A young Indonesian smiled broadly upon reading the news about the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), which came into force on Sunday. The graduate of an Australian university did not feel bothered when he learned about the finding by an Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute, that negative perceptions about Indonesia persist among Australians.
For him, the economic agreement mattered more to his life and career than the survey result.
According to the survey, only 39 percent of Australians believe “Indonesia is a democracy”, although the world recognizes Indonesia as the world’s third-largest democracy after India and the United States. The survey also found that only 30 percent of Australians trust Indonesia to act responsibly in the world.
Most respondents in the survey apparently do not believe the world’s most populous Muslim nation can practice democracy. The barbaric bombings in Bali in 2002 and in 2005, and the horrifying terrorist attack on the Australian Embassy in 2004 still haunt Australia, perhaps for generations ahead. Worse, the terrorists claimed to act in the name of Islam, which is of course not true.
Despite imperfections, however, Indonesia is undeniably a democracy. We can even say we are more democratic than Australia, as evident in our right to elect regional and national leaders directly.
Let us make a simple comparison to prove our democratic culture. More than 85 million people, 55 percent of the total number of eligible voters, voted for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in the 2019 election. On the other hand, Scott Morrison became the Australian prime minister only because his party won enough seats in the 227-member parliament in last year’s election. Morrison can retain his post as long as he wishes, provided he can still command a majority in parliament, while in Indonesia the Constitution restricts the presidential term to two five-year periods.
The survey mirrors a deficit of trust between the peoples of the two neighboring countries.
The Jakarta Post recently used an old Indonesian saying, “tak kenal maka tak sayang” (out of sight, out of mind) to explain the reason behind the mutual suspicion. But you may need to consider another phrase, “makin kenal makin tak sayang” (the more you know, the less you love).
For the young Australian graduate, who is a father of a little girl, the five-pillar IA-CEPA is a platform that he needs to return to Australia to work at a representative office of an Indonesian manufacturing company there. Australia is one of the company’s main export destinations and it plans to open its own office in Sydney to get closer to customers given the presence of Chinese and Malaysian competitors. The rising tension between Australia and China, and the abolition of import tariffs on Indonesian exports will help the company realize its expansion plan.
“I want my kid to experience Australian education. I think my wife can also get a proper job there, too,” he told me on Sunday.
The IA-CEPA pillars have the major goal of enhancing economic and development partnership, to connect people through social, arts and cultural collaboration, and maritime cooperation, and to contribute to the prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific region. The China factor clearly plays a key role in the bilateral defense cooperation and the realization of the Indo-Pacific concept.
With the agreement, Australia can enjoy majority ownership in the sectors of education, including universities, telecommunications, energy, health care and tourism. Import permits for Australian beef, live cattle, fruit and dairy products are no longer required by Indonesia.
Defense and security cooperation, especially on maritime affairs, and intelligence-sharing mechanisms are included in the agreement.
When it comes to government-to-government relations, including the military. Indonesia will never believe in Australia’s repeated commitment to Indonesia’s sovereignty over Papua. There is entrenched suspicion that Canberra is hiding an agenda in support of Papuan independence and the Free Papua Movement (OPM) that has for decades waged an international campaign against Jakarta.
Indonesia still cannot forgive Australia for its “betrayal” in the partition of East Timor from the Republic in 1999. Back in the 1970s, Australia backed Indonesia’s occupation of the former Portuguese colony.
But Australian people would not support Papuan freedom had Indonesia not committed oppression and human rights violations and let corruption thrive in Papua.
In exercising its regional role, Australia has often acted like the deputy sheriff of the United States, in particular when dealing with China’s rising assertiveness. PM Morrison’s statement that China should be held responsible for the spread of COVID-19 recently should be perceived as an effort to please US President Donald Trump. Morrison has chosen a confrontational approach against China, but seems to ignore the fact that Canberra does have enough ammunition to force Beijing to bow to his demands. Instead, Morrison may have to pay a very high price for his choice in the future.
Notwithstanding the different approaches Australia and Indonesia have taken in response to the regional dynamics, the IA-CEPA has cleared major obstacles to bilateral relations between the two neighbors. But no matter how perfect the agreement is, at the end of the day realization will depend on both sides.
In the coming years and decades, a love-hate relationship will continue to mark Indonesia-Australia ties. We tend to think Australia needs us more than the other way around. But no matter how much you love or hate each other you have no choice but to always adjust yourself to facts.
Senior editor at The Jakarta Post