It may be that the letter sent by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will start to calm diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Given political sensitivities in Jakarta, it also may be that tensions will continue in any case, particularly if the letter is deemed inadequate.
But what is becoming increasingly clear is that Australia's close relationship to Indonesia, developed especially since Yudhoyono has been in office and at its strongest just a couple of months ago, may remain in reverse for a lot longer to come. This is likely to be the case even if the immediate diplomatic row is resolved.
There are three key drivers to the dispute, at least one of which will continue to affect the relationship regardless of the impact of Abbott's letter. The first driver of the dispute is that Yudhoyono is both angry and dismayed that he, his wife and senior officials had been directly spied on. As a former army general, he was well aware of the vulnerability of mobile phones to intercepts, and he is unlikely to have conveyed particularly sensitive information using it.
But Yudhoyono has gone out of his way to befriend Australia, often to domestic criticism, and now feels personally betrayed. To fix this, a letter and perhaps even a phone call to Yudhoyono are now probably too little, too late. According to senior Indonesian political academic Professor Bahtiar Effendy, Abbott needs to get on a plane and talk this through face-to-face. He will probably also need to propose an intelligence code of conduct.
This then raises the second driver; Abbott's diplomatic skills. His comments in Parliament were seen to diminish the importance of the matter and thus entrenched a pre-existing antipathy from Yudhoyono. Abbott had already alienated Indonesia’s political leadership while in opposition, with his "turn back the boats" policy playing very poorly in Jakarta.
This was made worse during his September visit to Bali, when he showed up late for two functions and excluded the Indonesia media from a press conference. Yudhoyono was said to have made sure he did not sit next to Abbott at the APEC summit dinner.
Indonesia's media, insulted by their exclusion, now regard Abbott as fair game.
Moreover, Abbott's front-footed political style goes down poorly in Indonesia, where it is regarded as coarse. This "coarse" perception was made worse by government pollster Mark Textor tweeting "that bloke who looks like a 1970s Filipino porn star", understood as referring to Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
The third and now most important driver in the bilateral relationship is that Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party have been tracking poorly in polls and he is seen as a weak leader. Although he cannot stand for re-election in the presidential elections next year, he wants to anoint a successor. To do so, he needs to be seen to be strong. Standing up to Australia is, now, not just an easy option but a necessary one.
It's also necessary for the rest of the field of likely candidates in the elections. None are as well-disposed towards Australia as Yudhoyono has been and all have jumped on the nationalist, anti-Australia band-wagon.
Regardless of Abbott's letter to Yudhoyono, the negative perception of Australia will now not come off Indonesia's nationalist agenda. The bilateral relationship over the next 10 months ahead of Indonesia's elections will be, at best, cool.
Depending on the outcome of those elections, Australia's relationship with the growing regional economic and strategic power could turn even colder.
The current breakdown in diplomatic relations between Australia and Indonesia is close to -- or is -- the worst the relationship has been. There has been nothing of such damage to the relationship since Australia’s intervention in East Timor in 1999, when Australia sent in troops with the permission of the Indonesian government to address a problem resulting from the Indonesian government being at odds with its own military.
Military co-operation, support for Australia’s asylum seeker program and intelligence sharing has now been suspended by Indonesia, and there is not even a fig-leaf of support in Indonesia for Australia. The current spying issue is more damaging than the East Timor intervention, with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono feeling personally betrayed by a country he considered a friend.
The suspension of key bilateral activities has ended Indonesia’s reluctant support for Australia’s asylum seeker policy. It can be safely assumed that Indonesia will not be accepting back any boats for the foreseeable future.
But Indonesia’s response is unlikely to end there. Without an adequate response by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, there is likely to be the suspension of further activity between the two countries. Areas that are likely to be affected include trade arrangements and Indonesia’s support for Australia in regional forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including the strategic ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
An element of the current controversy reflects political point-scoring in Indonesia as actors jockey for position ahead of next year’s elections. However, there is also a very real sense of anger and dismay over the spying allegations. Many senior Indonesian figures have never entirely trusted Australia, and this issue has only confirmed their mistrust.
From Australia’s perspective, there has long been a quiet but very real concern that Indonesia’s next president, to be elected in September 2014, will be not nearly as well-disposed towards Australia. It was widely hoped that the strong relationship with Indonesia that existed until recently could be maintained in order to ensure that Australia goes into those uncharted bilateral waters in the best possible shape.
That option has now all but disappeared. Even if this affair can be settled down, there will remain a lingering sense of mistrust from Indonesia.
Australia’s best option at the moment is twofold. Abbott needs to fulsomely apologise to Yudhoyono privately. Yudhoyono might or might not choose to make public some or all of that apology, but that would ultimately be his call to make.
