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Australia-Indonesia: A marriage of inconvenience?

Published 12 Aug 2015 17:00    0 Comments

'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.

Indonesia: 'Crisis-prone' refers to the past, not necessarily the future

Published 29 Jul 2015 16:17    0 Comments

By Ken Ward, author of Condemned to Crisis?, a new Lowy Institute Paper published by Penguin Australia. 

At the book launch for Condemned to Crisis? in Canberra last week, Anthony Bubalo described my text for the first time (at least for the first time in my hearing) as an 'essay'. This is my own preferred description of it. I also see it as subjective and selective, faults that can, I hope, be forgiven in an essay.

I chose to focus on the diplomatic relationship between the two countries as this was the arena in which my reliance on public data seemed to be the least crippling a constraint. Had I tried to write about the bilateral defence relationship, for example, I would have been forced to carry out many confidential conversations that I could not have reported adequately, if at all.

I will respond to the first several contributors to this debate in turn. At the outset, however, I feel obliged to point out that there is an all-important question mark in the title. I will probably go on defending the survival of this brave question mark for a long time to come. It has already been exposed to relentless attack. Its defiant presence is meant to signal that I do not believe the relationship with Indonesia is doomed to crisis. 'Crisis-prone' refers to the past, not necessarily the future.

What I believe rather, is that we should expect difficulties and clashes of national interest to arise from time to time between Australia and Indonesia for various reasons, and I am urging Australian political leaders to adopt more temperate language in public to help prevent such bilateral differences from deteriorating or escalating into crises. [fold]

I am grateful to Aaron Connelly for drawing readers' attention to my second chapter. I see it not only as the least bad chapter, but also as the one that I would least likely need to revise if I chose to revisit this subject several years from now. I believe that there is no reason to reduce any of the investment that Australia makes in understanding Indonesia, and young Australians should certainly be encouraged to study Indonesian. I find it very disappointing, on the other hand, that the Indonesian Government doesn't encourage young Indonesians to study Australia more. 

I agree that 'administrative ballast' can help to prevent small problems from degenerating into crises. We will need a lot of ballast to counter the danger that ambassadorial withdrawals, of which we have had three in the last decade after traversing 60 years without a single one, might be upgraded into ambassadorial expulsions.

Hugh White suggests that I may be 'a little impatient' with speculation about the future. I am sorry if I have given this impression. I myself have benefited greatly from speculating about the future. I began studying both Indonesia and the Indonesian language a full half-century ago and still enjoy writing about Indonesia and speaking Indonesian even now. That was a bet on the future that really paid off. 

What I feel we need to do is distinguish speculation about the future from statements of what we can be pretty sure will take place.

E.H.Carr wrote towards the end of What is History? that what bothered him most was 'the loss of the pervading sense of a world in perpetual motion'. Then he ended the book with these words targeting various conservative writers: 'I shall look out on a world in tumult and a world in travail, and shall answer in the well-worn words of a great scientist – "And yet moves".' I use this quotation for a slightly different purpose to Carr's. Let us by all means speculate about the future, particularly in this context, about how rich and powerful Indonesia will become over the next few decades, but let us also be ready to adjust our viewpoint if the world 'in perpetual motion' moves in a somewhat different direction.

Hugh goes on to suggest that I may be content with the relationship as it is and that I merely want it to be better managed. Admittedly, I am guilty of having set myself a limited objective in my essay. This is to get across the point that it is urgent for our political leaders to learn how to address their Indonesian counterparts and talk about Indonesia in public. I see little value in adopting ambitious goals now before that message has been absorbed. But a quick perusal of the DFAT Indonesia Country Strategy paper and of the website of our embassy in Jakarta shows that 'the relationship as it is' is no mean thing at all.

Furthermore, I do have my own ambitions for the relationship. For example, I would very much like to see sooner or later an Indonesian-speaking foreign minister in Australia. We have not even had many Indonesian-speaking ambassadors. An Indonesian-speaking foreign minister might find it easier to reach that cosy and agreeable state of being 'santai' (relaxed, easy-going, unstressed, even 'cool') with Indonesian counterparts that is so valued in personal relationships among Indonesians themselves. Having a prime minister who can speak a foreign language I see as less important. Sir Anthony Eden, for instance, combined a sophisticated grasp of Persian with a disastrous Middle East policy. 

Putting aside the question of the Indonesian language, I am heartened by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's commitment to MIKTA, the dialogue or partnership linking the five middle powers, Mexico, Indonesia, the ROK, Turkey and Australia. This could evolve into an effective way of discussing issues with Indonesia in an environment immune to any bilateral stresses. 

