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The politics of brinksmanship: Abbott heads to Indonesia

Nationalistic politicking on both sides has set the scene for prime minister Tony Abbott’s first foreign trip abroad - to Indonesia. EPA/Adi Weda

Running foreign policy on domestic agendas is always risky business. In the lead-up to the Australian federal election, the two main political parties locked themselves into a competition over who had the toughest policy towards refugees. Winning the election meant delivering on these promises, and now new prime minister Tony Abbott has to find a way to temper domestic expectations.

Ahead of this week’s summit between Australian and Indonesian political leaders in Jakarta - Abbott’s first foreign trip as prime minister - both sides have publicly fired shots across the bow. For Abbott, who has long held the view that Australia’s foreign policy under a Coalition government would be focused in Jakarta, rather than Geneva, the talks may mark a turning point in the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

On the other side of the Arafura Sea, Indonesian political leaders are also entering a period of political grandstanding. While the economic, social and cultural ties between Australia and Indonesia are strengthening, these could be affected by a turn for the worse in political relations.

Indonesia made its position on refugee boats clear in the lead-up to Australia’s election. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY) announcement of a multilateral approach to the problem of refugees was a recognition of its complexities. The cynical journey of refugees in unsafe boats does not exist as a problem in isolation.

Addressing the problem requires looking at source countries, transit regions and stopping-off points, as well as final destinations. Indonesia has also made it clear that refugees are not a high priority for them. They have more pressing national problems, and while Australian editors continue to put refugee stories on the front page of our papers, they are rarely visible in the Indonesian press, except when deaths occur.

Indonesian papers, instead, are dominated by reports of corruption-busting, attacks on religious minorities and the 2014 presidential elections. Indonesia’s message to Australia is clear: the multilateral approach is all that’s on offer.

For Indonesia, there are few issues as sensitive as national sovereignty. While Indonesia’s struggle for independence against the Dutch has largely become a distant memory, the post-independence experience of regional revolts was revived when various islands threatened to secede in the period after the fall of Suharto in 1998.

One of the rationales of the Suharto regime’s military order was that strong rule was required to hold the country together. The military was forced to accept East Timor’s vote for independence, and were subsequently sent back to the barracks by a coalition of their own leaders, including SBY.

Nevertheless, the memory of East Timor as a defeat left a bad taste for Indonesia. It led to the settlement of the Aceh problem, but an intractable situation remains in West Papua. Secessionism declined after East Timor’s independence, but the threat of national disintegration is raised by the idea of any compromising of Indonesia’s boundaries.

The period between 1999 and 2005 – East Timorese independence, the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, the Australian Embassy bombing in 2004, and the Schapelle Corby case – represented probably the lowest period in Australian-Indonesian relations. In response to the terrorist attacks in Indonesia, Australia under John Howard became America’s “deputy sheriff” in the region, which included a statement at the end of 2004 that the Australian government had the right to control a “security zone” of over 1000 nautical miles, an area that took in large parts of Indonesia.

Between 2002 and 2005, a young Indonesian foreign affairs spokesman had to bear the brunt of the Australian media’s attention. Having received his PhD from the Australian National University, that spokesman well understood the workings of politics and media in Australia. Marty Natalegawa is now Indonesia’s foreign minister, and he does not want to see his country pushed around.

Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has warned Australian leaders that their asylum seeker policies may be an affront to his nation’s sovereignty. EPA/Eduardo Munoz

Leaving aside the fact that Natalegawa is probably wary of a Coalition government repeating Howard-era tactics, he is also influenced by the current atmosphere in Indonesian politics. Indonesia has one of the longest lead-ups to presidential elections of anywhere in the world. As soon as SBY was re-elected for his final term in 2009, political commentary on who was going to be president in 2014 started, and in the next few months the level of heat is going to increase.

Nationalism is the easy card to play in this political atmosphere. The key player of this card is discharged general Prabowo Subianto, a former son-in-law of Suharto, whose candidacy has seen a great emphasis on economic nationalism - but also draws on his military background to foster an image of strong national rule. Indonesian politicians have already fired a few nationalist salvos, including Natalegawa’s warning that Indonesia “cannot accept any Australian policy that would, in nature, violate Indonesia’s sovereignty”.

Unfortunately some on the Australian side have been equally nationalist, from former foreign minister Alexander Downer’s rebuff to Natalegawa to statements by members of the National Party about Indonesian proposals to buy landholdings in Australia. In the latter case, Indonesians are well aware that Chinese, Britons and other foreigners already have similar large holdings, and would be quick to identify discrimination.

On the vexed asylum seeker issue, Downer’s statement that Indonesian boats are breaching Australia’s sovereignty is simply not true under international law, as Professor Don Rothwell - one of Australia’s most highly regarded experts in the field - has pointed out.

It seems that both sides need to take a deep breath. Abbott probably has the most “face” to lose here. He can hope that the proposal to buy back asylum boats will not be mentioned at the talks, but it is going to take some creativity to both maintain the rhetoric aimed at a domestic audience and maintain good relations with Indonesia.

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