Thursday, December 7, 2017

More to Indonesia than an exploding volcano.

Most Australian’s interest in Indonesia over the past three months has had only one focus: Mt Agung. 
The erupting volcano has thrown the travel plans of thousands of people into chaos leaving many frustrated and confused Australian holidaymakers wondering if heading to Bali is such a good idea anyway? 
The Mt Agung disaster has understandably received huge media coverage; not unusual as every time things go badly wrong in Bali, whether it be executions, boat people or spiked drinks, Australian’s suddenly become very ‘interested’ in our northern neighbour. It’s these issues that defines our relationship. 
What is usually overlooked of course, are the other events that are now taking place in Indonesia that are disregarded by our media and most of our population as our knowledge of, an interest in, this country of 265 million people is at best very limited, and at worst completely misunderstood. 
Meanwhile, our political and business leaders continue to tell us that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is ‘critical’ and we need to ‘add more ballast’ to the relationship. Nice words, but sadly not too many of us really care about the broader Indonesia relationship, and more importantly what is evolving on our doorstep. 
The truly worrying thing here is that in Indonesia no one seems too worried that we take such a narrow view of them; preferring to look north for trade, business and tourism opportunities. 
We appear oblivious to the reality that Indonesia will soon have an economy larger than ours; a future place at the World’s G7 table - whilst we will struggle to stay in the G20 - and a powerful and large military along with a population approaching 300 million people; 85% who are Muslim. 
We are also mostly unaware that Indonesia now functions as a dynamic democracy and sees itself as a major player in the region. It also sees Australia as ‘important’ but not that relevant to where they are headed as a large emerging nation. In business we languish at number 13 in terms of trading partners. 
We also haven’t noticed that much of our exports to the region pass through Indonesian waters to our north. 
President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has made it clear that Indonesia will now develop its own presence in the region, seeing Australia as a junior – not senior – partner, and not a particularly high priority country for Indonesia.The reality for Australia is we now need Indonesia more than Indonesia needs us. We also need a strong and close neighbour such as Indonesia in terms of our relationship with an expanding China in our region. 
Recently, Australia released its Foreign Policy White Paper that fails to demonstrate to Indonesia that we can make a huge and valuable contribution to their transition to a large, dynamic and civil society. This is despite our former PM, Tony Abbott saying Australia needs, ‘More Jakarta and less Geneva’. 
We need to increase the learning of Bahasa Indonesia in Australia dramatically. This is a language that has stalled and even declined rapidly over the past ten years. We need to increase opportunities for our youth to use their high educational standards to work more closely with Indonesia’s 90 million young people who are already world leaders on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram usage and who are wanting to create new businesses, travel and spend. 
There are significant needs in technology, environmental science and fashion along with services, education, and agriculture as this huge neighbour rapidly builds a large and more wealthy middle-class. We can meet all these needs as a smaller but smart neighbour. Indonesia still struggles with issues including corruption, red tape and poor infrastructure but this will change and we need to be ready for the opportunities that are now emerging. 
Yet despite everything we should know about the rise–and-rise of Indonesia and the challenges and opportunities it will bring our nation, we continue to be focused on narrow issues, mostly defined by what goes wrong in Bali.  
Ironically, the relationship between the Turnbull government and Indonesia remains warm and cordial, but we are becoming less, not more, relevant to them. 
As Professor Tim Lindsey from The Australian National University said last week, “Any Indonesian reading Australia’s Foreign White Paper could be forgiven for thinking that Australia doesn’t see their country as all that important to its foreign policy.” That’s true as, most Australians don’t actually see Indonesia as that important to our future.
“And the problem for Australia”, says Professor Lindsey, “is that Indonesia probably couldn’t care less”.
Ross B. Taylor AM is the president of the WA-based Indonesia Institute Inc.
December 2017.
 (This article was first published in The West Australian newspaper on Friday 8th December 2017)

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