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Jakarta Post

New era of Australia-Indonesia ties

  • Awidya Santikajaya

    The Jakarta Post

Canberra   /   Mon, June 9, 2014   /  09:17 am

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott have demonstrated a strategic move by having a bilateral meeting on Batam Island on Wednesday.

After months of strained relations, both leaders explicitly expressed their confidence in the immediate revival of bilateral ties.

Yudhoyono particularly hopes that the two governments can reach an agreement on the code of conduct on electronic surveillance, which was proposed by Indonesia in response to Australia'€™s spying activity.

In addition to the 2007 Lombok Treaty, the code of conduct could provide a foundation for more transparent and well-institutionalized relations.

Restoring and advancing bilateral relations, however, will require significant efforts beyond just the code of conduct.

It is, first of all, important to understand the state of relations between two countries during the current crisis. Unlike the tension in the past, such as the East Timor independence, the current bickering does not largely affect relations between the two neighbors in general. Trade relations have in fact experienced a significant increase.

According to the Indonesian Trade Ministry'€™s statistics, two-way trade volume grew by 42.17 percent from US$1.2 billion in January-March 2013 to $1.7 billion year-on-year, in which Indonesia'€™s exports to Australia were surprisingly up by 89.22 percent. There is also no indication of a decrease in the number of Indonesian citizens studying in Australia.

The crisis was isolated merely on the issues of security, intelligence and asylum seekers, while interdependence between the two countries, especially in the people-to-people and business-to-business contexts, strengthened instead.

Nonetheless, those '€œnormal'€ signs in bilateral relations do not necessarily imply more trusting relations between the two countries. Lowy Institute has released a new report just recently, revealing that in perceiving its relationship to Indonesia, the Australian public regard the asylum seeker issue as the most important in the relationship and 71 percent of 1,150 respondents expressed support for the '€œturn back the boats'€ policy.

This view largely contradicts mainstream opinion in both the Indonesian government and among the public, who are very critical of this policy. More strikingly, Lowy also revealed that 62 percent of respondents believed it was acceptable for Australia to spy on Indonesia.

It is not exaggerating to expect for another crisis to rock ties between the two neighbors in the future. In this sense, in managing the relationship between the nations, both leaders need to move beyond rhetoric and normative assumptions that '€œthe relationship is fundamentally in good shape'€. In fact, it is often not.

This mind-set is essential so that persisting gaps and misunderstandings, which are often overlooked, could be addressed with long-term vision and, at the same time, feasible measures. It is true that by agreeing on the code of conduct, the current row will pass. But without a paradigm shift, Australia and Indonesia will lose momentum to start fresh and long-lasting relations.

On the Australian side, there should be a redirection of foreign policy toward Indonesia, and toward Asia in general, as an effort to understand more about interests and aspirations of other countries in the region. In the last couple of months, it seems that the '€œmore Jakarta, less Geneva'€ jargon, repeatedly echoed by Abbott and his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, was actually aimed at serving Australia'€™s national interests rather than enhancing relations with Indonesia. In this sense, Indonesia'€™s trust in Australia could deteriorate if the Australian navy repeats its breach of Indonesian territorial waters in Operation Sovereign Borders as happened a few months ago.

In the broader region, despite the existence of Australia'€™s Asian Century white paper, which emphasized Australia'€™s strategic interests in Asia, there is not much effort to engage Asia and Indonesia particularly. The white paper focuses very much on economic and social dimensions, with little focus on political and security issues.

For instance, despite Australia'€™s current status as the G20 Summit host and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, there is little initiative to engage Asian countries and consult their aspirations in global economic and security management.

Australia'€™s leading role on the climate change issue, which was previously hailed by Asian countries, also declined after its failure to send a minister to last year'€™s Warsaw United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A better relationship with Asia, including Indonesia, is impossible to achieve just by providing more aid and sending more Australian students to Asia. It really needs more '€œAsia-oriented foreign policy'€ that enables a nuanced understanding of Australia'€™s place in Asia.

Indonesia, at the same time, has to remap its position with Australia so that its importance is not overshadowed by Australia'€™s busy project of balancing its security alliance with the United States and its economic interests with China. Although the significance of Indonesia has been expressed by numerous Australian policymakers, Indonesia'€™s meaning for Australia is limited to some issues. The Lowy survey disclosed Australians'€™ perception, which regards Indonesia as just the fourth most important Asian nation to Australia, far below China, Japan and Singapore.

Indonesia needs to leverage its strategic importance beyond just its geography as Australia'€™s neighbor. This could be achieved only if Indonesia provides valuable and feasible options to solve Australia'€™s problems, including on the asylum seeker issue.

There is also a crucial need to consolidate Indonesia'€™s bureaucratic complexity so that there is a more solid, cohesive and less-biased position in responding to any Australian proposal of cooperation.

Furthermore, the engagement must not always come from Australia'€™s side. Indonesia also has to offer more active engagement with Australia as an effort to bridge misunderstandings and stereotypes between two sides. The clear gap can be observed now by the lack of Australian studies in Indonesia, in contrast to numerous Indonesian studies and Indonesianist scholars in Australia.

Only a few Indonesian scholars have authority to speak about Australia because despite a huge number of Indonesian students and scholars trained in Australian universities, almost none writes theses or dissertations about Australia.

Boediono'€™s Indonesia Scholarship to Western Australia University is a good start to address this asymmetric situation. More engagement from Indonesia is certainly needed to create a more balanced position and equal understanding between two sides.

In a nutshell, the Batam meeting has provided a clear opportunity for reviving Australia-Indonesia bilateral relations.

Nevertheless, the new era of a beneficial, strong and long-lasting relationship can only be achieved if both countries are willing to reassess their strategic positions towards each other.

The writer is a scholar at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, The Australian National University, Canberra.

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