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A frank and refreshing assessment of Australia-Indonesia relations

A frank and refreshing assessment of Australia-Indonesia relations

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.

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