Indonesia: setting the tone
27 Sep 2013|

President SBY meeting with then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in October 2012, Jakarta.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s visit to Indonesia, starting on 30 September, will set the tone for the bilateral relationship, at least for the first term of the Coalition Government. The stakes are high: Mr Abbott has repeatedly stressed that Indonesia is ‘our most important single relationship’. Pre-election comments about Australian operations in Indonesia designed to disrupt people smugglers have annoyed some Indonesians. But with the election won, calmer language now prevails. And the PM has been relentlessly on message about ties:

Three points. First of all, I have no argument with anyone in the Indonesian establishment or Parliament. My argument is with people smugglers and my point to the people smugglers is the game is up. The game is up. Second point I make is that we absolutely totally respect Indonesia’s sovereignty. Third point I make is that we aren’t going to conduct discussions with Indonesia through the media. Too much damage has been done in the past by megaphone diplomacy and it’s never going to happen under this Government.

Well, let’s hope so. Mr Abbott can expect a friendly and courteous welcome from President Yudhoyono, who’s long been a supporter of the bilateral relationship. For as long as he’s President, SBY can temper the views of individuals such as Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who seems to have no such concerns about conducting discussions through the media. It’s often said that the next Indonesian President—whoever that may be—is unlikely to be as well disposed to Australia as SBY. That fear may well be exaggerated because pragmatic governments tend to find ways to deal with each other. But Mr Abbott would be wise to put the foundations in place for a strong bilateral relationship while SBY is still in power.

How then should the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop approach their task in Jakarta? I’d suggest a four point approach.

First, emphasise the wider relationship. I made the case in an earlier post that the economic and people-to-people aspects of the bilateral relationship are surprisingly limited. Less than 3% of Indonesia’s imports come from Australia, and only 2.6% of our imports are sourced from there. DFAT estimates that Australian investment in Indonesia amounted to around $6.75 billion in 2012, compared to just under $8 billion in Indonesia’s much smaller neighbour, Malaysia. Indonesian investment in Australia was estimated at $595 million in 2012, compared to almost $15 billion of Malaysian investment. Bilateral ties will always be vulnerable to political shocks unless more economic substance can be added. Mr Abbott should make a high priority of boosting trade and investment ties, using the new Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Robb on visits with business delegations and wherever possible facilitating business connections. It’s a positive step that Indonesia has agreed to take part next year in what Julie Bishop calls her new Colombo Plan to create opportunities for young Australians to build connections in Asian countries.

Second, Mr Abbott should think big about opportunities for defence cooperation. There’s bipartisan support in Australia for building a genuinely closer defence and strategic relationship with Indonesia, but this will only amount to talk unless Australia makes some big investments. One example where this is happening is the gifting of some C-130H transport aircraft to the TNI. It’s in our interests for the Indonesian military to be able to deploy throughout its archipelago and to respond to natural disasters, for example. As an extension of this approach, Mr Abbott should discuss with President Yudhoyono options to help equip the Indonesian Navy with patrol vessels. Such a plan might be added to the Pacific Patrol Boat replacement program, which needs government consideration soon. A creative approach to shared maritime surveillance should also treat Cocos Island as a location from which shared ISR operations could be launched, providing information to both countries about maritime movements.

Third, there’s inevitably the problem of people moving to Australia through Indonesian waters. Mr Abbott’s starting point is reasonable enough:

It’s in Indonesia’s long term best interests for the flow of people to Australia to stop because the vast majority of them come via Indonesia. … I accept that this is a smaller issue for Indonesia than it is for Australia. … Nevertheless it is going to be good for Indonesia as well as good for Australia that these boats are stopped.

In the broader context of expanding maritime cooperation, the boat problem becomes easier to handle. Much of this discussion should be held behind closed doors. Disruption operations can’t work under a public spotlight. The decision not to report boat arrivals on a daily basis is the right one. A daily media feed of ministers looking frazzled hardly helped to smooth relations with Jakarta.

Finally there’s the media. Sections of the media in both countries almost seem to hope that relations will break-down between the two Governments, such is the eagerness with which they report any shred of negative comment. We’d only benefit if journalists got to know each other’s country better. DFAT’s Indonesia Strategy (PDF) offered some muted proposals about ‘working with media organisations, and increasing use of social media’ and ‘encouraging content sharing and active exchanges between Australian and Indonesian media’. There’s nothing in the Strategy that the new Government couldn’t accept. All it needs is money and people to make it happen, and perhaps a little more ambition. Now over to you, Mr Abbott.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of the official site of the President of the Republic of Indonesia.