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Australia-Indonesia: A marriage of inconvenience?

Australia-Indonesia: A marriage of inconvenience?
Published 12 Aug 2015 

'Condemned to Crisis?' is a new Lowy Institute Paper now available for purchase as an e-book or in bookstores.

Geographical proximity and the need to address shared security challenges have married Australia and Indonesia together, if inconveniently. But Ken Ward's Condemned to Crisis? warns us of the danger of putting too much expectation on the relationship. To that end, he offers some interesting observations.

First, Australian Coalition and Labor governments have both had their ebbs and flows in the relationship with Indonesia. Many in Indonesia erroneously assume that the relationship is more favourable under Labor, partially owing to Labor's support for Indonesian independence. It would be interesting to examine whether such perceived partisanship  exists on the Indonesian side too. Some argue that Jokowi has done more damage to Indonesia's reputation abroad, but few contemplate if a Prabowo presidency would have been any better.

Second, Indonesia's diversity and pluralism makes it irrelevant to talk about culture as singular, rigid, or static. Culture is often overstated to highlight differences and understated to overlook similarities. Indonesia's relationship with Malaysia, a neighbour most culturally similar to Indonesia, is at least as volatile as with Australia, while Australia's relationship with countries such as Japan and India, which are just as culturally different as Indonesia, are stable. Even though it is the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia has a challenging relationship with Saudi Arabia. None of this is to deny that Australia and Indonesia are different in many respects, but Indonesians can aspire to similar things as Australians, and Indonesia is becoming a 'normal' country. [fold]

Third, people-to-people links could be improved on both sides. Mutual understanding comes not only from physical interactions, but also a sense of curiosity. So although more Australian tourists visit Indonesia than the other way around, for those Australians visiting Bali for the beach and beers, nothing else about Indonesian culture might attract their attention. As for Indonesia's presence in Australia, it is clearly under-represented. Singapore and Malaysia constituted the largest outbound destinations for Indonesian tourists in 2014, and few Indonesians visit Australia recreationally. Indonesians only account for 2% of total international tourists in Australia in 2014-2015, compared to Singapore (5%) and Malaysia (4.4%).

Improving ties between people could start by waiving Australian visa fees to Indonesian nationals. While not costing much, such a gesture could highlight Australia's desire to receive more Indonesian tourists. Jakarta could reciprocate this concession.

But Indonesia needs to do more to rectify the asymmetry. Rather than learning about their host, many Indonesian students come to Australia just to study their own country. There are more Indonesian studies institutions in Australia than vice versa; the Australian Studies Centre established at the University of Indonesia lasted only around a decade. Despite the plummeting interest in the Indonesian language, more Australians are still academically interested in Indonesia than Indonesians are about Australia. Perhaps reversing this trend will require an Indonesian version of the 'New Colombo Plan' obliging Indonesian students to study their neighbours, including Australia.

Fourthly, I agree with Ward's argument for better crisis management. The key word here is empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Correctly assessing how Indonesia would react to Australia's way of handling a crisis could strike a balance 'between the extremes of the insulting and the ingratiating'. Empathy can pre-empt diplomatic disagreements from being thrown into the fray of 'megaphone' diplomacy for domestic political reasons. Showing empathy is about communication, not culture. Jokowi should have picked up Tony Abbott's phone calls and explained why he would stick to his decision on the Chan and Sukumaran executions. Australia should neither have shown itself militarily triumphant over the East Timor intervention nor granted asylum to 46 Indonesians from West Papua in 2006, even though the right to asylum is within Indonesia's constitution. What is legal isn't always ethical.

Finally, both countries must appreciate their strategic confluence beyond the immediate present. Hugh White correctly asserts that the bilateral relationship 'does not exist in a vacuum' but 'is profoundly influenced by the wider regional environment in which both countries live.' The prospects of regional stability being undermined by events in the South China Sea and elsewhere could bind the strategic destinies of the two nations closer than they could possibly imagine. Such circumstances can turn the relationship into a lasting marriage of convenience. This raises the hope that a crisis-prone relationship can be consigned to the past.

Photo by Flickr user uyeah.

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