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Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 16:34 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 16:34 | SYDNEY

Australia-Indonesia relations

10 May 2012 11:46

On Monday, Alex Thursby from ANZ took to The Interpreter to make the case that Australia needs to turn around its perceptions of Indonesia, and think about developing a relationship as mutually rewarding as the one we have with the US.

It's fair to say that Thursby's position is a variation on a view that's pretty consistent in the foreign policy community in Australia. Some would doubt that Australia could ever have ties with Indonesia that compare to those with the US, but the underlying proposition — that Australia's relationship with Indonesia is severely underdone — is pretty uncontroversial.

I tend to agree with this position too, and in fact it is difficult to find anyone who disagrees. All the more reason, then, to question some of the premises behind this argument and dig down for some details. To start this discussion, which I hope others will take up, I want to pose two questions:

  1. What specifically should we do to improve our relationship with Indonesia?
  2. What's wrong with the status quo? What harm would be caused if we did nothing?

Below the fold, some context for both questions:

1. What specifically should we do to improve our relationship with Indonesia?


11 May 2012 10:49

It is good to see the Asian Century discussion focus on contemporary Indonesia-Australia relations with Sam's thoughtful questions, Alex Thursby's hope for a better done Indonesia-Australia relationship, and Raoul Heinrichs' realist gloom about Australia risking a security dilemma with Indonesia.

Taking up Sam's second question ('What's wrong with the status quo? What harm would be caused if we did nothing?'), I think the present approach by Australians to Indonesia is not one of motivated by loss aversion but, in effect if not in purpose, the opposite. As this recent article in The Age shows, the status quo in Australia is one of steady decline in the study of Indonesia:


11 May 2012 15:41

Sam asks for specific suggestions to help our underdone relationship with Indonesia. I've got nothing against a high-profile 'major leadership gesture', but many years ago a wise observer told me that the most useful relationship with Indonesia would comprise a spiderweb of ties that connected us in various places and at various levels. When one bit came unraveled (as it surely will) the others might hold the relationship well enough to re-weave the broken threads over time.

Thus we want ideas for lots of low-profile things as well. Here is one. The Government Partnerships Fund began in 2005, with impetus from the tsunami funds. The idea was to 'twin' Australian and Indonesian government departments, swapping personnel both ways.


14 May 2012 10:09

Duncan Graham, who runs a blog called Indonesia Now, responds to Sam Roggeveen's post about Australia-Indonesia relations:

The situation is unbalanced. We go there in thousands – few come here. Count the number of Asians in aircraft arriving in Australia from Indonesia.

The relationship is unlikely to mature until large numbers of ordinary Indonesians are able to visit Australia and see for themselves how we live and work, and we meet them in the workplace and socially. This is in addition to the wealthy and educated elite that seems to form the majority of Indonesians in Australia and who, in my experience, tend to have limited contact with the wider society. (Not always their fault — we're not that welcoming and friendly.)

The working holiday visa is a good start – unfortunately with a cap of 100 it will have minimal impact. Allowing Indonesians to work in the horticulture industry under the scheme that permits temporary entry to Pacific Islanders and East Timorese would also assist. Sadly, few skilled and semi-skilled Indonesians will be able to jump the high English language hurdles to work in the mining industry unless given assistance – an opportunity here for Australian educational institutions.


15 May 2012 11:20

Talk of losses averted or gains to be made positions engagement with Indonesia as a means to an end.

The case for the benefits of greater engagement and the risks of complacency has been made often. But engagement should also be an end in itself. My life is enriched every day by being able to speak Bahasa Indonesia and by having spent time in Indonesia, a country of over 200 million people right on our doorstep. I gain access to the diverse perspectives expressed in the Indonesian media, books and films; I can also speak to Indonesians of all stripes, thereby better understanding the issues that interest, worry, unite and divide us.


