Australia and Indonesia: no way out
18 Mar 2015|

Prisoners Dilemma

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran continue to endure their mental torture, awaiting a final decision on their execution. It’s a slim hope but Indonesia’s political and judicial systems are opaque and bendable enough that their sentences may yet be overturned. Australia has played a limited hand as well as it could. A low-key, bipartisan approach has side-lined nationalist red necks more focused on the fight than the outcome. But the episode says nothing positive about the bilateral relationship. What hope is there to build closer ties when President Widodo won’t even return a phone call from Prime Minister Abbott? Can our political leaders really have so little to say to each other?

To get a sense of the thinness of the relationship, one only has to look at DFAT’s website. It catalogues a history of half-starts, mostly Australian initiated, trying to build momentum for warmer ties. There’s the Lombok Treaty on security cooperation of 2006—John Howard’s attempt with President Yudhoyono to turn the page after East Timor’s bolt for independence. There’s also the remarkable 2014 ‘joint understanding’ on a ‘code of conduct in implementing’ the Lombok Treaty, where both countries pledge that they ‘will not use any of their intelligence, including surveillance capacities, or other resources, in ways that would harm the interests of the Parties’. DFAT’s page also records the April 2005 ‘joint declaration on comprehensive partnership’ and the November 2010 ‘joint statement on the strategic partnership’—worthy but largely stillborn attempts to manufacture closeness.

Missing from DFAT’s list of policy false starts is Paul Keating’s Agreement with Suharto, the 1995 Australia Indonesia Security Agreement. This admirer’s note from an aspirant autocrat to an ageing kleptocrat was angrily annulled by Indonesia after the East Timor crisis. More recently the ‘Indonesia Country Strategy’, a sensible but stolid offspring from the Asian Century White Paper, has now been taken down from DFAT’s site, presumably consigned to PANDORA—the vast archive where unloved government policies are banished.

The Gillard government’s last attempt to inject more substance into bilateral ties was with the announcement in September 2012 of negotiations to establish an Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. A second round of talks was held in July 2013. Progress has been minimal. The economic relationship is vastly below its potential with Indonesia only our 12th largest trading partner.

Readers may wonder if this underwhelming record supports Andrew Davies’ contention that the problem in Australia Indonesia relations doesn’t mirror game theory’s prisoner’s dilemma. Andrew asked: ‘I wonder if it’s as simple as observing that consistent cooperation hasn’t broken out simply because the two countries’ interests don’t overlap that much.’ I don’t quite agree with Andrew here. Australia and, say, Austria don’t have many overlapping interests and for that reason the two countries don’t have many reasons to disagree. Mainly because of geography Australia and Indonesia have profoundly overlapping interests and yet we often disagree. That’s surely a sign of two countries failing to understand the need for closer cooperation—a real-life example of the prisoner’s dilemma.

What, if anything should the Abbott government do to try to reverse their sulky impasse? The pre-election ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’ game plan was rapidly derailed by Snowden’s spying allegations and the tougher ‘stop the boats’ policy—although success in the latter helps Indonesia too. But any early hopes for a positive re-engagement with Widodo have been dashed. The best Canberra can do now is look to a lower-profile strategy, eschewing flashy but empty declarations and MOUs while trying to build a stronger pro-Australia constituency among Indonesians.

Four steps would be worth considering. First, Andrew Robb should be asked to take on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement as a higher priority. Robb’s success with free trade negotiations in North Asia is the centrepiece of the government’s ‘open for business’ foreign policy. Stronger business and investment relations between the two countries would create more stakeholders interested in maintaining stable relations.

Second, Julie Bishop should be given the resources to massively expand scholarships for Australians and Indonesians under her New Colombo Plan. There’s no substitute for friendly people-to-people links. The problem here is not the design of the New Colombo Plan scheme, but the lack of resources for places, which derives from a bipartisan view that Australian foreign policy can be delivered on the smell of an oily rag. But with greater interests comes greater expenses. Big talk and cheap delivery doesn’t work.

Third, on defence cooperation I’ve written elsewhere that the need is to deepen our investment in practical forms of cooperation, such as gifting naval vessels to the Indonesian Navy and sharing access to the Cocos Islands as a maritime surveillance base. Yes, there are obvious financial implications.

Finally, when Widodo does return Abbott’s phone call, the Prime Minister should propose establishing a combined team of respected and wise people to consider ways to deepen relations. A bipartisan group of former ministers, generals, diplomats, educators and business leaders should be asked to offer both governments some wise counsel. A group of worthies would add ballast to relations in their own right. They could hardly do any worse than current policymakers and may even come up with proposals worth considering.

Tough-minded policy thinkers will understand that, even though Australia’s aim should be to build closer relations with Indonesia, it’s possible that we will fail. Indeed the odds are that both countries will continue to suffer from—on average—a serious crisis every decade. We can’t always assume that such crises will be resolved peacefully. That’s ultimately the most compelling reason for wanting to break away from the prisoner’s dilemma in bilateral relations, and to look for win-win outcomes rather than short-term advantages driven by internal political priorities.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Geof Wilson.