Abbott also needs say publicly that Australia apologises for the hurt and mistrust that has been caused by the allegations of spying, without formally confirming that such spying has or has not taken place. He also needs to say that Australia’s regional intelligence activities will be reviewed with the intent of ensuring that no further offence will be caused to Indonesia. Again, this will not require going into details.
This is what should have happened when the spying scandal first broke two weeks ago. Had this been said then, the current issue would have been nipped in the bud and the fallout would not now exist.
The question for the Australian government now is not whether it acts, but how quickly and precisely how to phrase the public component of the apology to Indonesia. Not to do so risks not just immediate difficulties, but could derail the relationship with Indonesia into the longer-term future.
Australia’s diplomatic relationship with Indonesia has gone from bad to worse following the latest damaging revelations about Australian spying on senior Indonesian political figures, including President Yudhoyono and his wife Ibu Ani. Indonesia is now expected to act on the matter, expelling Australian diplomats and suspending joint information gathering programs.
The most troubling aspect of this issue is the Australian government’s failure, so far, to attempt to neutralise the damage that is being caused to the relationship. This is despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott, describing Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as “all in all, our most important”.
Yet despite this affair now running over two weeks, there has been no action taken to settle it. Had the Australian government acted when the first spying claims were made, this latest issue of top level spying would have already largely been addressed.
However, Mr Abbott’s comments that all countries gather intelligence, though accurate, will be viewed as dismissive in Indonesia and adding insult to injury. This is at a time when Mr Abbott needs to apologise, in public, to the Indonesian leadership, and not as an unconcerned leader to the Australian public.
The revelation that Australia Defence Signals Directorate has tapped the phone of President Yudhoyono and his wife Ibu Ani is particularly embarrassing to Indonesia, given that President Yudhoyono has invested a great deal of political capital in the relationship. There have long been many politicians in Indonesia who have viewed Australia with a much more jaundiced eye than Yudhoyono. They will now be feeling vindicated, and Yudhoyono will have lost face.
With the Australian spying issue being played out in Indonesia against the backdrop of next year’s elections, Australia has further made itself an easy target for political point scoring. A strong and defensive sense of national pride has long characterised political debate within Indonesia, with Australia regularly singled out as a country with a history of offending that sensibility.
But even moderate political actors in Indonesia will feel compelled to take a strong stand against Australia. Not to do so will be seen domestically as having abandoned Indonesia’s sense of sovereignty.
In the short term, the expulsion of some diplomatic staff and the suspension of bilateral programs will cause problems, especially to Australia’s asylum seeker program. But the longer term fall-out could be at least as damaging.
Because Australia has not yet moved to assuage Indonesian concerns, Australian spying can be expected to resurface each time the issue of the bilateral relationship is raised in Indonesia. Each time a proposal is put forward about closer diplomatic, intelligence or strategic ties, the spying issue will be inserted as a consideration.
Australia will not, and probably cannot, substantially reduce its intelligence gathering activities in Indonesia. But it remains possible to at least give a public rhetorical semblance to a review of such activities. This would go a long way towards calming the growing anger that is being expressed in Jakarta.
Australia’s previously troubled relationship with Indonesia has, in recent years, been described as the best that it has ever been. It has been widely viewed as critical to secure the strength of that relationship as Indonesia heads into a new, post-election political environment. That intention, however, now appears to have been dashed.
At best, Australia can look to salvage what is left of the relationship. To do that, however, it must start taking public diplomatic steps in that direction.
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.
With much of the recent discussion about countries spying on each other, the only startling thing is that anyone would bother to feign surprise. Indonesia and Australia have long spied on each other, and they have both known about it.
The main distinctions between Australia and Indonesia’s intelligence activities are their methods and who they share information with. Australia tends to use electronic information gathering and separate analysis in Jakarta and Canberra; Indonesia’s spying tends to rely more on human intelligence.
Australia’s spying on Indonesia began in the 1950s, as Australia and Indonesia increasingly found themselves in competing Cold War camps. Australia also had a tangential role in assisting the US in supporting the failed 1957-58 PRRI-Permesta rebellion.
Australia’s spying on Indonesia increased as the two countries initially took opposing views on the future of West Papua and as the Indonesian Communist Party became more influential. Following Indonesia's military coup of 1965-66, Australia’s interests shifted to more economic concerns, but intelligence gathering continued.
In 1999, a high-ranking Indonesia general, Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, openly claimed that Australia had spies in East Timor around the time of the ballot for independence. Although it was denied at the time, Australia did have a small number of intelligence officers there, assessing the status of electoral process.