I feel that Greta Nabbs-Keller has grasped my overall approach remarkably well. What I am arguing for is a style of public communication with Jakarta that steers comfortably, but unerringly, between the extremes of the insulting and the ingratiating. It is bewildering to me that in recent times some of our leaders have managed to be both insulting and ingratiating with equal facility. 

I am glad that Greta brought up the question of the rather mysteriously small size of the Indonesian community in Australia. To go back to the concept of 'ballast', I think the fact that very few Australians can have any daily contact with Indonesians robs community attitudes to Indonesia of some much-needed ballast. I am also grateful to Greta for mentioning Rhonda and Ketut. Rather than using this story to draw attention to Australian insularity, however, I see it as a missed opportunity for Indonesia to exert some soft power. Had the Indonesian embassy asked for my advice, I would have recommended that it contact the advertising company concerned and discuss possible future collaboration. Making Indonesia appear 'sexy' in the eyes of a mass Australian audience would surely be a worthy goal for that country's cultural program.

While I agree with much that Stephen Grenville has written, I believe that, just as one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, one shouldn't judge it by its title. I don't find the text itself 'despairing'. 'Downbeat' I can perhaps live with. Stephen reads more into my reference to New Zealand than I intended. I have been arguing that the impact of the cultural differences between Australia and Indonesia have been exaggerated. After all, there is little prospect of vast numbers of Australians and Indonesians joining forces in some common endeavour, in which their mutual ignorance of each others' cultures might create terrible misunderstandings and wounded amour-propre on one side or the other. The number of Australians who need to acquire some appreciation of Indonesian etiquette and protocol norms is not very large. Here I am surely being upbeat and confident, rather than despairing.

It is true, as Stephen points out, that I devote little space to Papua. I haven't been to that part of Indonesia since 1969, when I had the good fortune to meet SBY's future father-in-law. I didn't feel that I had anything new to say on the subject. Stephen's paragraph on Papua contains nothing from which I would dissent. Stephen ends his post with the observation that our 'diplomatic dexterity' during the Sukarno era made it possible for us quickly to build a close relationship with the successor regime. This is indeed true, but let's not forget that half a million Indonesians had to meet their deaths before our diplomatic dexterity obtained its just reward.

Andrew Parker argues that Indonesia has never been more important to Australia than it is now. I disagree. Indonesia was most important to Australia during Konfrontasi, because there was a danger that our undeclared war with Indonesia, which Stephen refers to, could escalate into open warfare. It is very important for our relationship that this didn't eventuate. Fear of war is why I was unhappy that SBY withdrew two ambassadors from Canberra during his tenure. Nor did I clamour for Ambassador Grigson to be withdrawn from Jakarta following the recent executions. Withdrawing one's ambassador is the lowest rung on the ladder of escalation towards breaking off relations and, worse, declaring war.

The only other comment I wish to make about Andrew's post is that, while there is a strong case for arguing that Australia should be Indonesia's preferred partner in dealing with the challenges he identifies, I don't see any way of persuading President Joko Widodo of this point of view. Maybe we will be luckier with his successor, whoever he or she may be. This is not a counsel of despair. Sukarno once explained that he hadn't withdrawn his ambassador from Canberra despite our clashes with Indonesian troops in Borneo because he accepted that Australia, unlike his main foe, the UK, was here to stay. This hasn't changed.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.

Indonesians are not that culturally 'sensitive', so let's move on

Published 28 Jul 2015 17:00    0 Comments

I couldn't agree more with Hugh White's commentary on Ken Ward's new book Condemned to Crisis? published by the Lowy Institute and Penguin Australia. White argues that Australia must build its relationship with Indonesia based more on how it perceives its northern neighbor is developing, rather than on historical experiences.

White agrees with Ward that Australia's approach to Indonesia is outmoded and needs rethinking. Ward argues that Canberra must discard the long-held policy mantra, embraced by all prime ministers since Paul Keating, that 'no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia.' 

Both Indonesia and Australia have changed since then, and this hasn't been fully reflected in the way they conduct relations, perhaps more so on the Australian than the Indonesian side (which deserves a separate article). While both White and Ward recognise the changes that have taken place in post-Suharto Indonesia, they fail to grasp the implications for bilateral relations and for the geopolitical environment in Asia.

White rightly postulates that Canberra's approach to Indonesia should take into account two facts. First, that Indonesia's economy is growing so rapidly that it will become bigger than Australia's and hence more powerful, and second, that Indonesia's rise has implications for the geopolitical order in Asia.

