This morning, eminent University of Indonesia law professor Hikmahanto Juwana issued a press release in response to Prime Minister Tony Abbott's telephone call to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono a day earlier.
'President SBY must approach PM Abbott's telephone call very carefully so as not to damage Indonesia's national interests,' Hikmahanto wrote. 'The president need not feel the burden of responsibility for repairing Indonesia-Australia relations,' he added. '(He) must not let himself be fooled by the "courtesy" of PM Tony Abbott making a personal phone call.'
The phone call, during which Abbott declined an invitation from Indonesia to join the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Asia-Pacific Regional Conference in Bali this week, was well received by the Indonesian president, according to spokesman Teuku Faizasyah. Aside from the declined invitation, the pair reportedly discussed the next steps in drafting a code of conduct for relations between the two countries, plans for Abbott to visit Indonesia and meet with the president next month, and a proposal to set up an Indonesia-Australia Research Centre in Melbourne, where Yudhoyono was invited to visit.
But it's not the phone call, or Abbott's declined invitation to visit Bali, that has high-profile commentators like Hikmahanto taking a hostile stance towards Australia. As I wrote in a previous post, Abbott was never really expected to join the conference, considering that Australia's commitment to the OGP is under review. What has rankled Hikmahanto and others is the 'on-water operation' which is rumoured to be another reason behind Abbott's absence at the conference.
Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told the ABC that he had been informed about a recent operation by Australia to turn an asylum-seeker boat back towards Indonesia in which three more people were added to the 18 already on the boat before it was sent on its way. In Natalegawa's words, 'this is a very serious development'.
Natalegawa has been a vocal critic of Abbott's boat turn-back policy since the very beginning, even before Abbott became prime minister. Now he has criticised the policy for not only being a violation of human rights and an unfriendly move towards a neighbour but also for being ineffective in what it aims to achieve, namely to stop the boats.
Abbott's phone call to Yudhoyono, as Hikmahanto suggests, was little more than a courtesy call to a president who is due to retire in October. The reportedly friendly phone conversation was well received for what it was, as Yudhoyono accepted Abbott's decision not to attend the conference. However, with the 'on-water situation' lurking in the background, the call did not address an important and ongoing source of tension between the two countries.
Indonesia, like Australia, takes its sovereignty seriously. Figures such as Hikmahanto and Natalegawa consider Australia's boat turn-back policy to be in the interest of domestic Australian politics and against the interests of Indonesia and its sovereign borders. Solving the problem of asylum seekers making dangerous sea voyages between the two countries will require cooperation, not unilateral action. As Hikmahanto says, it is up to Australia to make this decision to work together with Indonesia. In the meantime, making courtesy calls to the president while ignoring the interests (and vocal protests) of a neighbouring country can only come across as disingenuous.