Not since Malcolm Fraser was prime minister has the federal Coalition understood, much less had an engaged relationship with, South-East Asia. This lack of understanding and engagement was reflected again yesterday when the Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop, made a ‘courtesy call’ on the chair and deputy chair of Indonesia’s legislature (DPR).
What should have been a brief exchange of pleasantries turned into a diplomatic disaster when Ms Bishop outlined the Opposition’s policy on ‘sending back’ asylum seeker boats to Indonesia. Indonesia’s DPR Deputy Chairman, Hajriyanto Thohari, described the policy as unfair on Indonesia and said that Ms Bishop was arrogant in her expression of the policy.
At a time of unprecedented good bilateral relations with Indonesia, Australia is now looking to its future. Indonesia’s shift towards a more open democratic framework has allowed the previously troubled relationship to stabilise, but its future remains uncertain, especially over the medium to longer term.
The renewed focus on relations with Indonesia reflects its continuing critical value to Australian foreign policy. It is Australia’s largest near neighbour, the world’s largest Muslim country, a major regional diplomatic actor, the key transit point for Australian trade, travel and irregular migration and, again, a growing economic partner.
Australia policy thinkers are therefore looking at options for the longer term relationship. Among those considerations is increasing bilateral strategic engagement. More than any other aspect of the relationship, this is likely to generate controversy both within Australia and in Indonesia.
Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is continuing at its all-time high following the conclusion of the East Asia Summit in Bali. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has come away from the summit confirming a major reduction in tariffs in trade with Indonesia, providing further "ballast" to the once-troubled relationship.
Even Australia’s agreement to host US Marines in the Northern Territory has caused fewer problems than sometimes insecure strategic commentators in Jakarta might have indicated in the days immediately after the plan was announced. Having said that, it is unlikely that Australia will take up President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s suggestion that Australia also play host to China’s military, by way of balancing assertions of regional power.
The announcement by East Timor’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, that his country will begin military to military links with Indonesia has caused widespread surprise, given the deeply troubled history between the small, recently independent state and its large and previously belligerent neighbour. There are a number of benefits to this new arrangement, which will also see police to police links established. But there are also many unresolved issues.
Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 led to the deaths of more than a quarter of its population, almost 200,000 people, with its final farewell being the destruction of most of the country and the murder of around 1,500 more civilians. According to Prime Minister Gusmao, it is now time to forgive and forget.
Desperate times, they say, call for desperate measures. Proposing to cut $400 million from Australia's aid budget to Indonesia’s schools program looks pretty desperate. So one can only assume that having alienated damp Queensland voters and not just a few Victorians, Tony Abbott is trying to find a way out of opposing the one-off tax hole he has dug himself into.
Someone should tell him that the first rule of holes is, when you are in one, stop digging.
Abbott’s chopping of the Indonesian education program would be an abysmal policy decision, but for one saving grace: being in opposition means it won’t be enacted.
American journalist Allan Nairn’s game of cat and mouse with the Indonesian military is a brave attempt to show that it continues to represent the greatest challenge to Indonesia’s process of reform and democratisation. It is also one that could well see him spending time – potentially up to six years - in an Indonesian prison.
Nairn recently detailed how the Indonesian military’s special forces, Kopassus, continued to be involved in illegal activities, including murdering civilians. His report comes at a time when the US is considering renewing direct support for Kopassus, after having banned working with it for a decade and a half.
The visit to Australia by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono marks an important step in the maturing of Australia-Indonesia bilateral relations. Not since the ebullient Aburrahman Wahid have we had an Indonesian president visit twice (SBY was here in 2005) but, more importantly, Yudhoyono is the most substantial political leader Indonesia has had since the departure of the authoritarian President Suharto.
That Yudhoyono has been invited to address the Australian parliament – and has accepted - is a further clear sign of the strength of the bilateral relationship. As a marker of Australia’s international diplomacy, the relationship with Indonesia has always been the biggest and most difficult test. As Indonesia democratises, both countries seem to be getting it right.
Yudhoyono was initially elected in 2004 promising reform. He was relatively successful, launching a major anti-corruption campaign, pushing the TNI to divest its business interests, trying to clean up the judiciary and getting the economy back on track.