But White and Ward have underestimated the internal changes that have occurred within Indonesia which are equally dramatic, and which have inevitably changed the way Indonesia looks at itself and at its place in the region and the world. These changes have implications for Indonesia's foreign policy and for all of its foreign relations, including with neighbours like Australia.

If Ward and White represent the typical Canberra foreign policy community view, then Australia is misreading Indonesia. [fold]

Both assume that cultural sensitivity still matters, with Ward suggesting that Australian politicians had better be careful in what they say, or they risk offending Indonesians. Prime Minister Abbott tried the cultural sensitivity approach in trying to persuade President Jokowi for a stay of execution against two Australian drug traffickers this year. When that failed, he changed tack and became more abrasive. That the executions went ahead suggests that cultural sensitivity made no difference.

Indonesia today is vastly different from Suharto's Indonesia. It's a far more open and democratic society. Everything is discussed and debated in the open, and social media has made the public debate fiercer, if not sometimes unethical. This means that Indonesia has become thoroughly desensitised, and its people and leaders can take all kinds of insults without being in the least offended. Whatever Australian politicians, and the notorious media including talk back radio hosts, say about Indonesia, far worse things have been said by Indonesians about themselves. They'll be sure to respond with equally if not more harsh words. But then that's free speech. 

A more open Indonesia has stopped taking Australian insults seriously. They would surely not affect bilateral relations. Over the years, Indonesia and Australia have moved on from the days when a single issue (East Timor) undermined their entire relationship. Or from being too personalised, as in the way Suharto retaliated to personal insults or Keating 'coddling' with the dictator. Even President Yudhoyono measured his retaliations in 2013 when he learned he and his wife had been targets of Australia's wiretapping operations.

Indonesians have also come to accept that their country becomes a punching bag in every Australian election for Jakarta's 'lack of cooperation' in tackling human smuggling. But as soon as a new prime minister was elected (or re-elected in the case of John Howard), the first thing they'd do was visit Jakarta and pacify its leaders to cooperate on human smuggling. They would blame their own press for exaggerating their criticisms of Indonesia during the election campaign. 

A democratic Indonesia is doing exactly the same. In the 2014 elections, foreign countries became convenient targets for politicians, aware that they could not respond or defend themselves. But as soon as the new government took power, they had to be responsible and tone down their xenophobic rhetoric. You can only hurt your foreign relations so far. Admittedly, Abbott went the furthest of all prime ministers in dealing with Indonesia, but look at where relations are today.

Yes, Indonesia's economy has been growing and that is altering its position in the region and its relations with its neighbours. But a more important change is that Indonesia is a far more open and democratic nation, albeit not a perfect one (but then what country is?) Yes, a re-reading of the report Seeing Indonesia as a normal country by Douglas E Ramage and Andrew MacIntyre, as suggested by another commentator in this debate, Greta Nabbs-Keller, may be warranted.

Need more evidence that Indonesians are not that culturally sensitive? Indonesia has never bothered even to try to reciprocate Australia's repeated statements that it is the most important foreign relationship, something that in Eastern culture would be considered as downright rude. Remember the 1970s' notorious French song Je T'aime Moi Non Plus, where the woman in the duet passionately says she loves the man, but he remains indifferent and is only interested in a more casual affair? That's how awkward some Indonesians feel each time we hear Australian leaders utter their foreign policy mantra.

Let's all move on and be more realistic about each other.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Indonesia: engagement through communication and culture has barely begun

Published 28 Jul 2015 12:35    0 Comments

In a new Lowy Institute Paper, former ONA analyst Ken Ward makes the case for 'more realistic' expectations for the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

He writes that despite years of Australian governments prioritising the relationship, it continues to be marked by tensions and crises. The recent execution of Australian citizens for drug crimes in Indonesia, despite our diplomatic protests, is presented as an example of why we should lower our expectations for a close relationship with our nearest Asian neighbour.

The Paper's title poses a question: is the Australia-Indonesia relationship condemned to crisis? In answering this question, Ward explores Australian and Indonesian history, domestic politics and communication and culture in search of triggers for the disputes that continue to erupt between the two nations, and analyses how these disputes are handled. Leaving aside the factors of history and domestic politics, which will surely be highlighted in other reviews of the Paper, I'd like to focus on the aspects of communication and culture, which arguably can have significant impact on the other causes of crisis and how they are handled.

Ward debunks the idea that Australia and Indonesia are too wildly different in terms of culture to ever understand each other.

