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What Peter Cosgrove thinks about Indonesia

What Peter Cosgrove thinks about Indonesia

Australia's incoming Governor-General has put many of his thoughts to paper in various publications and talks in recent years. No doubt they will be subject to close examination by commentators before he is sworn in in March. 

Cosgrove has had a lot to do and say about Indonesia during the past decade or so.  He was appointed commander of the peacekeeping mission in East Timor in 1999 and has had frequent contacts with the senior echelons of the Indonesian military since then. In his new role, he is likely to host Indonesian civilian and military visitors at Yarralumla on a regular basis. His views, then, about Australia-Indonesia relations are of some interest.

Cosgrove set out his thoughts about Australia's relations with Indonesia in some detail in his 2009 ABC Radio National Boyer Lectures,  A Very Australian Conversation. In his second lecture on 'Australia's Regional Relationships', he began his discussion of 'our close and giant neighbour, Indonesia' by reminding his audience of the way Australia has been affected by events in Indonesia since the Second World War:

Can any of you remember a protracted period when Indonesia, its actions and concerns and thus its relationship with Australia were not major issues? From its move to independence, to the great political purges of the Sukarno period, Confrontation, the annexation of East Timor, the long Suharto regime, Irian Jaya, East Timor again in 1999, people smuggling, terrorist actions and even that most tragic natural disaster event, the Asian tsunami of 2004, all of these kept reminding us of the centrality of our relationship with Indonesia.

He then states clearly the priority he gives to the Australia-Indonesia relationship:

In my opinion, it is far and away our most complex and important regional relationship.

In this, his views are close to those of former Governor-General Bill Hayden, who said that: [fold]

The success with which we deal with (the relationship with Indonesia) will be seen by other nations as the measure of our skill, maturity and intellectual depth, as a nation, in handling international relations.

And also those of Australia's current ambassador to Australia, Greg Moriarty, who recently observed that:

...a stable, strong and prosperous Indonesia is also vital for Australia’s prosperity and security. Indeed as a neighbouring country – Indonesia’s continued stability and unity is a core interest for Australia.

General Cosgrove went on to recognise that there are (as he tactfully put it) 'rub points' between the two countries. He nominated, among other things, the Bali bombing of 2002, people smuggling, illegal fishing and sensitivities over Irian Jaya (which led Indonesia in 2006 to withdraw the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia for several months when a group of asylum-seekers from Papua were accepted into Australia). He said that these, and other matters, had been sources of friction:

Yet all of these issues are being managed with reasonable success. One thing which has profoundly impressed me over the last several governments in Australia, and in Indonesia, is the assortment of pragmatic and effective joint working relationships that have been formed...The people of both nations have very good cause to applaud the partnership.

And referring specifically to the asylum-seeker issue as it was being addressed in 2009, he said:

I also think the Rudd government's decision to work even more closely with the Indonesian government over people smuggling is a very timely and apt theme of the relationship. I would go further—I would be seeking to collaborate with Indonesia on mutual law enforcement at sea in relation to terrorism of course but also piracy and environmental challenges.

Cosgrove downplayed the idea that Indonesia poses any kind of direct military threat to Australia: is plain that Indonesia as a state lacks the desire and even the energy and the means to interfere with Australia's vital security interests.

And importantly, 'while acknowledging the legitimate concerns of many Australians about a respect for human rights by security forces', he emphasised the benefits to both nations of close collaboration in military and security matters:

...we should always be looking for ways to collaborate and share expertise and effort in the security arena. Even through the vexed period of East Timor's move to independence in 1999 and 2000, our previous familiarity with the Indonesian Armed Forces helped us to negotiate through a number of tense moments, to the ultimate maintenance of the relationship between our two nations.

His closing comment on Australia-Indonesia relations emphasised joint interests in a way that has sometimes been lacking in statements on both sides in recent months:

I can't stress enough that this urge to partnership is an important legacy matter for our kids and theirs.

A close reading of these views from Australia's next Governor-General bolsters confidence that under his watch Yarralumla will lend weight to efforts for good relations with Indonesia. He suggests that there is room to hope that relations with Indonesia can be strengthened in key security sectors if well-designed programs of cooperation can be agreed upon. And significantly, General Cosgrove issues some thoughtful comments on the need for tolerance in both countries when he observes that:

...Canberra elites are much better able to represent opinions and attitudes within Australia than their equivalents in Jakarta for the quite diverse population of the archipelago. It pains me to see from time to time in Australia a simplistic attitude that this diversity somehow undermines the legitimacy of a pluralistic construct to the Indonesian state. We have managed to convey significant offence in this regard to many Indonesians over time. The United States of America wasn't always so united!

Australian politicians and media commentators might find food for thought in this appeal for tolerance from a leader of the military community in Australia.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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