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Australia-Indonesia relations: Post-Snowden discourse needs correction

Australia-Indonesia relations: Post-Snowden discourse needs correction
Published 24 Jan 2014 

Tracking the path of Australia-Indonesia relations over the past 60 years is like tracing the curves of a sine wave, with the relationship oscillating over peaks and into troughs about every decade. The latest trough, resulting from claims of Australian spying on Indonesia following leaks by Edward Snowden, continues the pattern and was, to some extent, perfectly predictable.

In the early 1960s our support for newly federated Malaysia brought us into direct conflict with Sukarno's Indonesia during Konfrontasi. Things improved as officially non-aligned Indonesia leaned our way under the pro-Western strong man, General Suharto. But the 'Act of Free Choice' in Papua at the end of the decade precipitated renewed tension.

Things resumed an upward trajectory until 1975, when Indonesia's invasion of Portuguese East Timor and the killing of Australian journalists (the Balibo Five) again strained relations. Bilateral health recovered steadily then for ten years until a series of Sydney Morning Herald articles exposing corruption by the Suharto clan caused a major relapse.

Although the 1990s started badly, with an atrocious massacre of civilians in a Dili cemetery by the Indonesian military, the Keating years saw relations surge to a high water mark, only to plummet again in 1999 with our armed intervention to prevent carnage in the wake of East Timor's independence vote.

At the start of a new century, bombings in Bali and Jakarta, along with a devastating tsunami, thrust the two sides closer, assisted by considerable material largesse from Australia and mountains of goodwill from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But even under the benign reign of Yudhoyono we have had our moments: the granting of asylum to a group of Papuan refugees in 2006 required deft diplomacy and amendments to the Lombok Treaty, one of the pillars of the contemporary relationship. 

Fallout from recent leaks by Edward Snowden of spying on the President and his inner circle, while bucking the positive trend of recent years, has ensured the longer term sine curve remains true to form. Snowden or no Snowden, a downturn was about due. [fold]

The boom and bust in Australia-Indonesia relations isn't all bad. For a start, it ensures that things are improving more often than they are deteriorating, with both sides rediscovering mutual interest and mutual benefit in working towards the betterment of the relationship. For better or worse, neither side takes the other for granted.

On the down side, much additional effort and energy is required to hoist relations off their recurrent low base. Things are constantly in a kind of recovery mode. Although the cycle implied by history suggests that is a predictable, if not inevitable, outcome, it is still not a good thing.

When bilateral relations have fractured in the past, alarums and excursions have usually taken a few years to subside before things resume their normally positive trend line. The same will probably happen this time. But restoring the relationship after this most recent dispute might provide our leaders and officials additional challenges not encountered in the past.

Inconveniently, Indonesia happens to face a general election this year. Its politicians are already electioneering. Denouncing foreign interference and talking tough on threats to sovereignty make for good polling.

Yudhoyono recently aired his injured personal feelings over both the allegations and the Australian Prime Minister's non-apology in his prematurely authored memoir, Selalu Ada Pilihan: Untuk Pencinta Demokrasi dan Para Pemimpin Indonesia Mendatang (There is Always a Choice: For Democracy Lovers and Indonesia's Next Leaders).

Given the significant personal capital invested by Yudhoyono in good relations with Australia over many years, his irritation and sense of betrayal are no doubt genuine. Our foremost friend and advocate will cut us no breaks this time.

But the most alarming manifestation of Indonesian reaction to the Snowden leaks has been a stridently dismissive characterisation of relations with Australia by some members of the Jakarta elite and commentariat. The received wisdom that Indonesia is a future economic powerhouse makes for a heady brew and some observers in Jakarta appear drunk on it, downplaying the relative importance of the bilateral relationship.

Correcting that perception should be the principal task of Australia's diplomatic and strategic communications machinery which has served us so well for so long in Jakarta.

It should not be a big ask. The truth is always an easy argument to make. Geography matters and regional security is a team sport.

Failing to challenge the current wrong-headed discourse that somehow Australia is of diminished importance to an emergent Indonesia in the Asian Century would go against the national interest of both countries. 

As we begin our ascent from yet another trough, deconstructing this worrying narrative before it becomes orthodoxy should be top of our relationship agenda with Indonesia. Jakarta must continue to grasp the long standing and long term importance of strong relations with Australia.

All other issues, including those that have undermined things every decade or so, are merely transactional. And we are in a very long game with Indonesia.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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