Australia-Indonesia relationship is back to ‘normal’, meaning fragile as ever

Julie Bishop recently claimed that the Australia-Indonesia relationship is ‘very strong and very good’. AAP/Johannes Christo

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is due to meet her Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, on the sidelines of an ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Kuala Lumpur later this week. This will be the first face-to-face meeting of Australian and Indonesian ministers since the execution of Bali Nine duo Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in April.

The meeting would seem to confirm Bishop’s recent assertion that the overall Australia-Indonesia relationship was:

… very strong and very good.

It stands in contrast, however, with observations made by two other seasoned observers of the relationship: former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa and Australia Indonesia Business Council chair Debnath Guharoy.

Natalegawa argued at a meeting in Canberra in June that relations were at a “key juncture”. Acknowledging that he was no longer privy to details of the relationship, he nonetheless expressed the hope that:

… there is somewhere some kind of intensified communications. We cannot afford to let the relationship degenerate into a lower point.

Natalegawa asserted that asylum-seeker boat turnbacks were the prime irritant in the relationship. He argued they were unilateral and placed the burden of handling the refugee issue on Indonesia.

Speaking shortly after Indonesia had announced that its import quota of Australian live cattle had been slashed, Guharoy painted a similarly bleak picture of the relationship. Criticising what he called Australia’s “megaphone diplomacy”, he reported that from his communications with Indonesian government agencies it was clear that:

… they are unhappy with Australia. They are not happy with the way we are conducting our diplomacy. The megaphone is not working … the fact that we make decisions unilaterally without consultation and tell them to just deal with the consequences, we just have to conduct our diplomacy better than we have been.

So should we be positive about the relationship, a la Bishop, or critical, alongside Natalegawa and Guharoy?

A bit of both, really.

Reading the comments in context

Bishop is clearly correct in pointing to the restoration of high-level contacts as a positive development. The relationship was going nowhere so long as ministers were not talking to each other. And the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson, returned to Jakarta in early June.

But these developments, positive though they were, at most simply brought the relationship back to where it had been before the executions. In fact it is probably still behind where it had been then. The forthright way in which the Australian government responded to the executions is likely to be remembered in Jakarta for some time.

Natalegawa’s comments also reflect a reality in Jakarta: that the Australian government’s turnback policy is seen as disrespectful of Indonesia’s national interests.

Jakarta might quietly see some value in the policy. After all, if it became clear that asylum seekers could not use Indonesia as a jumping-off point for Australia, presumably fewer of them would come to Indonesia in the first place.

But, once again, the public announcement of this policy, and the confrontational way in which Indonesia’s interests were dealt with by Canberra, meant that Jakarta saw no option other than to reject the policy. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s refusal to confirm or deny reports that crews of asylum seeker boats had been bribed to return to Indonesia only confirmed Jakarta’s position.

Interestingly, there seems to have been very little public attention paid in Indonesia to Labor’s adoption of the turnback option last month. The Indonesian embassy in Canberra must have reported this development back to Jakarta, so the government must have been aware of it. The main news outlets, though, seem to have passed it by.

However, Natalegawa’s comments also need to be read in the context of his role as foreign minister in former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration – one which was seen in Australia at least as being sympathetic to Australia’s interests and concerns. Last year Natalegawa seemed to be making a pitch to continue in office after the presidential elections. If so, he was disappointed, with incoming president Joko Widodo showing no interest in appointing him.

There could thus be an element of sour grapes in Natalegawa’s remarks.

Guharoy’s comments reflect that the Australian style of political diplomacy does not go down well in Indonesia. The whole confrontational approach to politics of Australia’s leaders runs counter to how most Indonesian politicians like to represent their political style.

But, in practice, Indonesia is not beyond indulging in unilateralism and non-communication on policy issues. The decision to execute Chan and Sukumaran was obviously unilateral, and Widodo was less than communicative with Australia on the issue. And Jakarta’s decision to cut the live cattle quota was taken unilaterally and with, so far as we can tell, no consultation with Australia.

On balance, it seems that the relationship is more or less back to its usual setting – where “usual setting” means “fragile”.

Peter Varghese, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, last week regretted that:

We have not yet built the broader constituencies that would give the [Australia-Indonesia] relationship genuine resilience.

Outside government and academic circles, Varghese said, there needed to be stronger business and community links to give the relationship:

… the ballast it needs to cope with momentary political crises or differences in policy.

True enough. But it has been true for years, at least since 1988 when then-foreign minister Gareth Evans first used the term “ballast” in this context in a speech to a meeting of the Australia Indonesia Business Co-operation Committee in Bali. Evans said:

… I look forward to the day when the interests of Australia and Indonesia are so varied and so important that we no longer talk of “the relationship” as though it were a patient of precarious health, sometimes sick, sometimes healthy, but always needing the worried supervision of diplomatic doctors.

Have we moved substantially forward in the relationship since then? Apparently not.

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