Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is at one of its historic low points, despite claims to the contrary by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. What is unusual about this most recent contretemps with Indonesia, with which Australia has previously had several difficulties, is that, unlike in the past, the current problems are entirely a consequence of Australian policy.
Australia’s alleged spying on Indonesia is both bipartisan and largely necessary. But Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has not yet moved to allay concerns in Jakarta by saying Australia’s intelligence program will be reviewed and offensive activity ceased (even if it will not).
However, the Australian government’s handling of the asylum seeker issue has been purely a matter of domestic political choice. It is an "own goal" that was part of the planning for the game.
That policy is all but in tatters, following Indonesia refusing to readmit 63 asylum seekers bound for Australia. According to Indonesian authorities, this is the third such refusal to accept back asylum seekers; Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has finally acknowledged it was at least the second such rebuff, not having acknowledged previous problems in his less-than-frank weekly briefings on the asylum seeker issue.
Indonesia’s point-blank refusal to accept the asylum seekers on this more public occasion has raised real doubts about whether the government’s policy on turning back asylum seekers can work. If the government cannot turn back boats, as it said it would in opposition, it may now be forced to accept the same, much criticised policy as adopted by the former Labor government.
Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Minister for Legal Political and Security Affairs, Djoko Suyanto, is expected to soon formalise Indonesia’s permanent refusal to accept asylum seekers from Australian rescue vessels, other than in emergency situations. This would appear to end the government’s plan to return asylum seekers "when safe to do so". Indicating Indonesia’s growing frustration with Australia, on Friday, Djoko said:
"The Indonesian government never agreed to such wishes or policies of Australia. This has been conveyed since the time of Kevin Rudd, and there is no change of policy regarding asylum seekers wanting to go to Australia under the current Abbott government."
Following Djoko’s statement, the Australian government backed down on its push to have Indonesia accept the asylum seekers.
Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro added to Indonesia’s public dismay over Australian asylum seeker policy by confirming that Indonesia had never agreed to asylum seekers being returned to Indonesia and that Australia should "send the asylum seekers to their detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and not to Indonesia".
Anger in Indonesia over Australia’s attempt to return the asylum seekers has further damaged relations already seriously strained over allegations of Australian spying in Indonesia. Indonesia’s presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah has again reconfirmed that spying on Indonesia is "unacceptable".
In response, he said that Indonesia "will take steps that cannot be disclosed to the public". Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has already identified co-operation on people smuggling and terrorism as areas that will be "reviewed".
The government’s closely controlled media management strategy also appears to be coming unstuck over these two issues, with Indonesian authorities either contradicting or providing alternative accounts of matters that the Australian government is only reluctantly revealing.
The issue of Australia spying on Indonesia is far from resolved, and the asylum seeker issue is now front and centre. No doubt, where Indonesia is concerned, the government must be hoping that bilateral policy issues don’t come in threes.
To suggest that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has been marked by periods of instability would be less accurate to say the otherwise unstable relationship has been marked by brief periods of stability. After a few years of good relations, it again appears that Australia is headed into difficulties with its near neighbour.
Always highly sensitive around issues of sovereignty, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has rejected the newly elected Abbott government’s policy of paying villagers for information about people smugglers. He has also rejected the Coalition's otherwise poorly conceived policy of buying potential people-smuggler boats.
Indonesia had already strongly signalled its opposition to the Coalition government’s policy of "turning back the boats" ("where safe to do so"). Its view is that, once boats are in international waters, they are not Indonesia’s responsibility, nor does it have the capacity to assist boats that might get into difficulties.
These new difficulties in the relationship result directly from a significant change in Australia’s foreign policy being announced as an election promise without first having been negotiated with the principle affected party. As the incoming Coalition government is quickly learning, there is a big difference between populist pre-election promises and post-election international realism.
Similarly, comments by senior Nationals member Barnaby Joyce that he will oppose the sale of Australian agricultural land to Indonesia to raise cattle for the Indonesian market will cause long-lasting offence in Indonesia. Indonesians will rightly point out that Australia has significant investment in mining and other industries in Indonesia, but hypocritically does not wish that investment right to be reciprocal.
Australia has enjoyed several years of generally untroubled relations with Indonesia. The relationship is officially described, on both sides, as the best it has ever been. That is probably correct.
However, a very large part of that positive relationship has been a result of the benign and pro-Western leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This has been assisted by the previous two governments’ more nuanced diplomacy towards Indonesia.
Under the surface, however, many of the longer-standing tensions and suspicions about Australia’s intentions and attitudes have remained among many senior Indonesians politicians. These suspicions, they believe, are now rapidly being confirmed.
The incoming government’s "bull in a china shop" approach to regional diplomacy was always going to test Indonesia’s patience. For senior Indonesians, and indeed many others, how one is seen to act is as important as the act itself.
But more importantly, any new tensions in the relationship will likely spill into Indonesia’s forthcoming electoral period. Yudhoyono steps down at the end of his second term next year, and his successor is much less likely to be as understanding or accommodating of Australia’s interests.
Indeed, there remains a good possibility that Indonesia’s next president will run a distinctly "nationalist" agenda, which will almost by definition be combative towards Australia. As Indonesia’s economy continues to grow strongly and its strategic value only develops in importance, how Australia engages will become increasingly critical.
Australia has long acknowledged that its future lies in closer engagement with Asia, confirmed yet again by the Asia century white paper. Good relations with Indonesia are central to that engagement. Australia’s new government would do well to remember that, and to act accordingly.