Bali Nine: poor political leadership creates lasting bilateral problems

The Australian-Indonesia relationship has become frosty and personal, which will test the diplomatic skills of Tony Abbott and Joko Widodo. AAP/Eka Nickmatulhuda

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are dead. Above all else, their deaths are a human tragedy for their families. But their executions, which took place on Tuesday night, also present major problems for the Australian and Indonesian governments.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, clearly bears political and personal responsibility for the executions of the two Australians and six others. He undoubtedly believes in the position he has taken, but his handling of the matter reflects his domestic political weakness.

If Jokowi had been stronger, he might have been more willing to look at the international implications for Indonesia of his plan to execute up to 60 people this year. The vast majority of them are not Indonesian.

Jokowi might also have been prepared to review the evidence-based research on the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent to drug smuggling – or the lack thereof. And he certainly would not have permitted the disgraceful treatment of the Chan and Sukumaran families as they visited their condemned sons and brothers for the final time on Tuesday.

By the same token, if Prime Minister Tony Abbott was in a stronger position in the electorate, he may have been less inclined to use the Australian mass media to communicate with the Indonesian president. He might not have been so ham-fisted as to suggest that Indonesia should repay Australian generosity after the 2004 tsunami with clemency for Chan and Sukumaran.

Abbott might also have been more inclined to follow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s more measured and nuanced – but no less firm – statements.

But ultimately, no matter what Abbott did, it was unlikely he was ever going to change Jokowi’s mind.

A more diplomatic response

The immediate issue is how Abbott will respond to the executions. When Australian Nguyen Tuong Van was executed in Singapore 10 years ago, then-prime minister John Howard explicitly ruled out imposing trade or military sanctions against Singapore.

Given how hard Abbott has pushed the issue at home, and how much public support for clemency has emerged in Australia in recent months, doing nothing is clearly not an option.

Underlying the choices Abbott will have to make is his understanding of what the objective of Australia’s response is. Is it simply to symbolise Australia’s rejection of the death penalty? Or is to punish Indonesia for what it has done?

The least costly option is withdrawal of Australia’s new ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson. This is what Brazil and the Netherlands did in January following the execution of their citizens.

Jokowi could hardly expect less from Abbott. It certainly symbolises Australia’s continued rejection of the executions.

A more punitive response

However, the pressure will be on Abbott to go further than that – to in some way punish Indonesia. The three main options open to his government are international diplomatic pressure, trade sanctions and reductions in the aid program.

The international diplomatic option could involve withdrawing from bilateral meetings with Jakarta, or not supporting Indonesian positions in various multilateral forums important to Indonesia. The problem with the latter is that in many of those forums – most obviously ASEAN – Australia is either not a member, or not a very powerful member.

To be effective internationally, Australia would have to act in concert with other states. France and the European Union have already indicated that they are contemplating diplomatic action against Indonesia. Brazil would almost certainly follow suit.

But one country that would clearly not do so is China. This is a country that uses the death penalty more frequently than Indonesia and which would welcome the chance to have Indonesia turn to it for international diplomatic support. Australia would not want such an outcome.

Trade sanctions might hurt some sections of the Indonesian economy, but they are likely to hit Australian businesspeople as much as Indonesians. In any event, two-way trade between Australia and Indonesia is so relatively small that the impact on the Indonesian economy would be slight. Trade sanctions would ultimately be of little more than symbolic significance.

Aid to Indonesia is potentially a different matter. Indonesia is the second-largest recipient of Australian development assistance after Papua New Guinea. Australia is the fourth-largest provider of assistance to Indonesia.

A substantial reduction of aid to Indonesia – more than would have happened with planned overall aid budget cuts – would have an impact in Indonesia. However, unless very carefully managed the aid cuts could fall heavily and disproportionately on the poorer, more marginalised sections of Indonesian society – not on the Indonesian government.

Taking Indonesia’s response into account

Abbott will need to consider, too, how Jokowi would respond to any of these options. Jokowi could hardly remain unmoved, perhaps engaging in tit-for-tat actions. He might possibly curtail co-operation with Australia in areas such as counter-terrorism, people smuggling – and drug smuggling – impacting directly on crucial Australian national interests.

Looking more broadly, the Australian government will also need to consider what precedent will be set by any action it takes against Indonesia should an Australian be executed elsewhere overseas: in China perhaps, or Singapore, or Texas.

Australia cannot be seen to react more forcefully in the Indonesian case than in any other. But is it prepared to contemplate, for instance, diplomatic sanctions against China?

Australian public reactions could well affect the bilateral relationship as well. Demonstrations outside Indonesian diplomatic missions are likely following vigils held prior to the executions. If this happens, expect similar responses in Jakarta outside the Australian embassy.

There are already calls for Australians not to holiday in Indonesia. Australian tourists are of major significance in Bali, where any substantial downturn in visitor numbers would harm the local economy. But the impact would be felt most by ordinary Indonesians who work in the tourism industry, though government revenues would also be affected.

Three months ago, I argued that the impact of the executions on the Australia-Indonesia relationship would not be long-term. I am no longer so sanguine. The way in which the issue has developed since then suggests we are in for a prolonged period of tension in the relationship.

Given the intensely personal nature of the way the issue has been handled, perhaps the frostiness will remain for as long as Jokowi is Indonesian president.

Negotiating a way through or around the issues raised will be a major challenge for Abbott. But negotiate he must, because the bilateral relationship with Indonesia remains important to Australia.