The Prime Minister has arrived back in Australia after holidaying with his family in the French Alps over Christmas. Meanwhile Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, continues his ‘holiday’ in Indonesia as a result of being recalled by his government over Australia’s response to the spying revelations late last year.
This ‘ambassadorial holiday’ is now in its seventh week; a worrying sign that the bi-lateral relationship is becoming more ambivalent as the weeks roll by as both countries focus on domestic issues dominated by Indonesia’s upcoming presidential elections and the Coalition government’s challenge to fix Labor’s economic mess.
In the meantime most of us are still enjoying our holidays, with many heading to Bali to sip a few ‘Bintangs’ whilst the kids enjoy the theme parks and beach.
But the reality facing Australia and the Abbott government is that despite the positive rhetoric about ‘close and meaningful relations’ between Indonesia and Australia, many Australians still see Indonesia from a very Anglo Saxon perspective and with an overriding suspicion about our northern neighbour. Yet Indonesia has changed over the past fifteen years having evolved into a dynamic and robust democracy; something every Australian should give a great sigh of relief about.
Indonesia still has huge challenges as a nation including corruption, lack of infrastructure, poverty and the critical need to control any rise in Islamic militancy through the archipelago. A close relationship with their neighbours, including Australia, is important to their continued path to becoming an economically strong - and socially stable - nation. In terms of our regional security, Australia has an enormous investment in this long-term outcome. The reason we hand out so much aid money to Indonesia is, as a prosperous and first-world neighbour we want to be benevolent, but also aid money works in our national interest.
Yet every time we don’t get what we want, the calls are the same: Withdraw aid if they cause us grief. It’s a bit like the parent who threatens to withdraw funding to their son or daughter at university every time they have a family disagreement. Patronising and selfish. Is it any wonder a number of senior Indonesians suggest to me that it may be better if Australia did withdraw our aid-funding so the relationship could mature beyond this level of pettiness.
In business and commerce we continue to enjoy close relations with Indonesia, but our mutual trade is still comparatively ‘small chips’. For some years now Indonesia has been looking north for trade and investment opportunities, whilst we focus on China and ‘our very best friend in Asia’, Japan.
We talk often about building stronger trade links including the restoration of the live cattle trade with Indonesia. There are some positive signals coming out of Jakarta but we still see the rebuilding of this vital trade from a perspective of, ‘We sell; they buy’, and the current malaise affecting the bi-lateral relationship will affect the significant opportunities for creating genuine partnerships with Indonesia to build a fully integrated supply chain where Brand Australia could add-value to our beef for re-export, from Indo-Australian operated companies in Indonesia, to other countries through Asia and the Middle East.
There is probably no better example of how close ‘partnerships’ can benefit both Indonesia and Australia than the model developed by our respective national police forces. The Australian Federal Police and Indonesia’s National Police systematically ‘demolished’ terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah who were responsible for the Bali bombings. These two organisations continue to enjoy close and effective relations, working on a range of important issues including training, people smuggling and terrorism. But this relationship needs close government co-operation to be restored soon in order to maintain the effectiveness of our joint policing that also helps keep us safe whilst holidaying in places such as Bali.
The political malaise that continues may not dominate our thinking during this holiday break, but the ramifications of a longer-term cooling of our relationship will not only impact on Indonesia, but all Australians as well.
The recent spat with China over their ongoing dispute with Japan was a good example of where Indonesia and Australia - as regional partners - could have voiced our valid concerns jointly to China in a far more diplomatic, yet impactful, way. But it was not possible to do that when the core relationship and trust between our two nations was not there.
Indonesia and Australia need each other as we both walk the otherwise lonely regional path between our economic dependency on China and our security allegiance to the USA and Japan.
In a recent article, former Labor leader Mark Latham wrote that Indonesia is “just a two-bit player” and the best strategy for Australia would be to keep them, “at arm’s length”. Notwithstanding his ill-considered comments, sadly, as Indonesia becomes more inwardly focused during the 2014 election period, the ‘mutual ambivalence’ may become an undesirable feature of our bi-lateral relationship.
The reality is however, both countries need each other, and the future security of the region and our respective futures are inextricably linked, despite our differences.
Ross B. Taylor AM is the President of the WA-based Indonesia Institute (Inc)