He highlights Indonesia's capitalist economy, democratic government and social media-obsessed populace as being not so different from our own. Instead of cultural differences, he sees negative stereotypes and prejudices found among the Australian public, and expressed by our media and politicians, as one cause of frequent crises. In the first chapter, Ward points out the often 'clumsy and tactless' handling of clashes by Australia, and 'great sensitivity' on the part of Indonesia. [fold]

This indicates a great deal of unfinished work on Australia's part in establishing a strong relationship with Indonesia. It also gives life to the claims made by successive governments regarding the high priority given to developing the relationship. As Ward explains, Australian politicians can't expect Jakarta to selectively hear the pronouncements made about Indonesia's importance to Australia on the world stage, while ignoring the insensitive comments made back home.

From the Australian side, we can't help Indonesia being 'sensitive', but we can equip ourselves to better approach sensitivities and work to overcome our 'clumsiness and tactlessness'. In the Australian school curriculum, this is part of what's called 'Asia literacy'.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority describes Asia literacy on its website as providing students with the 'skills to communicate and engage with the peoples of Asia so they can effectively live, work and learn in the region'. This includes recognising that Australia is part of the Asian region, and that our histories and futures are closely linked. It also means learning the languages of the region.

A sincere commitment to developing Asia literacy in Australia would transform our modes of communication and culture. In relation to Indonesia specifically, it would help to address the stereotypes and prejudices that cause or inflame clashes in the relationship, and improve the ways in which tensions are handled by those in power. At the very least, it would help to bolster what Ward calls the 'thin cultural underlay' now supporting government-to-government relations.

In rhetoric, commitment to Asia literacy, including the study of Indonesian language and culture, has continued among successive governments in Australia. In reality, it has been inconsistent and even declining.

Despite decades of stated commitment to the goal, this year's Lowy Poll shows that many Australians know very little about Indonesia, including whether or not it's a democracy, or the name of the country's new president. As pointed out by David Hill, a strong supporter of Indonesian studies, Australian universities are now closing their Indonesian programs as enrolments continue to drop.

We don't need a nation of Indonesia specialists just to improve relations with our neighbour. But we do need to support a basic level of knowledge about Indonesia that will help rid us of the stereotypes and prejudices that colour discourse about the country among our public, media and politicians. It's astonishing that Ward should even have to advise Australia's political leaders to avoid using language that 'Indonesians may construe as seeking to reimpose "coolie" status on them', and to 'talk about them in public in a more appropriate manner'.

The execution of two Australians in Indonesia this year was a tragedy that a majority of Australians rightly objected to. But rather than seeing this as a reason to give up on strengthening the relationship, we should see it as a greater reason to be more deeply involved in dialogue about our different cultures, with a hope of finding some common ground. If we are to be truly realistic about the relationship, then surely we can admit that our efforts to engage on the level of communication and culture have barely begun.

It's only if we continue to lower our expectations that the relationship will in fact be 'condemned to crisis'.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gabriel Sai.

Indonesia: We don't have to be condemned to crisis

Published 27 Jul 2015 16:16    0 Comments

Ken Ward is to be congratulated for a straight forward and sober analysis of the Australia-Indonesia relationship. In his own matter of fact style, Ken takes us through a complex relationship and provides unique understanding and insight.

His core point is that the Australia-Indonesia relationship has been, and will always be, punctuated by varying degrees of crisis. He argues that is something we just have to get used to and we should reset our expectations accordingly. In Ken's view, the best governments can hope to do is better understand Indonesia's point of view. Policy settings and the political narrative can be managed with those sensitivities in mind, rather than responding to a media and/or opposition driven narrative.

As Hugh White has argued in this debate, this advice is sensible enough, particularly if we are happy with the status quo and simply want to manage the current relationship more effectively. Although Hugh argues policy that is good today might not be fit for the future because the regional strategic environment is changing.

But should we even be happy with how the relationship is today? I would argue we should not. In fact our relationship is a long way short of where it ought to be in today's environment, let alone where we should aspire taking it. [fold]

The Australia-Indonesia relationship has never been more important. Nearly 70 years after Indonesia achieved independence from Dutch rule, we still don't really understand them. This was no more apparent than in the recent Lowy Institute Poll that found a staggering 66% of Australians do not regard Indonesia as a democracy, 15 years on from President Soeharto standing down. And just 42% said they 'know' of President Joko Widodo. With the Lowy thermometer hitting an 8 year low at 46 degrees, Australians put Indonesia in the same basket as Russia and Egypt.

That is not the kind of place you would like to see our closest neighbour occupy in our national psyche.

