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Indonesia: Canberra unlikely to make inroads

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COMMENTS

28 March 2012 12:03

Rawdon Dalrymple is a former Australian ambassador to Israel, Indonesia, the US and Japan.

Fergus Hanson is surely right to be pleased about the results of the latest Lowy poll on Indonesian attitudes to Australia and to contrast that favourable shift with the way the present Australian Government has mis-handled the relationship. But he does not seek to explain the apparent contradiction between the latter and the former.

A first attempt to do so might attribute it partly at least to the increasing attraction of Indonesians to the sort of political system we have here and to the freedoms we have under the law. And Indonesia is no longer governed by authoritarians who see our system and influence as a threat to theirs and who sometimes provided a target for vociferous demonstrators here. This is a matter that might be examined by the very small remaining number of scholars of Indonesia we still have in this country.

What Hanson shares with others who want to see more engagement with Indonesia is a recognition that the political leadership and climate of Indonesia have become more propitious for the development of closer relations with Australia. He sees the Australian response as utterly inadequate and indeed counter-productive.

Hanson is certainly fully justified in damning the handling of the live cattle trade issue, and the way other matters like people smuggling have been discussed or handled has not always been constructive in avoiding infringement of the dignity of our huge neighbor. The present Government and the Opposition too do seem to show inadequate sensitivity in dealing with issues between our two countries.

To take advantage of the more favourable climate of Indonesian opinion revealed by the Lowy poll will require more than an improvement in the handling of bilateral issues like those mentioned by Hanson. As previous contributors to The Interpreter have said, the neglect of Indonesian studies means that we now have lost most of the capacity our universities once had to produce graduates with Indonesian language and social skills and interest. We still have some eminent Indonesia scholars but we were once at the forefront in that area.

A consequence is that media interpretation of Indonesia is less expert and refined and more populist.

So the first step any government needs to take to build up the relationship is to re-establish Indonesian studies as a key discipline and area of expertise in this country. If we can give $250 million to subsidize Holden and very large sums for the arts, sport and news (eg. the ABC), we should be able to spare some for the study and development of expertise on Indonesia, our giant neighbour.

Hanson's blog post perhaps makes it sound as though it would have been easy to take a leap forward in the relationship during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But he has not been a strong president. He has operated as head of a small party in a coalition with others with disparate interests. He has probably done all that he could to strengthen the relationship with Australia and to protect us from the clumsiness of our own politicians. Big steps were never likely to be on the cards.

Without inside knowledge, my guess is that the relationship with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa (ex-ANU) might have been at least as important for us. He has said sensible things in public about the issues affecting us, even if at times what he said was unpalatable to our ministers.

The Lowy Institute and Fergus himself are to be congratulated on their initiative in undertaking this poll. The results are encouraging. But it would be a mistake to imagine that they show that we have missed great opportunities and that more care and effort from our side would soon produce strides ahead in the relationship. Anyone who has spent years working in Indonesia will know that is not at all likely.

It would be great if there could be a big increase in Australian trade with Indonesia and if Australian companies would greatly increase our investment there. But Indonesia is, and I say this sadly, still one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It is not easy for foreign companies to have success there unless they are very big or have a strong network like the Chinese built up over generations, or the Japanese who have established their networks over forty or fifty years. The road through the bureaucracy is often long and slow.

Defence cooperation is increasing but there is the constraint of concern (especially in the universities) about the treatment of politically active indigenous Papuans in the Indonesian side of the big island to our north. Indonesia should become a  magnet for Australian tourism. It certainly has great potential but that is as yet largely undeveloped. Yes, there is Bali, which attracts a variety of Australian tourists, some of whom give an impression of our society which is hardly helpful (suffice to say our Consulate there is very busy).

Indonesians may say they like Australia but there is no very visible or prominent campaign to promote their country and its opportunities here in Australia.

In time we will achieve a much denser and more expansive relationship with Indonesia. But, at least for now, the effort will have to come mostly from our side. It is certainly in our interests to increase that effort.

Photo by Flickr user Pkabz.

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