According to Professor Brown, the problem with being very close neighbours is that not only do you “tend to peer into each other’s backyard, but also from time-to-time do things that actually annoy each other”.
These comments-made over two years ago-have great relevance today as Australia and Indonesia face strained relations over alleged spying on Indonesian ministers including the President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). The decision by Indonesia to recall its ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Kesoema, has taken this issue to a new, and more complicated, level.
Arguably, if Australia had decided on a strategy to deliberately annoy and anger our closest neighbour, we probably could not have come up with a better plan than to spy on not only Indonesia’s president and his wife but also his vice-president Dr Boediono and former vice President Yusof Kallah.
SBY and his vice president have very strong links with Australia and their genuine warmth extended to our nation is at a level not seen throughout Indonesia’s democratic history. It’s this warmth felt by the president towards Australia, where his son studied at university until two years ago, that makes the report of Australia spying on him and his family even more hurtful.
Whilst in Australia, the asylum seeker issue generates a far greater response by the media and general community, in Indonesia it is the reverse; and by a long margin. Drive around any of Indonesia’s cities in a taxi, or talk to university students or village people about asylum seekers and it’s hard to even generate much interest. The reality is that people smuggling and asylum seeker issues simply are not big news in Indonesia. With 110 million people living on $2.00 per day or less, and several million Indonesians displaced or caught-up in human trafficking, there is not much sympathy for – or interest in - the plight of asylum seekers. Spying on Indonesia is a completely different story, and Indonesian-language newspapers highlight the sensitivity of the issue with coverage at around five times that of asylum seeker stories. So why this level of intensity over so-called spying?
If we consider Indonesia’s history, where as a nation they were occupied by foreign countries – including the Dutch and later the Japanese - for over 300 years, we can start to appreciate why anything that suggests interference with their sovereignty is guaranteed to cause a ‘prickly’ response. And so it is when a close neighbour such as Australia - and former ‘deputy sheriff’ of the region - is shown to have been spying on their most senior officials and close friends of our country.
Unfortunately for the new Abbott government, this issue has another dimension to it that will further complicate and inflame an already very sensitive issue for our near neighbour: the upcoming nation election scheduled for 2014.
Already we have seen a rise in nationalistic sentiment throughout Indonesia as politicians and officials manoeuvre as a lead-up to next year’s election which promises to be not only democratic but very robust. And an issue surrounding Indonesia’s sovereignty or perceived threat to their independence provides fertile ground for aspiring leaders to demonstrate their determination to ensure Indonesia is respected and acknowledged as a strongly independent and emerging power throughout the world.
The fact that the SBY government and his political party (The Democrat Party) is in disarray over corruption scandals and poor economic management has further exacerbated the problems within Indonesia as ministers and senior officials abandon the SBY ship resulting in often contradictory and inflammatory statements. Unfortunately for Australia and Prime Minister Tony Abbott we are now caught-up in this volatile and unpredictable environment, and as a worst case scenario, Australia could face the possibility of a substantial reduction in bi-lateral co-operation in areas such as terrorism, intelligence sharing and of course, people smuggling. This would not be in any one’s interest and Indonesia’s leadership know this.
Australia also needs to be aware that the current leadership in Indonesia is about as ‘pro-Australian’ as we are likely to see for many years to come. Indonesia will have a new president by this time next year and looking at the candidates it is a safe bet that they will be more self-focused, nationalistic and less Australia-friendly than SBY and his foreign minister Marty Natalegawa.
The good news however, is that at a business-to-business level history shows our two countries have an extraordinary long and close working relationship that has survived despite the political bumps that inevitably occur between regional neighbours. We also enjoy very close community and charity links adding even further depth to the relationship.
Australia and Indonesia need each other. We have too much invested together as neighbours, so this crisis over spying will eventually be resolved and the relationship will remain strong. But as the monsoon storm clouds brew over Java we are going to experience some turbulence and the ride is going to get bumpy.
We will get through this storm, but in the short-term it’s going to be a case of, ‘ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts’.
Ross B. Taylor AM is the president of the Indonesia Institute (Inc)