Abbott's vision for Australia's relationship with Indonesia

6 February 2014

As an isolated case, the illegal entry of the Australian navy into Indonesian waters can perhaps be seen as a minor mistake or, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott put it earlier last week, a missed tackle in football. In a very different diplomatic context it would be easily brushed aside. If, for example, the Australian government and defence forces were collaborating closely with Indonesia to address joint concerns over asylum seekers and the relationship was in an otherwise robust state. Unfortunately, that is not the case at present.

This incident comes at a time when Australia's diplomatic relations with Indonesia have been severely damaged following the exposure of Australian spying activities in Indonesia. Diplomatic communications at the highest echelons have all but ceased, and various joint programs between our two countries have been suspended or abandoned. So, the incursion has certainly precipitated a further escalation of tensions.

Despite unnecessarily alarmist rhetoric on both sides, Australia's national security is not under any immediate threat. However, the escalation is a serious concern and is undoubtedly jeopardising our long-term national interests. Australia cannot afford to be complacent about our relationship with Indonesia. It has long been the bedrock of our national defence policy, ever since the pre-war promotion of the so-called 'Malay Barrier'. The wisdom, therefore, of exhausting valuable diplomatic capital with Indonesia in the single-minded pursuit of stopping asylum seeker boats needs to be questioned.

For the past four decades, Australia has been fortunate to be dealing with a political leadership in Indonesia that has been supportive of amiable relations. It is, however, plausible to envisage a future Indonesia not being so acquiescent. Many older people will remember the period of 'konfrontasi' under Sukarno in the early 1960s, when anti-western and anti-Australian vitriol ran unchecked in Indonesia. Moreover, the current constellation of political and popular forces within democratic Indonesia certainly doesn't guarantee long-term strategic support for Australia. Indonesia is going to the polls this year with the Presidential elections to be held in July, and there are plenty of political points to be scored domestically by adopting a more aggressive, anti-Australian, nationalist stance during the campaign.

Despite Tony Abbott's campaign rhetoric of "more Jakarta and less Geneva", the irony of lashing out with unwanted political and security advice to President Yudhoyono from Switzerland last week was not lost on many observers. In Indonesia, appearances can be just as important as substance, and the current Australian government is in dire need of a strongly symbolic gesture of goodwill towards Indonesia if it is sincere about restoring diplomatic relations. Instead, the current signals emanating from Canberra are being interpreted in Indonesia as condescending and aggressive.

Of course, many of us will object to 'kowtowing' before Indonesia as a matter of national pride. However, at some point, as a nation, we will also have to begin grappling with the emerging geopolitical realities of our age. Ultimately, Australia is much more reliant on Indonesia for our security and economic interests then they are on us.

Indonesia is an important destination for Australian merchandise and services exports, and these sectors are highly sensitive to the health of our bilateral relationship. There is also some seven billion dollars of Australian investment in Indonesia at present. While this is impressive, it is the future prospects that are of real interest to the business community. The submissions and consultations held as part of the 'Australia in the Asian Century" white paper process in 2012 and 2013 were adamant that Australia's long-term prosperity depended upon positive engagement with Asia, and with Indonesia in particular. Of the two economies, Indonesia's is more significant globally as its real GDP has now surpassed Australia's, and it is expected to keep growing more rapidly in the future.

The Abbott government's hard-line stance on issues affecting Indonesia is, therefore, a significant departure from conventional diplomatic wisdom. It is either naively complacent about the durability of the relationship, or it is a reflection of a deeper ideological vision that does not see Australia's long-term interests best served by engagement with the region. Rather than seeing opportunities in improving relations with the world's fourth most populous country, and working together with Indonesia's growing geopolitical and economic clout, it appears to be reverting back to outdated stereotypes of a bygone world order. Not only is this approach likely to squander vast economic opportunities, but it risks unleashing the undercurrent of animosity and distrust that exists within both countries, which could easily spill over into outward hostilities if the right set of circumstances presented themselves in the future.

Dr Jeff Neilson is an expert on Indonesia from the University of Sydney's Southeast Asia Centre and an economic geographer in the School of Geosciences.

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