The Asian Voice

Australia is stuck in the 20th century politically, must figure out place in Asia, says Jakarta Post

Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott. PHOTO: REUTERS

Retired Australian diplomat Ken Ward's new book on Canberra's ties with Jakarta stokes controversy.

Endy Bayuni and Sabam Siagian
The Jakarta Post/ANN 

Relations with Indonesia have once again drawn the attention of the foreign policy community in Australia, this time it is not prompted by what Prime Minister Tony Abbott does or says, but rather by a new book that calls for a change in the way the country deals with its giant northern neighbour.

Ken Ward, a retired Foreign Service officer, in his book Condemned to Crisis (Lowy Institute Paper) calls on Australia to discard the long-held foreign policy mantra that “Indonesia is its most important relationship” and that Canberra should be more realistic in its expectations of Indonesia since relations are always prone to crisis. 

Ward also suggests that Australian politicians be more circumspect in what they say in public to prevent differences from escalating into crises.

We fully agree with his bold recommendation to stop making Indonesia Australia’s most important relationship because not only does it make no different to Indonesia, but it also makes us uncomfortable, since we can never reciprocate the feeling. 

Australia is barely in the top five of Indonesia’s most important relationships; some may even say that it would be lucky to be in the top 10.

The mantra has been repeated by every single prime minister since Paul Keating outlined it in a luncheon speech in Sydney in 1994 in the presence of then Indonesian ambassador Sabam Siagian. 

It was really addressed to the Australian public rather than to Indonesia. 

There are strategic reasons for making the Australian embassy in Jakarta the largest in the world, and for every newly elected Australian prime minister to make Indonesia the destination of his or her first overseas visit. 

But to call Indonesia its most important relationship smacks of hypocrisy when Australia bypasses Indonesia in economic ties and when Canberra continues to regard Indonesia more as a potential threat than a friend, evidenced by the 2013 revelation of a massive Australian eavesdropping operation on Indonesian leaders.

This is not to say that Australia is unimportant to Indonesia. 

Today, the two countries have intensive relationships in all sectors, as two large neighbors should. And there is ample room for improvement, most notably in our economic ties. 

We should not be under any illusion that relations will always be smooth. There will be differences, and some of these will lead to tensions and turn into diplomatic rows. But then Indonesia also constantly fights with some of its other neighbors like Singapore and Malaysia. 

If anything, these tensions and rows are indications of the intensity of our relationship. 

To suggest that the relationship is condemned to crisis, or prone to crisis, is not only stretching it a little but it could lead to wrong conclusions and policy prescriptions.

Indonesia and Australia are condemned to be neighbours by geographical dictates. 

But why be so negative about it? Why can’t we say that we are blessed to be neighbours, as we are?

No two close neighbours can be so unlike as Indonesia and Australia are, but differences in cultures, historical experiences and levels of economic development necessarily make it challenging for the two countries to forge their rich relationship. 

Sure, both countries have recalled their ambassadors in recent years, but that too is normal in such an intensive relationship. 

It only becomes a crisis when the two countries sever their relationship or go into a war, which has never happened. 

Where Ward gets it wrong is in his recommendation that Australians adopt a more temperate language in dealing with Indonesia. 

Fault their large embassy in Jakarta for failing to inform them that Indonesia today is a vibrant democracy, with free speech that matches any other free society around the world.

Indonesians can take all the insults Australians throw. 

Yes, some will be offended, but whatever Australian politicians, media columnists and talk-back radio hosts say about Indonesia, we have heard it worse from our own people talking about our president, government and politicians, corruption, terrorism, human rights violations, Papua and the executions of drug traffickers.

By being direct, frank and honest, you will get much further in building the trust that is essential in any relationship. 

You cannot restore trust, which thanks to Abbott is currently in huge deficit, by holding yourself back.

While we are in the business of being open, here is our frank assessment of Australia. 

Rather than trying to figure out where Indonesia is heading with all the changes that are taking place in this century, Australia would be better trying to figure out its own place and future in the emerging Asia.

This is a topic outside Ward’s book, but it is an important question that Australia must answer to be able to craft a more effective foreign policy in building relations with Indonesia and the rest of Asia.

Australia is struggling with existential uncertainty. Is it part of Asia? Does it want to become part of Asia?

Its economic future and hence prosperity, is increasingly tied to Asia. 

China is by far its largest trading partner and Australia is also trading more and more with its Asian neighbours. 

But that is probably as “Asian” as Australia gets; that, and in addition to its geographic location and the rising Asian mix in its population.

Politically, Australia is still stuck in 20th century mode. 

It is a monarchy with a head of state in London, and all its security arrangements are Cold War relics, whereby they take orders from Washington. 

Australia is out of sync with the emerging geopolitical environment of Asia today. 

Until Australia fixes this anomaly and moves into the 21st century, it is hard for Indonesia and the rest of Asia to take Australia more seriously.

The writers are senior editors of The Jakarta Post.