GDP growth below 3% is the new normal for Australia, yet we have on our doorstep an economy and market of 250 million people. Half of Indonesia's citizens are under 30 years old and the middle class is expected to exceed 140 million inside the next decade. Indonesia, already the 9th largest economy in the world in purchasing power parity terms, could become the 5th largest in the next 15 years according to PwC modelling. In 2030, the Indonesian economy could be three times bigger than ours.

Of course, implementing structural reforms, fixing infrastructure and combating corruption are very real challenges to Indonesia achieving this potential. Australia should absolutely be Indonesia's preferred partner to help solve these challenges. But we are not. One of the reasons for that is we just don't have the deep commercial ties that build understanding and trust. Our trade and investment relationship is way below par. Indonesia sits outside our top 10 partners in two-way trade and receives less than 2% of our stock of foreign direct investment.

A healthy and vibrant Indonesia is most importantly a thing good for Indonesians. But it's also good for Australia. Good in economic terms and good for our shared security interests.

There is plenty of room for Australia in Indonesia, but we have to be more ambitious in how we think about the relationship. A bipartisan approach and greater respect for the Indonesian view point is needed. Diplomacy behind closed doors and out of the media spotlight is a far more effective way to navigate these issues.

But if we want to be more than just bystanders we will have to seriously rethink our engagement model. Indonesians do not get up in the morning and look south for guidance. They look north, as we do. China, Japan, Korea, the US and Europeans are well ahead of us.

We can choose to continue down a path punctuated by the recurring crises that Ken so compellingly argues are inevitable. The alternative is to double-down on our investment. This will require courage and a healthy measure of leadership if we are to reset the relationship for the next 25 years. We can and must do better – we simply can't afford not to.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.

Indonesia: Too many 'unforced errors'

Published 27 Jul 2015 08:55    0 Comments

Maybe it's just the title – Condemned to Crisis? – that gives Ken Ward's book such a downbeat despairing tone, as if the accident of geography has locked us in an unhappy marriage with Indonesia and there is not much we can do about it.

Of course we should be realistic: we won't ever have the sort of familial ties that we have with New Zealand. The intrinsic sensitivities will be more substantial than the petty sibling rivalries we have with our Kiwi brothers. But we don't have to accept serial crises as the norm.

In examining the history, we should separate the problems which were unavoidable from those which were 'unforced errors' or 'own goals'. We can avoid the latter by trying harder.

Ken spends a significant amount of time on the Bali Two. This was an intrinsic conflict-point that was never going to work out well. It was hard for Australia to run an 'in principle' argument against the death penalty, given our stance on the Bali Bombers a few years earlier. But it was an 'unforced error' to link this to the Aceh aid. Even if you knew nothing about how Indonesia might react, the fact that this argument had been put forward by Alan Jones should have been a caution.

The wider lesson here is that our politicians understandably ask themselves what the Australian public are likely to think: our politicians have less concern for the Indonesian public, who don't vote here. With a few notable exceptions, our politicians understand that there is a degree of xenophobia just below the surface in Australia (as everywhere) and the unwritten rule is that this should not be exploited just to win votes.

Is it too much to expect Australian politicians to go a little further, showing international sensitivity? [fold]

Live cattle exports produced another 'unforced error'. The ABC video was horrifying. Why didn't the live cattle industry see this coming? Once the images had been aired, the proper answer was immediate consultations with the Indonesian authorities while putting exports on temporary hold, pending arrangements to ensure that the cattle would be treated humanely, if necessary in abattoirs funded by our exporters.

Eavesdropping on the President's wife demonstrated an abysmal lack of judgment on the part of our intelligence service. Our damage-control added insult to injury. Instead of quickly saying that we wouldn't do this sort of thing again, we used SBY's desire to deal with it quickly as an excuse for changing nothing

The problem in Australian intelligence seems more systemic. It needs a more active watchdog than it has at present, and a thorough analysis of just how much of this 'intelligence' is just juicy gossip and ephemera. Let's shift resources into conventional diplomacy.

Operation Sovereign Borders also needs tougher oversight. If we are concerned about our sovereign borders, why would Indonesians (with a more fraught history) be less sensitive? A simple GPS plotter, as carried by any recreational boat that ventures onto the open sea, shows where the border is and where your boat is. You can check the coordinates yourself. It wasn't just the Indonesian public that were sceptical that a 'modern Western navy had made repeated accidental incursions'.

Thus looking back, there was nothing inevitable about these mistakes. We could have done better. But what about the future?

The first step is sensitivity training all round. Next time a government does a deal to rotate US troops through Darwin, let's chat with Jakarta before we announce it.

