How will Australia live with a richer and more confident Indonesia?

Wayang Kulit

Getting Australian–Indonesian relations back on track is a politically sensitive issue and weighing it up may not be the prudent thing to do while there is still a lot of anger in the heart of many Australians and Indonesians.

But now I have been asked to answer the question: what will the state of bilateral relations be beyond the Chan–Sukumaran executions?

In my previous writing I stressed the need for the two countries to be able to see things from the other person’s point of view and reminded myself of the time when I was undergoing training to become a diplomat. We were told to cultivate the habit of two-handedness, to be able to say: on the one hand, this is how I see the issue, and on the other hand, you may have a point that I must consider.

However the more important question for Australia is, I believe, how will it live with a richer and more confident Indonesia? As part of ASEAN since 1967, Indonesia has benefitted from the external security and stability. As a result its economy is now one of the emerging economies. Indonesia’s economic output was $706.6 billion in 2010, up from just $95.4 billion in 1998 when the nation was embroiled in the Asian Financial Crisis.

In 12 years going up from $95.4b (1998) to $706.6b (2010) then to $1 trillion in 2013. Economic and political reform in the world’s fourth most populous nation made that possible.

Another important question is, how will Australia live with Indonesia situated in an East Asia that has become both the new political centre of gravity and a centre of struggle among rival major powers? And the only tool Indonesia can wield to deal with this situation is an over-structured regional architecture—partly built by ASEAN over the past two decades—and comprising a multiplicity of forums and platforms for dialogue.

As part of ASEAN, Indonesia has both contributed to and benefitted from the external security which helped promote its internal stability. Since 1967, ASEAN has been constructive in its role to maintain sub regional and regional peace and stability.

But Indonesia’s current geopolitical environment is both fluid and increasingly difficult to manage—and becoming more unpredictable by the day.

Nationally speaking, Indonesia needs economic growth, and for that to happen it needs continued internal stability and external security borne from the cooperation of all its neighbours. For Indonesia, putting its domestic political and economic houses in order will be the foundation of its foreign policy. It is important for Australians to appreciate that Indonesia—in fact, our region—is going through an uncertain period.

Australia needs Indonesia as a partner. Indonesia equally needs Australia both as a partner and as a collaborator in its regional architecture building. It is better to look to the future, rather than be prisoners of the past.

That is why I believe that both sides should not let themselves become bogged down by the wounds of recent controversy. But there could be more friction in future.

During the years that I served in the foreign ministry and dealing with Australia, I learned that indeed, in this age of information, countries scrutinise each other. That is a fact of international life.

But the developed countries of the West are doing most of the scrutinising, as the developing countries are more often distracted by their own domestic problems. Observation breeds criticism, and when officials express their views on issues through the mass media, they tend to address the gallery and to play to the grandstand. This generates a lot of heat without shedding light on the issues to be addressed. If Western countries over-scrutinising Indonesia’s situation means putting themselves on a pedestal, reactions from Indonesia will be less manageable and relations will become more difficult.

Governments and their leaders are of course important, but there are other players, such as the media which is sometimes part of the problem. By providing information and commentary on issues, the media shape public perception. Politicians and public officials must deal with these perceptions that are often stripped of nuance and reduced to their most simplistic forms. The traditional media have always tended to be sensational, but today the most sensational of them all are the social media. So much misperception, so much prejudice and so much hatred is being perpetrated through social media.

The impact of irresponsible media reportage and commentary is further complicated by the cultural traits of peoples. It is my impression that we Indonesians are a more emotional people compared to Australians and other Westerners who are more cerebral in their approach to issues.

We tend to deal with others on a heart-to-heart basis, while Australians do it head-to-head. So in the case of a controversy such as the recent executions, statements coming from Australia, which were meant to be simply sensible and practical, were received in Indonesia as hard hearted and cold blooded.

Responsible and knowledgeable people on both sides of our relations need to keep their emotions in check and to look for the right ideas to rebuild the relationship.

It would greatly help the relationship if we spent more time learning about each other instead of debating who is right wrong. And there should also be a more robust manifestation of mutual respect. While we are so unlike each other in terms of culture and traditions, the fact remains that we are neighbours—we are stuck with each other.

One of the most prudent things we can do is to invest in cross-cultural communication—in a way that shows respect for one another’s views. We can disagree while still showing respect for the person we disagree with. We must avoid the blame-game and refrain from speculation. Above all, we must avoid inflammatory language. We must shun megaphone diplomacy.

We must do more to promote our social-cultural relations. Our cooperation in the field of education must continue. At the same time we must make our economic partnership work for our peoples. They must feel and enjoy the benefits of that partnership.

We must work together to form a robust regional architecture through the ASEAN-led processes, especially the East Asia Summit.

These are the ballasts of our bilateral relations. If we keep on enlarging and strengthening them, if we keep on learning about each other and showing respect for each other, our bilateral relations will grow from strength to strength in all the years ahead.