Monday, September 3, 2012

Australia's regional issues not always a priority for Indonesia


Whilst sharing a coffee with a senior official in Indonesia last week, he made the following comment about the asylum seeker issue:

“Indonesia is as underwhelmed about the asylum seeker ‘crisis’ as Australia is overwhelmed by it.”

It was an interesting comment as generally Australia does spend a lot of time worrying and focusing on ‘Indonesian issues’ that are only relevant to us. The most obvious issues include asylum seekers, drug smugglers, Aussie bogans in Bali, and cheap holidays. The trouble with these issues is that they are not a priority for most Indonesians.

What does interest the Indonesian government are matters relating to finding jobs for the millions of young people now moving through their education system; improving the future prospects for the 45 million people who still live on $3.00 a day, and ensuring Indonesia’s economic boom not only continues, but matures into a strong and sustainable growth cycle.

Another major focus within Indonesia - and an issue that continually escapes the minds of Australians – is the need to ensure that Indonesia remains are strong and stable democracy despite the rise of fundamentalist and religious violence in a number of provinces.

Only this month a terrorist-cell identified by the International Crisis Centre (ICC) as ‘Tim Hisbah’ was responsible for killing several police officers in Java, and last week a thousand-strong mob of Sunni Muslims attacked a group of Shia Muslims whilst the federal government authorities watched on. Religious and ethnic violence that seems to be gaining momentum in Indonesia, and their government’s reluctance to take a hard-line in dealing with it, is a worrying trend that should also worry Australia.

Of course Indonesia is willing to co-operate with Australia in matters such as asylum seekers, but the reality is Indonesia has its own problems with asylum seekers and refugees who can easily enter this huge archipelago via any one of thousands of entry points. Australia has only one. Indonesia also faces a far greater problem with illegal fishing to its north and must make decisions to either protect its waters or help Australia protect its territory.

If anyone in Australia really wants to engage with Indonesians’ and to find an issue that seriously ‘interests’ them, look no further than Papua. And for the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) the real ‘regional’ issue of serious concern to his country is the ‘Free Papua Movement’ – an organisation that is supported by many Australians.

Writing in Asialink recently, presidential advisor Dewi Fortuna Anwar wrote that, “...There is still a strong belief in some Indonesian circles that the separation of East Timor from Indonesia was ...from pressure from Australia”.

It is of little surprise therefore that any comments about – or demonstrations in support of – Papua here in Australia are watched very closely by Indonesia. Foreign Minister Bob Carr understands clearly that the Papua independence issue could have the potential to severely strain relations with Australia at a time when Indonesia will be electing a new – and perhaps not quite so friendly – president in 2014.

Meanwhile at a business level, we continue to enjoy close and harmonious relations between both countries. But it is not enough. Indonesian business people have long since developed extensive relations to its north. Singapore, Japan, Korea and now China have huge investments in Indonesia and two-way trade is growing rapidly.

Australia has been understandably ‘overwhelmed’ by the China story and as a consequence we have missed many opportunities to build closer and more extensive business, political and cultural ties with Indonesia.

Ironically, as commentators in Australia express concern as to how we have ‘neglected’ Indonesia, it is actually hard to find anyone in Indonesia who feels that they have been forgotten by Australia. Not because they are being understanding and sympathetic to our self-indulgent view of the bi-lateral relationship, but rather Indonesia has long since moved on and developed stronger and extensive ties to its north.

This may be why Indonesia acted with extreme caution when we announced the placement of US troops into Darwin last year. Indonesia has built strong ties with China and it wishes to maintain these links without being forced to choose between two great powers, China and the US.

Fortunately at a ministerial level Australia and Indonesia enjoy very warm and cordial relations. The challenge is to ensure these good relations-particularly at the leadership level- are maintained and developed in the post SBY era as from 2014.

Part of that process needs to be a much stronger and deeper engagement with Indonesia-for our own sake. A good starting point would be for our government to quickly address the very disturbing decline in Indonesian language studies here in Australia that has seen student numbers fall by almost 40% in recent years.

Australia is right in focusing and worrying about asylum seekers and things ‘Indonesian’, but whilst Australia’s Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare visits Jakarta this week he should understand that the focus needs to be on matters that are important not just to Australia, but also to Indonesia.

Failure to do so will leave us sidelined as our giant neighbour awakens and evolves into the major world power that it desires to become.


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