Challenges ahead for the Indonesia relationship
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Challenges ahead for the Indonesia relationship

In an opinion piece in The Drum, Lowy Institute Research Fellow Dr Dave McRae says Prime Minister Tony Abbott's visit to Indonesia was a positive, but four genuine challenges lie ahead for the bilateral relationship.

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Challenges ahead for the Indonesia relationship

By Dave McRae

The Drum

Wednesday 2 October 2013


Prime Minister Tony Abbott's trip to Indonesia this week has been a positive step for bilateral relations. Making Indonesia his first trip as prime minister signals the importance of the Australia-Indonesia relationship, both to Indonesia itself and to the Australian public.


Primarily this trip was about setting the tone for the relationship under the new government. Although there were few new announcements of substance, the trip was a chance to affirm that expanding trade, increasing investment, and identifying common interests in the cattle trade are to be priorities. Indonesia also expressed its aspiration for closer cooperation in multilateral forums. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in particular stated his desire for continuity in discussions between APEC, which Indonesia hosts this month, and the G20, which Australia will host next year.


The visit also provided a timely opportunity to move past the row of recent weeks over the government's tow-back policy. Both sides wanted to avoid prolonged discord over this issue, and Yudhoyono and Abbott's pledge to defer discussions to ministerial level provides an out for the Coalition Government to quietly drop the policy.


Despite these positive developments, four genuine challenges to good relations lie ahead.


First, much as the visit defused the tow-back row, the broader issue of asylum seekers and people smuggling remains. At present, there are an estimated 10,000+ asylum seekers in Indonesia. Most of them are likely to turn out to be genuine refugees, but they face a wait of years to have their claims assessed and be resettled in a third country, all the while living in harsh conditions. These circumstances provide powerful incentives for people to board boats to Australia. At the same time, bilateral cooperation to combat people smuggling is hampered by a mismatch of priorities. The Indonesian government has no political incentive to improve its performance on law enforcement, because people smuggling is a non-issue domestically.


Second, Papua continues to loom as a risk to good relations, as was clear from the prominence both leaders gave it in their statements to the press. Abbott stressed that the Australian Government would take "a very dim view, a very dim view indeed of anyone seeking to use our country as a platform for grandstanding against Indonesia". These comments are obviously aimed to assuage Indonesian suspicions that Australia seeks to undermine Indonesian sovereignty in Papua. In reality, there is little Abbott could do, nor should he, to deliver on his pledge to do everything possible to "discourage" and "prevent" grandstanding. People in Australia have the right to protest peacefully on this issue, to criticise Indonesia or even to express their support for Papuan independence.


Abbott's statements of admiration for efforts to improve Papuans' autonomy are also out of step with conditions on the ground. Many Papuans' grievances remain unresolved under special autonomy; separatist conflict, although low intensity, is ongoing. The Indonesian government itself acknowledges the need for new solutions. For Australia to meaningfully contribute, it needs to engage with the issues rather than sweep them under the carpet.


Third, spurred as it was by the change of government in Australia, Abbott's visit should also remind us of the looming challenge of Indonesia's leadership change next year. Indonesia goes to the polls in just six months to elect a new Parliament. In July, it will then hold presidential elections to choose Yudhoyono's successor. Many have stated that no future Indonesian president will be as friendly to Australia as Yudhoyono has been. Although overly pessimistic, genuine uncertainties do lie ahead. The current frontrunner to be next president has made a meteoric rise from small town mayor to leading candidate in little over a year. Having never held a national-level political position, his foreign policy is unclear. His closest rival in the polls is an authoritarian-era throwback, whose human rights record would cause serious disquiet for many Australians. It is vital to understand what this leadership change will mean for Australia-Indonesia relations.


Finally, people-to-people ties remain a persistent challenge. Abbott's announcement of a new Australian Centre for Indonesian Studies is a positive initiative, as is the Coalition's signature New Colombo Plan. Neither though is a replacement to committing the resources required to promote Indonesian literacy in Australia. This requires both maintaining teaching infrastructure for Indonesian language in Australia, as well as promoting career options that would encourage Australians to attain Indonesia literacy.


Abbott's visit is a positive, but the outcome of these challenges will go a long way to determining the shape of Australia-Indonesia relations in the coming years.


Dr Dave McRae is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Areas of expertise: Indonesian politics and security issues; Australia-Indonesia relations; legal and human rights issues; regional issues in Southeast Asia