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

High hopes: Should Australia lower its ambitions for the Indonesia relationship?
Published 20 Jul 2015   Follow @ConnellyAL

'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.

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