A number of years ago (2002), my colleague at the University of Adelaide, Professor Purnendra Jain and I wrote a piece for the Asian Times entitled, ‘Shaking Hands with Clenched Fists’. In short it described the issues the Howard government faced in its bilateral relations with Indonesia following the MV Tampa incident, and the surprising success it had in rebalancing relations based on pragmatism, countering mutual threats such as People Smugglers and Terrorists. In short, the article demonstrated that in spite of the very real differences between Australia and its northern neighbour, it did not all have to be bad. The Abbott government has moved relatively quickly in its attempt to re-establish good relations with Indonesia after a period of drift & mixed signals during the Rudd-Gillard years. The problem of course is that governance and international relations are like two sides of a coin – espousing both declaratory policy (open source) and operational policy (secret) concurrently. Often, declaratory policy runs contrary to operational policy, and when this conflict of interest takes place in the public domain, government-to-government relations can sour and bring about unwelcome knock-on effects. For example, Prime Minister Abbott’s recent visit to Indonesia (early October) was seen and perceived to be a success, yet, in light of the revelations from the Snowden leaks which suggest that the Australian Embassy in Jakarta was used to facilitate American spying on that country, (and that such activities involved more than one Australian embassy in the region), it comes as no surprise that on her visit to Australia (November 12, 2013), Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, adviser to the Indonesian Vice-President, stood firm that her country reserved the right not to take asylum seekers retrieved from Australia’s maritime search and rescue zone. People smuggling agreements between Australia and Indonesia that were hard fought and largely hammered out behind closed doors are thankfully not imperilled, but the rhetorical battle played out in the headlines has caused some consternation for the Abbott government, especially for the new immigration and border protection minister, Scott Morrison. Morrison was forced on the defensive, conceding that Indonesia has blocked Australian efforts at returning Indonesian-based asylum seekers. This has now hit the national headlines with much of the Australian media running stories suggesting that there is a real crisis in the making. Much of this tinderbox reaction fuels long-held bias in Australia that somehow, Indonesia, because of its embryonic democracy and corruption-ridden government, poses a lurking threat to Australian interests. This public perception ignores the fact that the Australian government has an enduring interest in keeping Indonesia’s experiment with democracy going, no matter how messy or uncertain. Speaking of politics, while Australia has just finished its electoral cycle, Indonesia’s is only now starting to ramp-up with presidential elections due in mid-2014. Political transitions are hotbeds of jockeying for position, and using external controversies to shore up domestic support is an age-old tactic. We in Australia should not be overly concerned by the headlines. The ties that bind Australia and Indonesia will remain. But we do have to manage our public diplomacy better. Australia is a status quo power and Indonesia is a rising power and how we relate to each other will increasingly determine how comfortable our respective leaderships are with each other.
By Dr. John Bruni, Director SAGE International