One of the more obvious findings was that Hendropriyono was a key figure in the establishment of the military-led militias, which murdered around 3000 people and laid waste to the country following the vote. Australia has since continued to spy on Indonesia, in Jakarta and Bali, as well as on activities of its more extreme Islamist organisations.
Similarly, Indonesia has long spied on Australia, although its intelligence service’s primary function, like its military, has always been focused internally. Indonesian spying on Australia was very active during the Suharto era, targeting Indonesia-focused Australian activists.
Indonesian students, in particular, have long been required to be present at and report on "anti-Indonesian" activities, such as human rights meetings and activities in support of West Papua and, in the past, Aceh and East Timor.
However, as many of Indonesia’s informants in Australia are not professionally trained, they have regularly misinterpreted events or have reported what they think their consular masters want to hear as opposed to what has actually happened. As a result, a number of Australian activists have been identified as holding different or stronger views than they do.
Indonesia has also long tapped Australian telephones, usually those connected with events within Indonesia, but it does not have an NSA-type wholesale sweep.
Individuals interested or involved in Indonesia, especially in an area that might be in some way controversial, can reasonably expect that, if not under constant surveillance, they have been and will probably continue to be spied on by Indonesian agents acting in Australia.
This is what intelligence agencies do. It was ever thus for the world’s second-oldest profession.
From his output, ASPI’s Anthony Bergin likes nothing if not to test ideas in relation to Australia’s strategic positioning. His recent proposition that Australia is not so much a ‘middle power’ but a ‘pivotal power’ is a case in point . http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/is-australia-a-pivotal-power/
Bergin’s argument is that the common strategic descriptor for Australia as a ‘middle power’ does not accurately reflect its military size or capability, the size of its economy or its strategic reach. In each of these he is correct.
However, the term ‘pivotal power’ is complex. One understanding has it meaning more than just being relatively strategically strong. Indeed, Oxford Analytica defines it not as a quantitative assessment of strategic power but as being a geographic arbiter.http://www.oxan.com/analysis/dailybrief/pivotalpowers/default.aspx
Australia relative to Turkey, as Bergin notes, classifies them both as middle powers. But Turkey’s role with its neighbours, particularly Syria, Iraq and Israel, also mark it as a key regional actor and it is, thus, also considered to be a pivotal power. Closer to home, Indonesia occupies an arbitrating role in the ASEAN regions as well as in relations with Timor-Leste and Australia.
By comparison, Australia is a regional strategic power in the Southwest Pacific, but perhaps less so than it has been. In part this is due to the increasing sense of independence of some of the Pacific island states. In part it is also due to the more active soft power role being played by China in the region, which in turn buttresses this sense of independence – at least from Australia.
Timor-Leste, though geographically close to Australia and a major recipient of Australian aid and, at times, military assistance, has carved an increasingly independent path. If one can define Timor-Leste’s foreign policy, it is one of having a number of strong friends, so that it remains cosseted by some should relations with one turn sour.
Australia’s status in Timor-Leste has diminished, while that of Indonesia has increased. Timor-Leste’s police now train with Indonesian police, and there is an agreement that their armed forces also train together. Australia provides training to, but it does not train with, Timor-Leste’s defence force.
Australia’s strategic status is, on balance, perhaps slightly stronger, or perceived as such, than it has been, given its active participation in recent multilateral conflicts and as a preferred site for training by regional military officers. In another sense, in a strategic environment always in a state of flux, the precise status of any state will remain variable and, more to the point, interpretable.
But if Australia was to suddenly disappear from the strategic stage, the question is the extent to which it might matter. Bergin may be correct and Australia is indeed a pivotal state, if in its own peculiar way.
The two trips by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to Indonesia have started to give a distinctive shape to a shift in Australian foreign policy. In keeping with Abbott's assertive political style, Australia is on the diplomatic front foot, promoting his pro-Asia policy agenda.
But the forcefulness of the way in which this agenda is being pushed may leave Australia exposed to uncomfortable outcomes. We generally have good regional relationships, but the interests of our neighbours are not necessarily the same as our own interests.
Abbott's overture to China to reach a free trade agreement within 12 months is ambitious and intended to secure a long-term economic relationship with our largest trading partner. Similarly, Abbott's unambiguous message to Indonesia is that Australia will be an even more loyal friend, with less tolerance for dissent around human rights issues.
Both cases are intended to secure different aspects of Australia's national interest and being the diplomatic initiator signals Australia's positive intentions. But initiating the further development of relationships then requires that gesture be taken up by the counterpart country.
