There is reason to be pleased with the defence outcomes of the 2 plus 2 meeting just concluded in Jakarta. For once delivered without hype, the meeting’s communiqué points to solid progress in building a closer relationship between two unlikely friends, Australia and Indonesia. Although the unemotional Stephen Smith and the flamboyant Purnomo Yusgiantoro must qualify as the Odd Couple of regional defence diplomacy, it seems that the two ministers have established a good rapport. The Australian decision to brief Indonesia closely on the development of the 2013 Defence White Paper has been rewarded with an offer from Purnomo to do the same for a planned Indonesian defence statement next year. That’s a good basis for building a closer dialogue.
Australia’s offer to provide the Indonesian military with an additional five C-130H Hercules aircraft at ‘mates rates’ after the gifting of an initial four is a useful development for both countries. This will boost Indonesia’s air-lift capacity, shortfalls in which hamper our cooperation in responding to natural disasters. Commitments to increasing exercises and the perennial promise of considering joint maritime patrolling are all steps on the right track. Earlier on The Strategist I proposed a number of practical steps that could be taken to build further defence-to-defence links, so there’s scope for the relationship to grow further.
So far so good then for generating some momentum behind the bipartisan Australian aspiration of getting cosier with Jakarta. But the reality is that a significant number of impediments stand in the way of achieving genuinely closer defence engagement, notwithstanding the good intentions of chummy ministers. The four most substantial of these might be thought of as the four ‘Problem Ps’: priorities, politics, perceptions and Papua.
As a strategic priority, it’s a fact that Indonesia is more important to Australian security than we are to them. Australia is, and will remain, the unthreatening southern flank to Indonesia, but in Paul Dibb’s memorable words, the archipelago is the place ‘from or through which a military threat to Australia could most easily be posed’. The defence planning implications of this are profound and remain a consideration no matter how good the bilateral relationship. For its part, Indonesia’s strategic priorities remain focused on ASEAN, on China and on building a larger global role for itself as an emerging middle power. A non-aligned movement pedigree has left a residual mistrust in Jakarta of the idea of aligning too closely to any power but, because of its potential, other countries—India, the US, Japan and China to name four—are looking to build closer relations with Indonesia. When the big suitors come knocking why would you want to date homely Canberra? It’s emerging as a challenge for Australia to sustain the idea in Jakarta that our relationship with Indonesia deserves their priority.
A second risk is the potential impact of domestic politics in both countries on the bilateral relationship. In Australia it’s a sad fact that the issues of high public interest that most impact on relations do so in a negative way. Indonesia’s poor performance in controlling illegal people movements through its territory, the emotive debate around the live cattle trade and drug trafficking dominate media reporting and make for a difficult agenda for political interaction. In terms of Indonesian politics, there’s a widely held Australian view that we’re likely to be treated with less sympathy after President Yudhoyono completes his term.
This leads to my third ‘p’—perceptions. Negative stereotypes exist in both countries about the other. The Lowy Institute 2012 Poll of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy asked Australians to rate their ‘warmth’ level to a number of countries. Indonesia rated a distinctly cool 54 %, above Burma (50%) but below Egypt (56%). Similar scores have been registered in Lowy polls going back to 2006. Australia fared a little better in a poll of Indonesian sentiment, rating a ‘warmth’ level of 62% percent in 2012, up from 51% in 2006. Perceptions are malleable things and with effort governments can improve popular sentiment. But it doesn’t take much for Australians to get hot under the collar over, say, film footage of cruel abattoir practices in Indonesia or for Indonesians to picket the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Media coverage in both countries tends to stir negative perceptions. It will take a lot of political investment over many years to create a more realistic and positive set of perceptions.
The final problem ‘p’ is Papua, or rather misperceptions in both countries about that province. There’s a view in Indonesian military circles that the Australian Government has a secret ambition to somehow remove Papua from incorporation in the Republic. That’s simply not the case as far as Australian government thinking is concerned. It’s not in our strategic interest to promote the creation of another broken-backed micro-state in our neighbourhood. But there are clearly a number of NGOs and others who oppose incorporation and who will watch very carefully for signs of TNI and police ill-treatment of Papuans. It’s again a reality that the Indonesian military is at a different stage of its development in the treatment of people it regards as threats than is the ADF, for example. Recent reports about the alleged extra-judicial executions of four suspects in prison by Kopassus soldiers demonstrates that defence cooperation is a difficult field. What happens if Australian gifted C-130s are used to fly troops to Papua? That will be a test of the maturity of our strategic relationship.
These four problem areas complicating closer relations should in no way slow the effort to build a strategic partnership with Indonesia. What they demonstrate is that this is a challenging relationship, not one that can be set right by a handful of ministerial visits, but necessarily a task for long term development. It will take a huge effort and deep bipartisan political investment to bring the two countries closer.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs.