Left to its own devices, Indonesia won’t make Australia a priority. We’ll have to work to fix relations in the wake of Chan and Sukumaran’s executions
We’ve been here before: a major disagreement between Australia and Indonesia. Dismay in Canberra at what looks like an opaque and irrational approach to a problem from Indonesia. Irritation in Jakarta about what it sees as an overbearing, hectoring Australian attitude. Public anger that resurrects and burnishes old stereotypes. An Indonesian president becomes inaccessible to the Australian prime minister, refusing to take calls, leaving letters unanswered. All of the rhetoric about the closeness of bilateral ties is laid bare.
This is where we were in 2001. Australia’s policy on asylum seekers had deepened anger in Indonesia. Then president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, refused to receive calls from then-prime minister John Howard. There were demonstrations on the streets of Jakarta and awkward moments at regional leaders meetings.
Then three unforeseen events intervened to rehabilitate the relationship. The Bali bombings, which killed 88 Australians among their 202 victims, deeply shocked Australia and Indonesia. A pragmatic former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was elected Indonesian president, and a massive tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004 devastated large parts of Sumatra and evoked an emotional response from Australians.
None were events of our making, but Australia responded creatively to all of them. The result was a decade of arguably the closest ever relations between Australia and Indonesia: intimate defence, police and intelligence cooperation, expanding trade and the first ever address by an Indonesian president to the Australian parliament.
How different the last decade could have been without this trilogy of intervening events. Indonesia in 2001 had undergone three traumas: the Asian financial crisis; the secession of East Timor; and the collapse of the long-standing new order regime of Suharto. The first two had left Indonesians bruised and suspicious of the outside world. The arrival of democracy had unleashed a range of social forces: labour activism, media freedom, religious fundamentalism, communal enmities – and a prickly nationalism.
Australia, seen as a key architect of East Timor’s detachment and therefore Indonesia’s dismemberment, had little foreign policy purchase in Jakarta. Indonesia’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) neighbours, which had invested for decades in ties with the Suharto regime, had little more entree than Canberra.
Indonesia could well have turned inwards. Anger and suspicion towards the outside world could have festered and spread, fanned by an isolated and embattled president. Nationalism and a wounded sense of entitlement could have come to define Indonesia’s regional diplomacy. This was plausible because it had actually happened in the recent past. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, Sukarno presided over increasingly fractious relations with Indonesia’s neighbours, while trying to strike a balance between more and more extreme interests domestically.
Australia is right to be angry about Indonesia’s executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukamaran. The whole saga has illustrated the inconsistent and arbitrary nature of Indonesia’s political and judicial systems – not to mention the persistent problems of corruption in the police and judiciary. Sending unambiguous signals of our displeasure at this particular case and our absolute opposition to the death penalty is entirely appropriate for a country that bases its foreign policy on our fundamental values.
But Australia does not have the luxury of letting our anger and condemnation dominate our relationship with Indonesia. We are too isolated to disregard the longer term consequences of our relations with our largest neighbour, and not remote enough to remain virtuously wedded to our principles on this issue.
Indonesia, whatever its style of government, social dynamics or economic profile, will remain our largest and most important neighbour in perpetuity. An awareness of just how completely a poisonous relationship with Jakarta could dominate Australia’s every policy anxiety should be the bedrock of our Indonesia policy. If you don’t think it would be that big a deal, just ask the soldiers our government sent to defend the region against Sukarno’s Konfrontasi (confrontation) policy in January 1965.
We shouldn’t ignore the similarities between Indonesia today and in 2001. It has seen a strong surge of nationalism, based around beliefs that foreign interests are out to exploit Indonesia, and that countries like Malaysia are appropriating Indonesia’s cultural heritage. It is beginning to develop a fractious and difficult relationship with its Asean neighbours, based on a concern about the centrifugal effects of Asean economic integration on the Indonesian economy.
And its new president, Joko Widodo, has little interest in foreign policy, has been stymied by complex domestic politics in prosecuting his policy agenda, and is seeking to bolster his flagging popularity by pandering to an uncompromising nationalism.
An Indonesia that is isolated, frustrated and suspicious would be an all-consuming problem for Canberra. But relying on another set of unforeseen events to shift these dynamics would be naïve. While foreign policy is the realm of the unexpected, banking on unknowns always falling your way is the height of folly. Australia needs to recognise the larger risks the current situation holds, and draw the lessons of the history of its relationship with Indonesia to move the longer term bilateral relationship back in a more positive direction.
The hard truth for Australia is that proximity alone won’t build the sort of bilateral relationship we need. Left to its own devices, Indonesia won’t prioritise or even much notice its relationship with Australia. The key lesson from the 70 years of our foreign policy with an independent Indonesia is that bilateral relations are at their most positive when Canberra and Jakarta collaborate around shared interests that go beyond the day-to-day management of bilateral ties. That’s what happened when we collaborated to bring an end to the war in Cambodia in the 1980s, over the Apec leaders summits in the 1990s, and over terrorism and the Bali process on people smuggling in the 2000s.
The Australian government needs to find the next issue or issues that will revitalise our bilateral ties and break through Indonesia’s mood of introspection and suspicion under Jokowi. Being transactional isn’t enough; what’s needed is a transformational approach. We need to identify issues on which we share interests, and which will engage a sense of purpose and leadership in Jakarta. There’s no shortage of candidates: the crisis in the South China Sea; the threat of radicalisation and attraction to the Islamic State (Isis); and growing rivalry around maritime rights and navigation.
As tragic as the executions of Chan and Sukamaran are, Australia must be hard-headed about its relationship to Indonesia. The dangers of an enduring poisonous relationship are real and compelling.