In both cases, Abbott's eagerness gives China and Indonesia greater scope for setting the terms of the relationship. Australia thus becomes the supplicant, with China and Indonesia bestowing the favours.
By placing a 12-month timeline on a free trade agreement with China, Abbott has signalled a willingness to accept previously problematic Chinese conditions. These include investments in Australia by Chinese state-owned enterprises, a lower threshold for scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board, and allowing more Chinese workers into Australia.
China's plan is to secure for itself continuing access to resources over the longer term, and to do so at a good price. Its foreign direct investments, including in Australia, achieve both those goals. Similarly, the greater its direct control over resources, the stronger its bargaining position over those resources that it does not directly control.
Abbott's recent visit to Jakarta reaffirmed Australia's commitment to Indonesia's territorial integrity. In this he was, perhaps, even more insistent than his predecessors.
In significant part this reflects the deep concern that Indonesia had with the Coalition's policy of returning asylum seeker boats to Indonesia and attendant plans to pay locals for intelligence on boat departures. That signature policy in opposition now looks to be in the process of being quietly abandoned in government, replaced by a slightly stronger version of the existing policy of bilateral co-operation.
But part of Abbott's ''total respect'' for Indonesia's territorial sovereignty and integrity was code for endorsing the status quo in the territory of West Papua. This has played out recently with the return of seven West Papuan asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and the ''voluntary'' departure of three West Papuan protesters from the Australian Consulate-General in Bali.
The seven returned to PNG would likely have qualified for refugee status had they been processed in the usual manner. Despite what could be fairly understood as a plea for asylum, the three are now in hiding from the Indonesian police.
The drivers for Abbott's foreign policy push are not explicit. But they can be divined from his political history. Abbott is a classical free trader, pursuing a policy in which markets are self-regulating and find their own equilibrium. An open door policy towards trade with and investment from China fits perfectly into this framework.
On Indonesia, one can detect a sensibility that reflects the strong pro-Indonesia (and anti-communist) position of his political training ground in the National Civic Council. At the time, this included opposition to East Timor's independence, and West Papua's continued incorporation.
Three decades on, Australia's interests in Indonesia are more complex. Indonesia's economy is growing, soon to overtake Australia's in total size, and it is in both countries' interests to seek and develop economic complementarities.
But Indonesia is potentially also a major strategic and diplomatic partner for Australia. It provides Australia with entree into ASEAN and can help facilitate some of its wider regional interests. How Indonesia views Australia has major implications for Australia's strategic positioning.
The relatively benign relationship that Australia has enjoyed with Indonesia over much of the past decade can be attributed to the reformist, pro-Western preferences of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. However, within a year, Yudhoyono will leave office. Abbott's commitment to Indonesia is unlikely to change, but the successor may be more assertively nationalistic. This could include requiring Australia to even more strongly oppose West Papuan activism, despite the conflict this will engender with more pro-human rights sections of Australian society.
China, too, will ultimately be concerned over its own interests and much less those of Australia. Local discomfort, if of a different type, may have to be accepted in the push and shove of competing understandings over what a more open economic relationship might entail.
The conventional approach to diplomatic relations is to take them slowly, consider their implications deeply and to proceed cautiously. This does not, however, accord with Abbott's political style.
Abbott's international agenda is appearing to be about achieving much quickly. In his rush, however, such enthusiasm for making agreements and pushing policy on the run may miss some of the implications, much less the nuances, embedded in the detail.
Australia needs stronger international linkages, not least with major trading and strategic partners. But it does not need such arrangements at any price. No agreement is better than a bad agreement.
A more cautious and considered approach to international relations will produce results less quickly. But they may be results that Australia is more easily able to live with, with fewer negative consequences, over the longer term.
West Papuan activists are testing Prime Minister Tony Abbott's statements in relation to his asylum-seeker boat turnback policy, that he has "total respect for Indonesia's sovereignty, total respect for Indonesia's territorial integrity". So far, they are having little luck.
As Abbott was preparing to leave for Bali, three West Papuan activists scaled the wall of the Australian consulate-general in Bali. The activists delivered a letter seeking the release of political prisoners jailed in Indonesia and free access to the long restricted region by the international media.
The letter also said: "We seek refuge and plead for our safety." Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb told the ABC that the men did not seek asylum for themselves, and left voluntarily within hours, and had gone into hiding.
Last week, seven West Papuans travelling by boat from Papua New Guinea to Australia seeking asylum and were returned to PNG. The legality of sending the asylum-seekers back remains in question.
Last month, the pro-West Papuan independence "Freedom Flotilla" met with West Papuan activists off-shore of the island split between the Indonesian republic and PNG. It had been told it would meet force if it tried to land at Indonesia’s most south-easterly port of Merauke.