This sensitivity-training might involve getting to know Indonesia better. Our media editors are more interested in titillating stories about Schappelle Corby than in helping Australians understand their near neighbor. When the chief editor of the national newspaper suggests that Indonesia is 'probably the most corrupt country on earth', you can see how big the challenge is.

Upgrading understanding is hard work, but we should identify the places where our interests impinge or even coincide, and turn these into opportunities. The Australian Federal Police built a deep relationship with its Indonesian counterpart, but it took substantial resources. Specialised assets such as the ANU Indonesia Project on economics (celebrating its 50th anniversary this week) has been run on a shoe-string budget, without the resources to build more widely on its peerless Indonesian contacts, or take its accumulated knowledge to a global audience.

The obvious potential friction-point is Papua (not much discussed by Ken). There will be well-meaning Australians who are shocked by what happens there, and will want to do something – most likely protest at least. NGOs will likely want to go. For their part, Indonesians have a lot of historical colonial baggage there. Whenever we say we want Papua to remain part of Indonesia, they think 'that's what you said about Timor'. What's our plan for handling this inevitable conflict-point?

The supposed wise heads in Canberra tell us that these little tiffs in the relationship are normal and quickly forgotten. This is wrong. The relationship is like a marriage, with accumulated never-forgotten slights. We did better in the past, retaining working diplomatic relationships during Konfrontasi while simultaneously fighting Indonesia in Borneo. This diplomatic dexterity made it possible to quickly build close relations after 1966. We need to try harder, and the starting point is to recognise that this is worth doing.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.

A frank and refreshing assessment of Australia-Indonesia relations

Published 23 Jul 2015 14:06    0 Comments

The great strength of Ken Ward's Condemned to Crisis? is that it confronts head-on some of the false constructs surrounding Australia-Indonesia relations. Although many of the arguments have been made by other Indonesia experts over the years, Ward's call for a more realistic approach to the relationship, particularly during the current administration in Jakarta, is refreshing for its frankness.

Upon reading Ward's analysis, one is reminded of a 2008 report produced by two highly regarded Indonesianists, Andrew MacIntyre and Douglas E Ramage, Seeing Indonesia as a Normal Country: Implications for Australia. The central premise of the paper was that democratisation had conferred a kind of political normality to a turbulent, post-authoritarian Indonesia, which with it carried great promise for bilateral relations. 

But it was the choice of title which was interesting. It suggested that Australian policymakers viewed Indonesia if not in 'abnormal' terms then at least differently to how it saw other states. Implicit in the title was some kind of exceptionalism in the way Canberra viewed its relations with Jakarta. Although Ward doesn't specifically use the term 'exceptionalism', he does challenge the orthodoxy around the venerated place of Indonesia in Australian foreign policy.

The book is, fundamentally, a sober policy prescription for bilateral relations targeted at Australia's political leaders. Cognisant of Jakarta's worldview and resigned to the Indonesian polity's historical sensitivity to perceived slights and interference, Ward's book focuses on addressing problems at the Australian end. At the heart of the problem with Australia-Indonesia relations as Ward sees it is political communication, or rather the failure of it. [fold]

Australian politicians of both persuasions have been alternatively 'clumsy' or 'tactless' in their handling of issues considered highly sensitive to Indonesia. More irresponsibly, political figures have continued to use the Indonesia relationship for 'partisan advantage'. Ward writes: 'Criticising one's domestic political opponents for their policies...vis-à-vis unlikely to yield the wisest policies towards that country in the future.'

Ward's acuity reminds one of former Lowy analyst Fergus Hanson, who in frustration argued that Australian governments had treated Indonesia 'like a miscreant Pacific atoll rather than a country fundamental to Australia's future prosperity and stability'.

Perhaps the Indonesia relationship is just too tempting a club for beating up political opponents. Although not specifically highlighted in the book, some of the key constituencies that form the overarching framework of bilateral relations – the business community, primary producers, academics and higher education sector – cringe every time the relationship with Indonesia is used for domestic political point-scoring. So Ward should be commended on his forthright views about the damage inflicted on the Australia's relationship with Indonesia by political partisanship.

Ward also refers to a certain obsequiousness in Canberra's interactions with Jakarta. The book recommends that Australia's political leaders drop their 'habit of lavishing praise unduly on the Indonesian government' and avoid grandiose assertions. Pronouncements by Australian politicians that 'no country is more important to Indonesia' are both imprudent and erroneous, according to Ward. 

