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Jakarta Post
The Jakarta Post
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Commentary: Indonesia-Australia on track, but back to square one

  • Meidyatama Suryodiningrat

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Thu, November 28, 2013 | 09:36 am

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will probably leave office known as the vacillating president. Not just because of his temperament, but also due to the faint connotations his leadership often brings in times of crisis.

His reaction Tuesday night to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott'€™s letter concerning the phone tapping row was another example of his unique blend of personal dander, public appeasement and diplomatic hedging into a mixture of political opaqueness.

A tactically measured response that left enough ambiguity for all parties to spin a response to fit their respective personal interests.

What transpired over the past week was not a stare-down as to who would blink first, nor a winner-takes-all chess match. It was a distinct gomoku strategy, not to knock out the opponent but to be the most persuasive on the bilateral political stage.

At first it was Yudhoyono who had the upper hand, but then the stakes rose too high, too fast. Abbott'€™s corresponding (non) reaction meant Yudhoyono nearly check-mated himself.

Two difficult options were seemingly left to him. Neither was covetous, bringing irreparable long-term damage: raise the stakes further at the risk of permanently ruining relations to the detriment of both sides, or back down.

Yudhoyono could not simply back down when just earlier in the day mobs were still burning pictures of Abbott.

Yudhoyono'€™s fragile image would suffer in the eyes of his domestic constituents who had spontaneously risen up in nationalist fervor in his defense.

He could not escalate tensions since God had fated the two nations to be neighbors. Indonesia and Australia are as inseparable as Yudhoyono and his own Democratic Party.

Ultimately, the protracted recourse was a public relations '€œwin-win'€ solution for all in the business of politics, diplomacy and punditry.

Supporters say it definitively upheld national dignity.

Critics will use it as another example of a spineless '€œpro-West'€ president.

Diplomats on both sides sigh in relief at having been given an exit strategy.

While Abbott, eager to close this embarrassing debacle, on Wednesday described it as a very positive, warm statement from '€œa great president'€.

The real loser, however, is overall Indonesia-Australia relations.

A relationship that will remain economically stable but ultimately lack warmth and sincerity over the medium term.

Couched in the President'€™s postured hand gestures and convoluted approach is a typical statement of Javanese slow burn.

Yudhoyono has effectively said he has no desire to meet with Abbott until such time a new protocol that satisfies Indonesia'€™s wants has been agreed upon.

Unable to extract an outright '€œapology'€, Yudhoyono resorted to a medium gain, low-risk strategy of layered prerequisites without committing anything to Australia.

While Australia may not see it now, Jakarta is inveigling Canberra through procedural diplomacy. A gradual defrosting bound by procedure and negotiated decorum.

A relationship fastened by a contradiction in terms '€” such as intelligence operations being subject to a '€œcode of ethics'€.

A friendship not bound by affinity or trust, but an arranged marriage tethered through transaction.

At a time when higher echelon relations remain frosty, perhaps it is time to truly exploit established people-to-people initiatives. Invest in heightening and intensifying dialogues and exchanges.

Ensure that these scheduled initiatives not only take place, but are accelerated within the next 12 months.

If we '€” in business chambers, civil society groups, the foreign policy and academic community '€“ fail in taking some initiative on the bilateral front, then Indonesia will truly have a new president in October who sees Australia neither as a friend nor an adversary, but as a mere acquaintance.

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