As Indonesia’s leader for nine years, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono knows he should give enough space to his guest — Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott — so that the latter can claim to the Australian people that the result of a bilateral summit between the two countries on Monday proves his tough asylum seeker policy has been endorsed by Indonesia.
The President will not humiliate his guest by telling him to “abort” or soften his position. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has warned his new Australian counterpart Julie Bishop against taking unilateral measures, including buying Indonesian boats and paying Indonesian villagers to gather intelligence for Australia on the movements of asylum boats.
The President, who has dealt with the boat people issue with Australia’s Conservative and Labor governments, fully realizes the sensitive nature of the illegal migrant issue for the new prime minister. But he also knows too well that “giving too much” to the new leader will only spark protests from conservative and nationalist politicians as well as some mainstream media.
This means the President will tend to use his favorite “play it safe” tactic, as domestically he will not gain much from the summit. His guest needs him much more than he needs Abbott. The President is more interested in leaving a strong legacy on foreign affairs when he ends his second term in October next year. He also wants to be remembered by Australians as one of their best Indonesian friends.
Abbott chose Indonesia as his first overseas destination in the job because, among others, in the election campaigns he promised to take a much tougher stance on illegal migrants coming to Australia via Indonesian waters and using boats mostly owned by Indonesians.
Australia’s new leader wants to repeat the path of the former prime minister John Howard, whose stern policies to deter unwanted foreigners from Australia were proved effective, at least for a certain period of his administration.
Indonesia has a strong obligation to help Australia eradicate the flows of asylum seekers as Indonesia itself does not gain any benefit from human trafficking. It is a also a matter of national security for the country. Indonesia has a strong capacity to play a crucial role in the battle against illegal immigration.
The Australian leader, however, needs to understand that “loudspeaker” diplomacy will only harm his own government.