Grattan on Friday: Australia-Indonesia relationship will never be easy

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott greets Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo during the 2014 G20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane. AAP/Steve Christo

Since Tony Abbott became prime minister, three issues have strained relations with Indonesia. Before the fracture over the fate of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, there were difficulties from the Coalition’s tow-back policy and a major crisis after revelations of Australian spying.

It was Abbott’s choice to annoy Indonesia by returning asylum seeker boats – the Coalition calculated it was willing to pay this price for its wider objective.

He inherited the other two issues.

The spy story broke on Abbott’s watch but the detail that came out related to Labor’s time. The Bali Nine leaders received their death sentences in 2006, although the prospect these would be carried out only came relatively recently.

Of the three issues, the disclosure of spying on some of Indonesia’s top figures, even including the wife of then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was the most damaging for the relationship. The Indonesians ceased co-operation in a wide range of areas; it took a long time to broker an intelligence protocol and return relations more or less to an even keel.

In the 2014 Lowy poll, 40% of Australians surveyed believed relations with Indonesia were worsening, 24 points higher than in 2008, although a majority (57%) still described Indonesia’s relationship with Australia as “friendly”.

The executions have been the most emotional of the three issues, with the agonising build-up over the last few months and the dreadful end on Wednesday morning. The blanket media coverage has brought images to an Australian audience that have been distressing and at times grotesque.

Looking back, Australia’s representations probably always had little hope of carrying the day, especially in the wake of the spying revelations. Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, needed for his own domestic reasons to stay firm (notwithstanding a last-minute reprieve for a Filipina woman in light of new information).

Local Indonesian feeling and the number on death row meant the odds were stacked against a Presidential change of heart for the Australians.

The Abbott government did what it could, toughening its approach when a softer one was obviously having no effect, and in response to growing agitation in Australia. Calls for Abbott to fly to Jakarta seemed to be based on the naive assumption that there was a way to force Widodo’s hand, when demonstrably there wasn’t.

The Indonesians took offence when Abbott referred to the tsunami aid, but a lot more offence came from their end then from Australia’s. It included the bizarre military show surrounding the transfer of Chan and Sukumaran to the execution island, the issuing of the 72-hour notice on Anzac Day despite an Australian request for it not to be done that day, and the President’s disinclination to take Abbott’s calls.

Having said that, some of what appeared to be offensive could have been just local chaos rather than deliberate.

The Abbott government had virtually no other choice but to withdraw the ambassador in reaction to the executions, even though Australia had not taken such action either when there had been other problems with Indonesia or when Australians had been executed in other countries.

Brazil and the Netherlands had recalled their ambassadors earlier this year after having citizens shot. For Australia to do anything less would have been seen as unacceptable by many in the community. The government is also continuing the suspension of ministerial visits that it already had in place.

The phrasing is that the ambassador, Paul Grigson, is being brought back for “consultations” – diplomatic parlance that is nicely flexible. He’s likely to return to Jakarta after about a month.

The government is not expected to add further measures as part of its response. Calls for the aid budget to be shaved in retaliation are misguided – this would just hit ordinary Indonesians.

The government must balance registering a protest with getting the longer-term relationship, which is vitally important for Australia, back into better shape.

In this context, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews’ very pointed criticism of President Widodo is unhelpful.

“I think we face a situation in Indonesia where we have a President who’s in the weaker situation and sometimes people in weak situations take action which they think maybe exhibit strength,” Andrews said. “If that has been the case here … this is a serious miscalculation on behalf of the President of Indonesia. Australians are friendly towards the Indonesian people, but in this case we believe their leadership has let them down.”

As ministers like to say when it suits them, sometimes it’s best for them not to be commentators.

It is clear that the change from Yudhoyono to Widodo will make managing relations with Indonesia harder over the coming years.

Cyclical ups and downs historically have been an integral part of the relationship, though the issues and personalities that have produced the “down” swings have varied widely.

If relations appear bad now, remember the worse times in the past – not just the spying crisis but also the 1975 deaths of Australian journalists in Balibo; East Timor; the row over the Tampa and the asylum seekers it rescued; the 2011 suspension of live cattle exports.

Australia has at times been willing to compromise principle in the search for harmony, notably when the Fraser government recognised Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor.

On the other hand the Balibo deaths and the issue of East Timor’s independence – both eliciting strong feelings in sections of the Australian community - became for years festering sores in the relationship.

On the Indonesian side, there’s been a feeling that Australia has an air of superiority, without possessing the clout to be superior about.

The relationship is in fact somewhat lopsided because Indonesia is more important to Australia than Australia is to Indonesia. Indonesia is Australia’s most significant neighbour but Indonesia has a range of significant neighbours.

This has been the most testing foreign policy relationship with which Abbott has had to grapple.

Now the executions are over, official dealings can be expected to settle again after a few months. But it will inevitably remain a difficult friendship between two countries that are bound together most centrally by the chance of geography.