22 May 2012 11:39

Ariel Heryanto is an Associate Professor of Indonesian Studies, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

One fundamental issue has concerned me over and above the specific details about how to improve Australia-Indonesia relations being debated on the Interpreter. The number of Australians studying Indonesia has consistently declined. So, reportedly, has the overall number of bilinguals. Many have argued for extra efforts to alter the trend, but most of their rationales are short-sighted, focusing on short-term material gains.

More Australians should make a serious investment in learning about its giant neighbour, and seek the best possible outcome from it, namely self-understanding. It is not about collecting more or new knowledge about other people, or greater control over relations with them.

Most of us tend to think of knowledge or language as merely an instrument for use. The value is measured only by what it can do for us, instead of to us. Most think erroneously that mastering a second language ultimately leads to an ability to say the same


23 May 2012 11:20

Sam has provoked a nice discussion on the relationship with Indonesia, which I recently argued in The Australian 'must rank as one of our greatest foreign policy failures'.

I agree with what Malcolm Cook, Stephen Grenville and David McRae have suggested. These ideas all contribute towards Stephen's 'spiderweb of ties'. While this is critical, I think two there are two other crucial requirements: a jolt to accelerate a shift towards closer ties and a long-term framework to help keep progress on track.


25 May 2012 10:45

I've found the responses to my Indonesia questions enlightening but I'm not completely satisfied. I think I need to sharpen my argument a little.

I'll start by asking a slightly different question: if all the steps recommended by Stephen Grenville, Fergus Hanson, Duncan Graham and Malcolm Cook are so obviously necessary (a 'no brainer', as Fergus puts it), what's taking us so long? Why can't we get this done?

In my earlier post I suggested one reason why Australia's relations with Indonesia are not as close as they should be: the human bias towards loss aversion. We fight harder to keep what we have than to get something new. And the narrative from those pushing a closer relationship with Indonesia is that we are missing an opportunity.


28 May 2012 12:14

Richard Green writes:

The idea of treating The Asian Century as a 'great national project' akin to multiculturalism raises an interesting point about leadership. I think of Australian multiculturalism as one of the great successes of Australian history, yet the contribution of our leaders was largely in the form of getting out of the way by removing arbitrary immigration laws, for example.

Multiculturalism was driven by countless small interactions between Australians of many backgrounds. It is worth noting that the last bastions of White Australia are in parliament, boardrooms, the upper reaches of the press gallery, think tanks, media and the press corps. These are islands of monoculture in a diverse sea.


28 May 2012 15:28

Four observations on the excellent debate on our relations with Indonesia and especially on Sam's most recent post, which takes us into some deep water.

A favourable environment

Sam is on to something with his analogy with multiculturalism. It goes to the heart of our approach to the region around us; an approach that works well for Australia in ways that directly support the security and prosperity of everyone who lives here. We take this for granted, not noticing it because it works so well. As Joseph Nye said in a similar context, our favourable international environment is like oxygen in the air, essential but unrecognised until it's not there. 


29 May 2012 09:26

Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia, Singapore and Kuwait and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen. 

To Sam Roggeveen's crie de coeur that Australia's entry into the Asian Century must become a national project, akin to reconciliation or multiculturalism, yet it cannot even get its relations with Indonesia into a higher and more substantial gear, I would laconically answer, 'Relax!'  If that sounds patronising, I apologise, but it is meant seriously because Australia is becoming more Asian, more attuned to and even more like its geographical neighbourhood.  


30 May 2012 14:06

Duncan Graham writes:

Sam, I agree with your reasons regarding the lack of political will and add a couple more.

The standard journalist's opening line for stories about Indonesia has been 'the world’s most populous Muslim nation' for so long it must be embedded in the mind of every Australian, even if they know nothing else about the country.

The Bali and Jakarta bombs have added the words 'Muslim terrorists' and there’s the equation for distrust.

Engagement that’s based solely on trade, aid, defence and security is doomed to fail if it doesn't embrace the many other factors that build identity: culture, music, sport, history, cuisine, entertainment, humour, governance, education, law, faith and more.