Indeed, there is a rhetorical trap in such pronouncements. The book argues that neither Indonesia, Singapore nor Malaysia make similar public rankings of countries' relative foreign policy importance and that such assertions ensure that the high expectations ascribed to the relationship are destined for disappointment. Furthermore, such statements appear by implication to ignore the significance to Australia of states such as the US, China and the UK, which 'respectively constitute Australia's main ally...biggest trading partner, and largest reservoir of soft power'.

Importantly, Ward dissects the 'cultural differences' argument, long assumed to be at the heart of ongoing tensions between the two countries. By comparing Indonesia's equally thorny relations with neighbours Malaysia and Singapore, two countries which share much closer cultural affinities with Indonesia, Ward demonstrates how Jakarta's acute sensitivity about its sovereignty and territorial integrity are key causal factors behind Indonesia's political differences with its neighbours. 

One of the most interesting sections of Ward's book is titled 'Where are all the Indonesians?'. Ward contends, rightly, that the relatively small number of Australian residents born in Indonesia (less than 2% of the total number of overseas-born residents in Australia) limits broader familiarity with Indonesia in Australian society and serves to perpetuate 'residual foreignness'. 

Indeed, it is another indictment of Australia's insularity (see The Adolescent Country) that the highly popular 'Rhonda and Ketut' commercials by AAMI saw the first Indonesian words uttered on an Australian television commercial. Indonesia is yet to become mainstream in Australian culture despite its proximity and Australians' love affair with Bali. 

So, is Australia's relationship with Indonesia condemned to crisis? Ward's book would suggest not, despite the bleak fatalism of the title. Rather, Australia-Indonesia relations will be subject to ongoing difficulties, particularly in the post-Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono period. Such difficulties will require a more sober and realistic assessment of what is possible by Australian political leaders.

Photo courtesy Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.

Australia-Indonesia relations: More than just management

Published 21 Jul 2015 13:42    0 Comments

Those lucky enough to have worked with Ken Ward over his many years of government service will smile as they read his fine Lowy Paper on Australia's relations with Indonesia. It has just the same droll and occasionally mordant tone that characterised his work in DFAT and elsewhere, as well as his precise eye for detail and talent for exposition. It is no surprise, then, that Condemned to Crisis is one of the best things written for many years about the contemporary management of this relationship, and a model of plain and forthright exposition. I strongly recommend it.

Ken's central message is simple enough. He thinks that crises in the relationship are inevitable, but that governments can manage them better by understanding Indonesia's perceptions and sensitivities better and by not allowing the media or opposition to set the terms of discussion. Meanwhile, we should not be too ambitious about the relationship: it serves our interests well enough as it is, and we should not expect it to get much better or exaggerate how much it matters if it doesn't.

All of this is sound, sober and wise, based as it is on Ken's experience observing the relationship over several decades. As a guide to managing issues with Jakarta day-to-day, or even year-to year, it could hardly be bettered. Indeed if the routine management of the status quo was all that our foreign policy needed to do, there would be very little left to say. Ken has pinned it with a lepidopterist's precision.

But is that all our foreign policy needs to do? [fold]

Running relationships day-to-day on the basis of past experience will get us a long way, but it will not help us adapt to big changes when they happen – as they sometimes do. So we also have to look to the future and ask what big changes might be looming, and what we can do to manage them.

One gets the impression that Ken is a little impatient with speculation about the future. If so, this is something he shares with many Australian foreign-policy professionals. Indeed, one might say that the professional ethos of our foreign service today emphasises a briskly practical, no-nonsense approach to the management of today's immediate problems and issues. It tends to disparage reflection about the future and how our policy might prepare for it, and shape it to our advantage.

But if we do not speculate about the future – even the relatively distant future of two or three decades ahead – then we miss opportunities to adapt to it, and risk finding ourselves stuck with old policies that do not work anymore.

This risk looms large in relation to Indonesia, because the circumstances of the relationship are changing in two important ways.

The first is the big shift in economic relativities, a shift which has already occurred and seem likely to continue over coming decades, which makes it likely that Indonesia will end up with a much bigger economy than ours. Hence, in a very important way, Indonesia will be more powerful. Ken touches on this, but does not reflect on what it might mean for the relationship.

The second is the bigger shift in the regional order that is being driven by the wider shift in the distribution of wealth and power in Asia. This is important to Ken's theme because the Australia–Indonesia relationship does not exist in a vacuum. It is profoundly influenced by the wider regional environment in which both countries live.

It has been easy to overlook this, because the regional order has been so stable for so long — until recently. But if, as seems likely, Asia works rather differently over coming decades from the way it has worked over the period covered by Ken's analysis, then it seems likely that the Australia-Indonesia relationship will work differently too.

