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RI-Australia ties — It’s more important to be nice

  • Sabam Siagian and Endy Bayuni

Jakarta | Wed, November 14 2012 | 09:58 am

Australia has long been consistent in making the relationship with Indonesia one of the most important in its foreign policy. This was reaffirmed in Canberra’s latest white paper about Australia’s place in this Asian Century, where Indonesia is put along with China and India among Asian countries that Australia should be engaging with more, politically, economically and culturally.

Australia’s relations with Indonesia, in terms of its stated foreign policy objectives, have never matched those stated in 1994 by then prime minister Paul Keating: “No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia.”

Subsequent leaders, from John Howard to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have made a point, again in terms of their policy objectives, of ranking Indonesia high on their list of priorities as reflected by the frequency of their visits, or by making Indonesia their first foreign stop upon taking office.

Tony Abbot, the leader of the opposition, in a recent speech in Washington DC said he would also make Indonesia his first visit if and when he became a prime minister.

Given the slim margin that Gillard has in parliament, the affable Abbot may well have seen himself as the prime minister-in-waiting when he visited Jakarta in October, accompanied by the shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop.

We have no reason to question Australia’s sincerity in making Indonesia an important partner, back in Keating’s days or now, as it prepares to integrate more with Asia. The changing of the guard in Canberra however may raise questions about whether Abbot, if elected, would embrace the policy recommendations in the white paper.

If history is any indication, Howard in 1996 overturned Keating’s pro-Jakarta policy, although he later personally tried to rebuild the bridges he had burned.

But of greater concern to us is that statements from Canberra playing up the importance of Indonesia often go to the heads of our officials leading Jakarta to take Australia for granted.

We have never heard any official publicly stating that the relationship with Australia is one of the most important for Indonesia. Admittedly there are other countries far more important than Australia, such as our ASEAN neighbors, China and Japan and India, but we should at the very least reciprocate the gesture of our giant southern neighbor now that we have seen the latest blueprint of Australia’s foreign policy objectives in this Asian Century.

As the famous, if somewhat clichéd, saying goes “it is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice”, we should respond positively to Australia’s intentions to engage more with us. Indonesia should be nice to Australia, not for the sake of being nice, but for the sake of our national interests.

In spite or because of our vast differences, collaboration between Indonesia and Australia would be fruitful and certainly beneficial to both sides. We are two countries that could not be more different in terms of our geography, demographic makeup, history, traditions and culture, and the level of economic development and mastery of science and technology.

Using the development parlance of the 1970s that divided the world between the industrialized North and developing South, Australia is an anomaly geographically by being a Northern country located south of the equator, and Indonesia is a Southern country located north of Australia. Our contrasting differences give us symmetrical geopolitical interests.

The white paper in essence stated that since Australia’s fate and fortunes are tied to Asia and less to its traditional ties with the West (Europe and the US), the nation should seek to integrate closer with Asia by increasing its engagements with the region, in particular with emerging regional powers like China, India and Indonesia, along with Japan and South Korea.

The policy recommendations include the revival of Asian studies at Australian universities and the mandatory teaching of Asian languages (including Indonesian) in schools in order for Australians to better understand their Asian neighbors.

Besides calling for more trade and investment with the region, the paper gives a list of areas where Australia can contribute in the rise of Asia, such as its international-standard education and research facilities, including in the information and communications technology, its technology in food production and in mining, and in financial services.

Indonesia is already cooperating well with Australia in many areas such as the East Asia Summit (it was on Indonesia’s insistence, among others, that the summit be expanded beyond its strictly East Asian geographic locale), the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the ASEAN processes and on issues such as people smuggling, communicable diseases and counter-terrorism.

Given their checkered past, relations between Indonesia and Australia today are at their historic best. They are deeper and broader. Gone are the days when one overriding issue drove the relations. The pebble in the shoe has been removed from the equation after Indonesia recognized the independent state of Timor Leste in 1999. There is ample room for improvement, nevertheless, and Indonesia and Australia should explore the opportunities so that both profit from their ties.

The white paper calls on the Australian community in Indonesia to help promote greater engagement between the two countries. Indonesia has a large and growing diaspora in Australia, and now that it has become an official policy to recognize the value of diasporas, the government should make full use of them. Indonesia also has yet to tap into the large number of its citizens who have studied at and graduated from Australian universities.

In economics, the two countries are busy working on a comprehensive partnership agreement that will remove many non-tariff barriers to trade. Once put in place, there is no reason why we cannot trade more with each other. In spite of our geographical proximity, Indonesia does not count among the major trading partners of Australia, and vice versa.

In foreign policy, Indonesia and Australia, along with India should look into the possibility of fostering cooperation among the littoral states along the Indian Ocean. We have seen how such a forum grew and developed among countries bordering the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Given the economic rise of the major countries on this side of the ocean, the time is ripe to expand the Indian Ocean forum.

Indonesia can also assist Australia in overcoming its foreign policy ambivalence as it changes from being part of the Western world (culturally and economically) to becoming a full member of the Asian club.

The way it stands at the moment, Australia treats China as its ATM and the US as its security guards. This is an anomaly that can be resolved if Australia embraces Indonesia’s principle of an active and independent foreign policy that has survived the test of time. We are not suggesting that Australia sever its traditional security ties with the US, but it would do well for itself and the region if it showed itself to be more independent (and flexible) in approaching its geopolitical and security interests.

Culturally, Australia is also becoming more multicultural through immigration, with a growing component of mostly enterprising Asians. Like it or not, the “Asianization” of Australia is taking place within its society and this only complements the policy of integrating with Asia. Very soon, Australia will look more and more like Asia, of course with its own distinct history, tradition and cultures.

We look forward to our closer engagement with the new Australia. There is no reason why Indonesia and Australia cannot grow and prosper together in this Asian Century.

The writers are senior editors of The Jakarta Post and former editors-in-chief of the newspaper. They are Class 1979 and Class 2004 of the Nieman Fellowship program for journalists at Harvard University. Siagian was formerly Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia.


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