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Australia's Indonesia policy: Lessons from China

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COMMENTS

5 May 2011 09:07

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia's foreign policy.

For Australian policy-makers interested in ways to deepen and enhance our relationship with Indonesia, the answer is simple: emulate China!

In fact, one should start with a careful read of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's April 30 speech to the Indonesian Council on World Affairs. In an eloquent and perfectly pitched speech to his Indonesian audience, Wen appealed to Indonesia's sense of regional entitlement and historical consequence. Recognising Indonesia's leading role in ASEAN, Wen said Indonesia had made 'an outstanding contribution' and 'China highly commends Indonesia's efforts and rejoices at ASEAN's achievements'.

The Chinese Premier's visit to Jakarta was clearly a successful attempt to take the bilateral relationship to a new high by imbuing relations with a sense of historical purpose, exclusively Asian in character.

This was 'the Asian century', declared Wen, and a 'great rejuvenation of the Oriental Civilisation'. He was clear that Indonesia and China were the driving forces of 'this epoch-making change' and he drew heavily on China's developing country solidarity, common historical experience and shared Asian consciousness with Indonesia.

But beyond shared sentiment and lofty ideals, the speech was backed by tangibles, including US$10 billion in economic and trade agreements, an US$8 billion credit line to support Indonesia's infrastructure and priority industries, and the deepening of people-to-people exchange, described as 'instrumental to the friendship'.

Cultural and people-focused interactions included plans for over 40 events under the China-ASEAN framework, including an 'Experience China' event in Indonesia, plans for the mutual recognition of degrees and diplomas, and targets to increase the two-way flow of students and tourists to 15 million mutual visits for China-ASEAN as a whole.

Wen Jiabao's speech was instructive, sophisticated and positive.

There were explicit reassurances about China’s ongoing constructive regional role. 'I am being truthful...concerning China’s domestic and foreign policies', Wen prefaced his speech. He told Indonesia 'China has kept its word' on its commitment to a tranquil and prosperous neighbourhood. Although expressing a preference for 'bilateral channels' on territorial disputes, the Premier told Indonesia it would 'adhere to the principle of good-neighbourliness and equal consultation'.

Australia is clearly not China nor is Australia an Asian state, but there are lessons in China's dynamic approach to Indonesia. A bold, clear policy strategy predicated upon overt recognition of Indonesia's potential and its significance in the Asia Pacific region; appeals to shared historical experience and common external outlooks, underpinned by increasing economic integration and considerable investment in people-to-people links.

Admittedly, China's relationship with Indonesia is neither complicated by travel advisory warnings or a lack of sustained investment in education and cultural exchange.

Resolving the seemingly irreconcilable imperatives of protecting Australian nationals without destroying vital people-to-people exchange is a considerable, but not insurmountable, challenge for Australian foreign policy-makers.

Photo, of Jakarta's skyline, by Flickr user yohanes budiyanto.

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