These thoughts might nudge us towards some conclusions a little different from Ken's. In particular it might lead us to ask whether the relationship with Indonesia will become more important to us in future than it has been in the past, presenting both bigger risks and bigger opportunities.

If so, then perhaps we should not be as content as Ken appears to be with a relationship which is somewhat better managed but not essentially different from the troubled one we know today. In turn, that suggests Australian policymakers should put higher priority on changing the basics of the relationship rather than just managing it.

Of course that is a rather ambitious objective, especially compared to the modest way we have conceived foreign policy in Australian recent years. But worth a try, surely?

Photo courtesy of DFAT.

High hopes: Should Australia lower its ambitions for the Indonesia relationship?

Published 20 Jul 2015 14:05    0 Comments

'Condemned to Crisis?' is a new Lowy Institute Paper now available for purchase as an e-book or in bookstores. The Paper will be launched at the National Press Club, Canberra, on Wednesday.

In Condemned to Crisis?, the third volume in the new Lowy Institute Papers series, former Australian diplomat and intelligence analyst Ken Ward makes an argument that runs counter to years of conventional wisdom in Canberra on Australia's relationship with Indonesia.

Ward argues that crisis is inherent in the relationship, so Australian leaders should lower their expectations. Rather than reaching for a grand strategic partnership, he suggests the best we can hope for is to manage tensions. And he argues that in managing the inevitable crises, Australian leaders should seek to tailor their comments on the relationship to the sensitivities of audiences in Jakarta rather than at home. 

It is advice Australian parliamentarians would have done well to heed last week, when the Labor and Coalition front benches immediately sought to pin blame on the other for Indonesia's reported decision to cut imports from Australia of live cattle by 80%.

Labor suggested that the Abbott Government's poor relationship with Jakarta would not have helped, while the Coalition pointed out that it was the Gillard Government's decision to suspend live cattle imports to Indonesia in 2011 that heightened food insecurity in Indonesia. Neither side thought first to ask whether trends in Jakarta which have little to do with Australia might have played a role. A long-term trend in Jakarta toward economic nationalism that emphasises food self-sufficiency, and the slower demand for foodstuffs that typically follows Ramadan, were probably more important factors.

Ward would argue that Australia's interest in lobbying for a more open Indonesian economy is ill-served by its political leadership's solipsism, but I wonder in this and other cases whether Australian actions register at all. Jakarta, it turns out, is also dominated by near-sighted politicians. [fold]

In Condemned to Crisis?, Ward surveys a number of similar incidents from recent years (regarding boats, beef, and Bali) and concludes that neither party has much of a leg to stand on when proclaiming that they know best how to handle the relationship with Indonesia. Rather, he argues, both sides' rhetoric should be informed by a better understanding of Indonesia's history and worldview.

Ward is at his best when describing that worldview, which is borne of a dual sense of vulnerability and entitlement that dates back to the colonial era. Ward's excellent second chapter helps explain Indonesians' great sensitivity when confronted with evidence that foreigners have impinged upon Indonesian sovereignty, particularly its territorial integrity. But it also explains some Indonesians' expectation that they should have a seat at the table of big countries even if, as I have said of Jokowi, that expectation is not backed by any vision, purpose, or aspiration to leadership.

Because Australian and Indonesian interests often run counter to the other's sensitivities, Ward argues that Australian leaders' constant pursuit of a warm friendship with their Indonesian counterparts raises expectations for the relationship that it cannot hope to meet. He recommends instead that Canberra simply do its part by avoiding inflammatory rhetoric that disregards Indonesia's history and worldview, in the hope that this will prevent own goals.

That logic raises a question about resources. If Australia and Indonesia are 'condemned to crisis' and cannot reasonably aspire to a strong friendship, should Australia continue to invest time, money, and effort in a better relationship? Should its embassy in Jakarta remain its largest in the world, with a new consulate to be opened soon in Makassar? Should it continue to spend hundreds of millions in aid each year on Indonesia? Should Australians study Indonesian in school and work harder to learn more about their northern neighbour? Should Australian companies, as Julie Bishop has argued, step up investment in Indonesia and trade with Indonesia?

Ward hints at answers, writing for example, that greater knowledge of Indonesia among the punters might correct some misimpressions. He also notes that, despite tensions between principals, cooperation at the working level is robust across a wide range of interests, including counter-terrorism.

I would go further. While these Australian investments in the relationship may not unlock jail cells or reverse long-term protectionist trends, they have provided important administrative ballast that can occasionally keep small crises from developing into much larger ones. In a relationship as crisis-prone as the one Ward describes, it may be all we've got.

Photo by Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.