An optimist’s toast for Australia and Indonesia
18 May 2015|

The panel at ASPI's event

This post has been adapted from a recent ASPI panel discussion ‘Australia and Indonesia: getting back on track’. The full video of the event is available here

As a born optimist, I share Benjamin Franklin’s sentiment—misquoted yet true—that beer and wine are proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Further, I submit, champagne proves that God has an elegant sense of humour.

Take this as a conceptual framework for Australia–Indonesia relations. Optimism tempered by hangovers.

Making Australia and Indonesia neighbours shows the Almighty’s droll side. Talk about yin and yang, chalk and cheese, the odd couple of Asia. This relationship could drive you to drink.

As Indonesia’s President said in Canberra in 2005:

‘Our relations are so complex and unique that it can be pulled in so many different directions, and it can go right as often as it can go wrong.’

Indonesia can direct Australia’s regional dreams or dominate its nightmares. Just as Papua New Guinea shapes the way Australia thinks about the South Pacific, Indonesia frames Australia’s view of Southeast Asia.

But—and here’s the optimist reaching for the glass—our nightmares about Indonesia tend not to arrive. We get more champagne than we anticipate, or often acknowledge.

On this, see the thoughts of one the smartest people around here. Be not misled by Rod Lyon’s gentle, delphic smile; sharpness lurks. And Rod offers a typically to-the-point judgement on how Indonesia has answered more of our dreams, despite those nightmares.

First, here’s his setup:

‘The basic trajectory of Indonesia—towards the consolidation of democratic institutions and steady economic growth—bodes well for the future bilateral relationship. Moreover, Australia and Indonesia are the two largest powers within the sub-region. But our relationship is still a fraught one, frequently marred by controversy and misunderstanding. And the Jokowi government in Indonesia doesn’t seem to be the vehicle for a broader reform movement: political power does not, at first glance, seem more widely shared, nor corruption much diminished.’

Sounds like the usual Oz lament about the hangovers—fraught, controversy etc. Then the sun breaks through and that dry realist Rod Lyon manages a glass-half-full moment. Australia, he notes, has been waiting a long time for the ‘Indonesia gone bad’ scenario to unfold, and it ain’t happened. Pop the corks. Here is Rod’s toast:

‘Today Indonesia looks more like our strategic partner than it ever has before.’

The Defence White Paper in August will make the same point as Australia shakes off the latest hangover. The enthusiasm over partnership will be muted by the political trauma of the execution of two Australians by an Indonesian firing squad. The Abbott government is feeling jaundiced about Jakarta. But the trend line and the aspiration will be what matters for a White Paper peering out decades at an Indonesia becoming bigger and stronger.

The extraordinary, vibrant and now raucously democratic neighbour to our north can be Australia’s strategic partner .We’ve just got many miles to go before we can add in descriptors like steady or established or even reliable. That way lies the place Paul Dibb aspires to: Indonesia as Australia’s ‘strategic shield.’

Australia enjoyed a growing sense of partnership with Indonesia because of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidency. It was the best decade we’ve had from an Indonesia president. It might be the best we’ll get. SBY was positive about Australia—still an unusual thing in the Jakarta elite. The SBY effect saw the Gillard government’s 2013 Defence White Paper declare: ‘Australia’s strong partnership with Indonesia remains our most important strategic relationship and the partnership continues to deepen and broaden in support of our significant shared interests.’

The concept of ‘strategic partnership’ has become part of the common coin of international relations; so common the worth and weight of such partnerships can fluctuate like currency movements. Gillard also proclaimed a strategic partnership with China to clinch the deal for an annual leadership summit. As Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s diary records the moment in Hainan in April, 2013, Gillard ‘uses the words “our strategic partnership”, which is the shorthand description of what they want from us and what we will agree to in order to get them to give us guaranteed annual leaders’ meetings.’

Let us, then, toast the process and aim of strategic partnership with Indonesia while hoping its meaning doesn’t fluctuate too much.

We need to acknowledge the SBY effect in the recent appreciation of partnership. An example was Barack Obama’s announcement in November, 2011, that the US Marines were heading for Darwin. The initial Jakarta reaction was negative. The Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, warned that the Marine announcement risked setting off nasty responses, causing ‘a vicious circle or tensions and mistrust or distrust.’

Such language was straight out of the old Jakarta playbook. Imagine how Suharto would have done it—he would have been chilly while Benny Murdani went ballistic. Indonesia would have quietly pocketed the strategic benefit of the Marines while blasting Australia, playing the standard nationalist, ASEAN and non-aligned cards.

Not so SBY. The President ignored his Foreign Minister and gave the Marines the thumbs-up. Then came the Javanese blessing. In July, 2012, SBY flew to Darwin for a three day visit and talks with Julia Gillard. The symbolism was that in going to Darwin, SBY was following Obama who’d also gone there with Gillard. Indonesia’s President flew to a Darwin where Marines were doing their first training rotation.

Did we take full advantage of the good times and build all the things with Indonesia that SBY would have made possible? Did we build on and grow and entrench and make as solid as possible the security framework SBY signed up to with the Lombok Treaty?

Probably not. But it was still a good enough structure not to be swept away by the diplomatic hurricane caused by Australia eavesdropping on SBY and his wife—and it was the structure used to incorporate a code of conduct on surveillance and intelligence to close off that dispute.

Turning the other cheek on the spying fiasco was SBY’s last gift to Australia.

So the ups and downs and hangovers will keep coming, precisely because Indonesia is our frame for Southeast Asia and looms large in the foreground. Ironically, however, we often lift our eyes further afield. Oz political, economic and diplomatic discussion of Asia is of a place that sits further north, beyond the archipelago.

Australia’s strategists and defenceniks spend more time looking at maps. They never forget the existential moment the Japanese visited on us. If any threat comes, it will arrive ‘from or through’ Indonesia. Strange that our gaze drifts.

Indonesia is the same—looking north not south. The old Jakarta joke: Australia is like your appendix, you only think about it when it hurts. This is a form of geopolitical astigmatism, where the view of the other gets hazier, even as they get closer. Call it reverse beer-goggles.

As John Garnaut laments, Australia and Indonesia fail to treat each other as serious nations, which is strange given the way our strategic interests are increasingly aligned:

‘When Australia and Indonesia think about serious things like security, technology and money they both look further north. The parochial politics of asylum seekers, or drug smugglers, or being seen to act tough towards each other, keep getting in the way, despite some herculean individual efforts on both sides. Each nation has shaken off its colonial and post-colonial baggage – except when they face each other.’

To their credit, Australians understand a lot of this. The poll by the Lowy Institute following the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran found Australians had a strong preference for a restrained diplomatic response.

‘Private diplomatic protests’ was the course most favoured by those surveyed, with 59% voting for private diplomacy. On the recall of the Australian ambassador, only 42% agreed Australia should pull back Paul Grigson.

Such results suggest Australians understand the happy-to-hangover cycle that afflicts this relationship. They might not go near the language of strategic partnership and converging interests. Instead there’s a pragmatic sense of the many things the odd couple must share. Cheers!