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

Indonesia: 'Crisis-prone' refers to the past, not necessarily the future
Published 29 Jul 2015 

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.

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