Christopher Johnston is a fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon. He is based in Indonesia.

As Prime Minister Rudd heads to Jakarta this week, there are signs of a shift, and perhaps even a breakthrough, in Australian policy on the fraught issue of asylum seekers. This will feature among a range of thorny issues likely to come up for discussion.

Our two countries remain on positive terms. However, Australian interactions with Indonesia require more tact than our dealings with most other countries. No other bilateral relationship has the potential to unravel with greater speed or unforeseen danger.

A more diplomatic rendering of history by the Prime Minister might help him steer clear of such pitfalls. Rudd's portrait of RAN frigates sailing blithely into a naval skirmish in Indonesian waters (with asylum seekers in tow) will not help solve the regional tragedy of Australian refugee policy.

Linking domestic political semantics with 'konfrontasi' also distracts from the bilateral trust and co-operation required. Most dangerously, Rudd's recent comments play to Indonesian conspiracies of malign Western meddling. Konfrontasi did not evolve from 'a set of words'. It was triggered by Sukarno's instinctive fear of colonialism in the archipelago. The same nationalist undercurrents persist, and explain why some Indonesians tend to view Australia with scepticism and alarm.

Foreign powers are commonly suspected of riding roughshod over Indonesian sovereignty. Javanese use the popular sport of ram fighting ('adu domba') as a metaphor to describe alleged intrusion in their affairs. 'Adu domba' pits one animal against another until both are exhausted. The allegory stems from the management of ethnic tensions in the Dutch East Indies. Colonial administrators used internal migration (among other measures) to divide and conquer, suppress internal dissent, and foster a reliable labour force.

Loose talk of Australian naval incursion inflames these historical grievances, and indulges Indonesian antagonism at the political fringe.

This can become incendiary in times of crisis. Consider INTERFET in 1999. According to popular Indonesian sentiment, Australia encouraged Timorese secession in order to secure natural gas reserves in the Timor Gap, while taking advantage of an Indonesia laid low by the Asian financial crisis, itself deemed a conspiracy of the IMF and Western governments.

When Australians discuss this intervention, or the quandary of West Papua, similar hackles are raised in Indonesia. Freeport's Grasberg mine in West Papua alone accounts for 1.6% of Indonesian GDP. Swathes of Papua and New Guinea were subject to colonial rule by Dutch, British, Japanese, Germans, and as recently as 1975, Australia. The catalyst of konfrontasi can be found in the perceived residual influence of the British Colonial Office.

Indonesians fear outsiders will encourage internal ethnic conflict to annex or promote secession of the nation's most profitable chunks. This may seem fanciful to many of us, but the War of Independence still looms large in the collective memory.

These dynamics influence the spectrum of our bilateral relations, from the deployment of Marines in Darwin to sensitivities encountered during ADF humanitarian operations in the restive province of Aceh. Economic nationalism also confounds foreign investment in Indonesia, particularly in the resource sector.

Australia should not shrink from defending our values, advancing our interests or promoting regional security, even at the cost of occasionally damaging our relationship with Jakarta. However, it is unwise to needlessly flag the prospect of armed conflict. Certainly it is in our national interest to avoid conjuring political scenarios that cast Australia as some kind of neo-colonial villain.

At all costs, Rudd should avoid inveigling Indonesia during the federal election campaign. Such impertinence could jeopardise his need for 'announceables' this week. President Yudhoyono is disposed to help Australia, but also has a domestic constituency to placate, and more pressing issues than accommodating an Australian twilight government. The repeal of petroleum subsidies, Sumatran forest fires — our policy challenges must seem benign by comparison.

Australia and Indonesia should enjoy a mature, productive relationship. Australia's refusal to resupply Dutch warships during the War of Independence was a powerful boon to Indonesia's young revolutionaries, and many recall Australian's heartfelt response to the 2004 tsunami.

Unfortunately, our recent relations with Indonesia have been coloured by a parochial, high-handed approach. Prime Minister Rudd's trumpeted Asia Pacific Community foundered quickly, in contrast with Indonesian efforts to strengthen ASEAN and other regional institutions. In 2011 our government placed the welfare of cattle ahead of food security for the world's fourth most populous nation.

While Australia laboured to join the rotating ranks of the UN Security Council, Indonesia has become the leading soft power in South East Asia. Some forecast its economy will become the world's fourth largest by 2040. Certainly, Indonesia's regional heft will increasingly outweigh our own. Australia needs Jakarta's support to tackle a range of sensitive issues, including maritime arrivals. Tact is required to navigate the shoals of Indonesian nationalism.

Photo by Flickr user Icak K7.