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?
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.