Australia and Indonesia in it for the long haul

Author: Peter Drysdale, East Asia Forum

Two and a half years ago, the then Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, launched a White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. Despite being electronically burned by the current Australian government, in an act of foolish partisanship, it continues to provide a reference point in Australia’s dealings with its region.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott walk into a meeting room for a plenary session at the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, 15 November 2014. (Photo: AAP).

The White Paper involved a process of wide consultation across the country and was both a signal of Australia’s growing focus and comfort in taking its place in the region and an acknowledgement of the scale of the national task that had to be undertaken if it was to do that successfully. The gaps in the national capabilities for measuring up in the Asian century were palpable and needed to be filled.

The present Australian government has moved to fill some of these gaps, with its new Colombo Plan (for young people’s exchanges with regional partners) and the rhetoric that Australia’s foreign interests lie ‘in Jakarta not Geneva’ — but there is a very long way to go.

There was acceptance that the big changes that had to be wrought in the Australian economy and society to manage a world in which the new Asian powers will be a dominant force in the global order was a task beyond the capacity of government or policy alone. It required participation from across the community — including business, educational institutions, community leaders, unions — and nothing less than a change in national mindset. There was no quick policy fix to the problem. It was a long-term task on which a national consensus had to be patiently forged, and an ongoing national conversation must be had.

An important element was the priority of building deeper, more comprehensive relationships with the three big new emerging powers in the region — China, Indonesia and India. These relationships were still significantly underdone. Getting it right with China, Indonesia and India was not just a matter of tweaking established arrangements at the edge of economic, political and security exchanges. It was a far bolder ambition that required energies and talents not confined to government and shifting the culture in which these exchanges were conducted.

These messages are useful to bear in mind in the context of the present perturbations in the relationship between Australia and Indonesia over the pending Indonesian execution of the Australian drug smugglers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Australia does not have the death penalty. Indonesia imposes the death penalty for these and other crimes. Australian political and community leaders have pleaded for clemency for Chan and Sukumaran, on behalf of a widely sympathetic Australian community. These pleas have so far remained unanswered although the executions have been stayed until the legal process is fully exhausted.

This difference in law and criminal treatment, and sincere representation of each country’s interest around that, should be a minor disturbance in a robust and thriving bilateral relationship. If an Australian citizen was facing a similar fate in the United States and there were representations from Australia for clemency in a sincere expression of difference of values, it would not disturb the US–Australia relationship. But, as Australians and Indonesians must honesty acknowledge, this disturbance in the relationship between their two countries has wider, longer term reverberation.

In this week’s lead essay, John McCarthy suggests that the executions issue again bring to the fore what he calls ‘the cultural divide’ between the two countries. ‘Indonesia’s actions have revived Australian impressions that Indonesia is a brutal and militaristic country. For their part, many Indonesians see Australia’s response as out of line given the prevalence of capital punishment elsewhere. They perceive foreigners as seeking to impose their values on Indonesia to the derogation of its sovereignty, despite their own efforts on behalf of Indonesians on death row in other jurisdictions’.

In isolation these feelings both ways would not be a big deal. But, as McCarthy points out, there is context and a history that remains raw. McCarthy argues that the problem over East Timor was cultural not strategic. ‘Other problems’, he says, ‘have arisen because Australians have been perceived as impugning the dignity of Indonesian leaders. This includes the ban on Australian journalists in 1988 after the Australian media reported on the Suharto family’s corruption and, more recently, the alleged bugging of the telephones of SBY and his wife’. The Australian navy’s venturing into Indonesian waters uninvited last year, without permission, was also gravely offensive.

In Indonesian eyes, Australians are too routinely guilty of condescension or disrespect. When Prime Minister Abbott infelicitously linked Australia’s post tsunami aid to the expectation of movement on clemency, to many Indonesians, and Australians as well, it reeked of that instinctive disrespect. These are circumstances in which the nationalist card inevitably comes to the top of the political pack. And as McCarthy says, ‘it is a card that is always hard to trump’.

Neither Australian nor Indonesian leaders will be able to continue simply as if nothing had occurred, whatever the final denouement of the executions issue. At its core, it is not an issue that will fix itself. It will require patient and careful work behind the frontier of normal diplomacy at the heart of each government and within each community.

It would be wrong to think that the cultural divide, about which McCarthy worries, is something permanently embedded in the differences in the social habits and structures that distinguish any two nation states, even those with such different histories and backgrounds as Australia and Indonesia. There certainly needs to be understanding of those differences as a foundation for respectful and effective bilateral dealings, as the Australian White Paper made clear — underlining the value of heightened investment in people-to-people exchanges, joint educational and research programs, addressing the malaise in language study and cultural studies.

What is more important is how both Australians and Indonesians value the relationship. What polls there are on this, suggest that each country (Australia more than Indonesia perhaps) has much to learn about why their countries are so important to each other. Australian conceptions of Indonesia’s political, security and dynamic economic importance are seriously limited. Indonesian understanding of Australia’s strategic role in underpinning East Asia’s resource security and regional frameworks is equally limited. Cheek by jowl with each other geographically, they have more and more at stake in common endeavour.

It is this bigger issue of the value and priority that Australian and Indonesian leaders attach to the relationship, and whether that is the starting point in their behaviour and language in the conduct of the relationship, that needs re-asserting now — eschewing short term political grandstanding and focusing on the huge, long-term interests in the relationship. That in turn is what will drive proper attention to building a wider base of understanding and naturally extended respect, as well as narrowing the cultural divide.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.