The upsurge in West Papuan activism follows attempts by the Indonesian government to find a solution to the West Papua problem while at the same time conducting a crackdown in the territory.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s proposal is to create what is referred to as "Special Autonomy Plus", a new take on the "Special Autonomy" status granted to the province of Papua in 2001. Not only has there been little about the "autonomy" that is "special", within two years the province had been divided in two, contravening its new status.
The recent "Plus" proposal is intended to allow the more-or-less democratically elected Papua provincial government to engage more closely with the separatist Free Papua Organisation (OPM). Pro-human rights activists say the provincial government does not have power to conduct negotiations. Further, any benign intentions the provincial government might have are undermined by the Indonesian police and military’s continuing "security" approach to West Papuan activism.
As activists further note, any negotiations need to be with the national, not provincial, government. They also say that such negotiations must be conducted outside Indonesia to ensure the safety of participants, and be internationally mediated to guarantee their outcome.
With less than one year left in Yudhoyono's term as president, his two-term limit ends in September 2014, both sides have now run out of time to have such negotiations ratified by Indonesia’s legislature. But, as Yudhoyono knows, the parliament would in any case be very unlikely to accept such a negotiated settlement.
West Papuan activists therefore believe their only option now is to try to raise the issue internationally. In doing so, however, they have run up against Australia’s well established policy of supporting West Papua’s continued incorporation within Indonesia.
The West Papuan activists have also run up against Australia’s tougher position of supporting Indonesia’s "territorial integrity", hence, their "voluntary" agreement to leave Australia’s consulate-general in Bali, just ahead of the arrival of Indonesian police.
Tony Abbott's first international test as prime minister is also likely to be his toughest, when he meets with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today. It will be a remarkable feat if he can pull the policy fat from the diplomatic fire.
In the balance lies Australia’s critical relationship with Indonesia. Not only has Abbott’s signature "turn back the boats" policy been comprehensively rejected by the Indonesian government, Indonesia has now fired a real warning shot across Australia’s diplomatic bow.
The "unintentional" release of the notes of the conversation between foreign ministerial counterparts Julie Bishop and Marty Natalegawa late last week was a blunt warning: the issue may blow up further if not resolved quickly.
Abbott’s dismissal of his asylum-seeker boats policy as a "passing irritant" in the wider bilateral relationship with Indonesia will be viewed as arrogant. Arrogance is a quality not much appreciated in Indonesian political society, and especially not from Australian politicians. It is also incorrect to treat it so lightly, given the issue is now central to a complex web of arrangements.
At primary risk is Indonesia’s existing co-operation with Australia against the people-smuggling trade. This then segues into other areas of security co-operation, including on terrorism and wider security issues.
The awkwardness of Abbott's visit has been underscored by the inept intervention by former foreign minister Alexander Downer on Thursday. Downer's status as a former Coalition foreign minister means his "pious rhetoric" comment against Indonesia will be read in Jakarta as informing the Australian perspective.
Asylum-seeker boats leaving Indonesia are a private and, at most, criminal matter. If they do breach Australian sovereignty, it is not a consequence of Indonesian state policy.
By contrast, Australia’s "Operation Sovereign Borders" of sending boats in international waters back to Indonesia is official state policy. On this, Downer blundered and Indonesia holds the high diplomatic ground.
Abbott distancing himself from Downer’s statement will be seen as just as unconvincing as Natalegawa’s claim of the "unintentional release" of notes of his conversation with Bishop. The distinction on issues of sovereignty and official policy can be expected to be brought to Abbott’s attention .
Australia has recently enjoyed a positive relationship with Indonesia, overwhelmingly because of the benign political character of President Yudhoyono. But Natalegawa’s release of the Bishop conversation notes reflects a growing impatience with Australia. If Abbott persists, bilateral relations could quickly collapse to the lows of 1999, when Australia intervened in East Timor.
Indonesia has always been important to Australia, but is increasingly so. Its economy, growing at over 6% a year, is due to overtake Australia’s by 2017, while it is Australia's 13th biggest trading partner (and growing).
Importantly, Indonesia is Australia's pivot into ASEAN, including the security-focused ASEAN Regional Forum, as well as a key partner in APEC and wider regional relations. Add to that key sea lanes and air routes, and you have a relationship that Australia cannot afford to get wrong. All of this will be on the table when Abbott and Yudhoyono meet.
The question will be, then, whether Abbott throws overboard his "turning back the boats" policy in favour of greater regional co-operation. The alternative might instead be looking at throwing overboard a large part of the bilateral relationship with our closest neighbour.
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.