William Choong – Straits Times
Ask any bureaucrat to come up with a snapshot of his country’s ties with another country prior to a high-level visit by the leader of that state, and chances are he would come up with a list depicting closeness in the relationship: the volume of trade, the number of prior visits and joint initiatives.
More often than not, the choicest words from the diplomatic lexicon would be used. For example, China and North Korea have for years described their relationship as close as one between “lips and teeth,” while the Americans characterize United States-Britain links as that “special relationship.”
So it came as no surprise that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called Canberra’s relationship with Jakarta a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The two countries had released a joint communique after Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s visit to Darwin last week.
On the surface, ties between Indonesia and Australia look good. Yudhoyono has visited Australia four times – more than any of his predecessors. The two countries have regular “two-plus- two” meetings involving their foreign and defense ministers.
During Yudhoyono’s visit, both countries agreed to promote trade and investment, develop security cooperation and fight climate change.
This is a sea-change from a decade ago. In 1999, the word Australia became a byword for gross malfeasance in Indonesia, after Canberra deployed peacekeepers in Timor Leste. Similarly, Indonesia was held in the same low regard in Australia, after terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002 and 2005 killed scores of Australians.
Beneath the facade of cooperation, however, ties between Australia and Indonesia face substantial challenges.
During his visit, Yudhoyono and his Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa pointedly refused to take questions from the Australian media. The former failed to propose new measures to deter the growing number of people-smuggling boats bound for Australia, or raise quotas for the import of live cattle from Australia.
Indeed, the relationship continues to be dogged by relatively low-level issues such as live cattle imports, people smuggling and the detention of Australians caught peddling in drugs in Indonesia.
Bilateral trade has failed to attain its fullest potential. Last year, trade between Australia and Indonesia hit US $10.8 billion – markedly smaller than Australia’s trade with Malaysia (US $13 billion) and Singapore (US $20.7 billion).
The relationship is also marked by poor people-to-people ties – an intangible quality that adds depth to any relationship. More than 17,000 Indonesians are studying in Australia, but only 150 Australians are studying in Indonesia.
Understandably, this reflects the soft power attraction and livability of Australia. But the lack of interest in Indonesia among Australians shows that the biggest problem in the relationship is perceptual.
Indeed, Australian perceptions of Indonesia remain mired in antiquity. The common perception is that Indonesia is an enclave for terrorism. Defense analysts frequently refer to the “air-sea gap” that has to be defended against an unnamed “aggressor” to Australia’s north (no prizes for getting this one right).
In a historic speech to the Australian Parliament in March 2010, Yudhoyono said he was “taken aback” by the fact that 54 percent of Australians felt that Indonesia would not “act responsibly” in international relations.
Such misperceptions about Indonesia miss the whole point – at current growth rates, Indonesia is set to become a great power with an economy that will dwarf that of Australia’s.
Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University argues that Australians must change their mindsets about Indonesia.
“If wealth is power, and if power is fundamental to relationships, then Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is bound to change fundamentally as Indonesia grows so much richer than Australia.
“This will be new and unwelcome for a country that has never had a richer and more powerful neighbor before,” he writes in the Lowy Interpreter, a Web site run by the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
Encouragingly, Australia’s opposition leader Tony Abbott has offered some innovation. As prime minister, Abbott has promised that Indonesia would be the destination for his first overseas visit. He would also introduce a new Colombo Plan to send young Australians to study across Southeast Asia.
In the end, Australia’s relations with Indonesia are a bellwether of its relations with the rest of Asia. In the early 1990s, former Australian premier Paul Keating was prescient when he argued – at times, against his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad – that Australia was part of Asia.
The problem, however, is that some Australians have still not latched on to this.
Writing in The Australian some years ago, Luke Slattery stirred up some controversy when he wrote that Australians should pick up European languages before Asian ones. Last year, the Singapore Exchange’s bid to take over ASX, the operator of Australia’s stock exchange, fell through – a move seen by some analysts to be evidence of lingering xenophobia in Australia.
Yes, Australian-Indonesian relations are chugging along fairly well. But until Australia starts treating Indonesia as an equal, much remains to be done.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times