Disappointing politics: Australia’s Indonesia relationship

Author: Susan Harris Rimmer, ANU

There are two deep disappointments about the recent visit by Australia’s new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Indonesia and one deep source of satisfaction.

The first disappointment was the poverty of diplomatic techniques involved. This is no reflection on the Prime Minister himself, nor the recently ousted PM Julia Gillard, and certainly not Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty (well worth following @DubesAustralia on Twitter). This is a problem of trust, of some years standing, left over from the difficult period following Australia’s key involvement in the independence of Timor Leste during the Howard government.

Forget the ‘konfrontasi’ analogy recently used by Rudd in a media conference, where he suggested that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s asylum-seeker policy (of intercepting and ‘turning back’ boat arrivals) risked sparking a diplomatic conflict with Indonesia that could escalate further. There were some exceptionally sensitive moments between Australia and Indonesia in the 1999 pre- and post-ballot violence in Timor Leste, and the early period of the INTERFET mission, which did serious damage to bilateral relations and could have led to conflict, but didn’t.

Over a decade later there is a genuinely good relationship between Australia and the current Indonesian leadership under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. But this may not last past the July 2014 election, especially if Prabowo Subianto wins.

So how should Australia manage its relationship with Indonesia? Should it try to develop and share strategy as pivotal powers in the region on some of the most important issues of our epoch? Or are Australia’s politicians too parochial to even notice Indonesia’s good fortune and rising influence?

Should Australia ask how it can support the development of ASEAN as a security and economic community? Should it seek to support the new ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation? Should it seek to support President Yudhoyono in his role leading the debate over what to replace the Millennium Development Goals with after 2015?
Should Australia seek advice on how Indonesia — as a key member of the Non-Aligned Movement at the United Nations and thus having better access to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) — thinks we can achieve a result at the next round of climate negotiations?

Should Australia seek to understand Indonesia’s views as an ASEAN leader to inform Australia’s membership of the UN Security Council, especially in relation to regional security actors? Should it strategise with Indonesia about the G20 Summit in Brisbane next year and how Australia can advance regional economic coordination, and promote the region to the globe? Or seek advice on a grand vision to promote Australians learning Bahasa Indonesia as part of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper?

As far as Australian politics is concerned, the answer is no. Rather, it’s cattle exports, Australian prisoners and boats. It’s always cattle, prisoners and boats.

This leads to the second disappointment. Cattle, prisoners and boats are individually important issues to both parties. But they have all been framed in diplomatic terms with Australia as the victim and Indonesia as a violator or weak antagonist. It is Indonesian slaughterhouses, police or prisons all doing the wrong thing. It is poor old Australian cattle, over-burdened asylum-seeker system or criminals suffering. True in some respects, but this debate is not framed to seek a solution. In some cases — notably when it comes to durable solutions for asylum seekers — the Australian position is manifestly unreasonable. We need to frame these issues in terms of regional animal rights, forced migration and human rights issues, or let post handle them and keep the leaders out of it.

This visit by Prime Minister Rudd to Indonesia saw the tune change a little on asylum seekers to one of regional solutions for forced migration flows — but this tune has been played before with no real political or diplomatic effort expended. If Jakarta-centred foreign policy is to be pursued and properly considered in the political debate, then Mr Abbott will have to step up very high from where he is now.

But what of my deep satisfaction? Mr Rudd has been in power for not a fortnight and Australia’s media is awash with international stories and diplomacy headlines. That is, at least, a good start.

Susan Harris Rimmer is the Director of Studies at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University.

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