, as well as neighbouring New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, are also of great importance to us. The future stability and prosperity of a democratic Indonesia is, however, of paramount importance to us.

President-elect Joko Widodo, 53, represents a generational change and the potential for a significant shift away from established Indonesian politics. From central Java, he is a businessman who made furniture. He was the mayor of Solo, and then served 18 months as the Governor of Jakarta. He has a reputation of being a nationalist and a relaxed and friendly “man of the people”.

While his experience of politics and of foreign policy issues is limited, he has indicated that he wants to unwind corruption and patronage in Indonesian politics and focus on raising the standard of living of the poor. His vice President, Yusuf Kalla, has more experience having been Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first vice President for several years.

Our government will need to discuss in depth with Widodo and Kalla, and the foreign minister when appointed, bilateral and wider foreign policy issues. Widodo has said that he is looking to make professional rather than political appointments, and it may be that Marty Natalegawa will be reappointed as foreign minister because of his wide knowledge and experience of foreign policy issues, with which Widodo is not familiar.

Joko Widodo has said he wants good and consistent relations with Australia, but Indonesian sensitivities about territorial integrity and earlier allegations of phone tapping are seen as irritants in the relationship. Joko himself has referred to a “lack of trust” and he is aware that many Indonesian politicians and officials consider Australia as unpredictable and untrusting of Indonesia.

The Joint Understanding on a Code of Conduct to manage more effectively the reaction to allegations that the Defence Signals Directorate was monitoring the phones of the President, his wife, and members of his staff is hopefully an important step forward if it is implemented to the satisfaction of both parties.

The reason for the Indonesian reaction was that SBY had understood from his discussions with then Prime Minister Rudd that Australia was seriously seeking a closer, friendlier strategic relationship with Indonesia. Indonesia therefore saw the allegations as undermining trust. It was not, foreign minister Natalegawa argued, the way to treat a major neighbouring strategic good friend.

It would be unwise not to acknowledge that the relationship has been damaged. In the 2014 Lowy Institute poll, 40% of Australians polled considered the relationship to be “worsening”. According to the Lowy institute the priorities on which Australia and Indonesia will need to consult most closely are asylum seekers, security, and terrorism. This will be a prickly task, calling for a courteous, culturally sensitive, sophisticated, and professional approach to restore and maintain the firmly based relationship we need.

In our future relations with Indonesia Australia also will need to avoid several approaches, which have been disruptive in the past. One is “gesture politics” that is making statements and appointments that are insubstantial gestures in response to perceived public opinion.

Australia should also avoid making statements on foreign policy issues which are essentially made for domestic political reasons but which are criticized by Indonesia, for example the suspension of live cattle exports without any prior consultation and towing boats back to Indonesian territorial waters.

I believe we should listen more and lecture less. We also need to avoid making unnecessary statements that are seen as unbalanced in the region, for example alleged “assertiveness” by China and Japan are widely seen in Indonesia as responses to United States and Japanese assertiveness towards China.

Joko Widodo is likely to make it clear that Indonesia will not take sides in China/US disputes, in China/Japan disputes, or on the South China Sea claims. Indonesia is not a claimant and has been assured by China that it does not claim any Indonesian territory. This underlines the desirability for Australia of a more nuanced focus on the region we share, and the regional problems that we need to manage.

In this context I believe Australia does need a fundamental change to our national psyche, that would focus more on Asia than our traditional and well established links with the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada (collectively the “Anglosphere”), and Europe.

We do need a continuous and sustained approach to the main countries of Asia. In this context a key task for the Australian government, when the new government is formed in Indonesia next October, will be to determine an appropriate and updated balance with our relationships with the United States, China, and Japan and to reinforce the government’s rhetoric about our role in the Asia-Pacific region with action and funding. We should consult Indonesia on a range of political issues, such as the Middle East for example, rather than limit our consultations to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe.

There will be a major role for public diplomacy in that Australians and Indonesians do need to know much more about each other. It is regrettable that many Australians still regard Indonesia as a mysterious, chaotic, and corrupt country in which the rule of law is weak.

According to the Lowy institute polls many Indonesians still see Australia as a potential military threat. This is largely because of historic fears, Indonesia’s size, its proximity, and its presumed potential instability as well as the situation in West Papua.

While Indonesia, like Australia, welcomes a constructive and continuing United States involvement in the Asia-Pacific there is concern in Indonesia about the so-called “pivot to Asia” – now referred to as “rebalancing”. Many Indonesians regard Australian policy as too closely tied to the United States.

The incoming Indonesian government can be expected to be concerned, for example, about close cooperation on the reported use of US missiles by the Australian navy and the purposes of drone flights from Australia.

Also there will be concern that the Cocos Islands, so close to Indonesia and Malaysia, yet now part of Western Australia, might be used for security purposes in South-East Asia and the South China region. Such activities would be seen as directed at the containment of China, notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary.

To conclude, the importance of our bilateral relations with Indonesia, and regionally in the context of the Asian century, cannot be overstated.  As a nation we need to be genuinely and continuously engaged with the incoming Widodo government of our very large neighbour of increasing global and regional importance.


Richard Woolcott was formerly Head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Australian Ambassador to Indonesia

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