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End the condescension to start new era with Indonesia

Australian Financial Review - February 28, 2021

James CurranColumnist – In 1986, the head of the newly merged Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Stuart Harris, argued that Australia is "an isolated country in the sense that there is a lack of regional links; there is no region or grouping to which we belong naturally, and no easy alliances that are immediately of use to us".

That quest for belonging found an answer in Bob Hawke's creation of APEC in 1989, then with Paul Keating's elevation of that forum to a leader's summit. Subsequent governments, albeit with different emphases, likewise made regional engagement their watchword.

Indonesia has always been central to that story.

Yet like India, Indonesia does not fit so snugly into the strategic framework in which many eminent Australians would like it to. Last year's Defence Update mentioned it only once.

But in recent years the relationship has continued to be one of mutual invisibility. Tony Abbott's promise of "more Jakarta, less Geneva" struggled to deliver, while renewed momentum under Malcolm Turnbull has stalled.

Part of the explanation for the situation lies in the accumulation of dashed Australian expectations for how Indonesia would manage the post-Suharto era. To what Melbourne University's Tim Lindsey calls "clunky and increasingly illiberal procedural democracy" is added contests over Islamisation, attacks on minority rights and the erosion of free speech. Corruption remains rampant. As Lowy's Ben Bland concluded, "authoritarianism in Indonesia never truly went away".

In addition, Jakarta has had to contend with separatist movements at its eastern and western extremities. As with other regional examples, it only shows that experiments with liberal democracy do not necessarily bring political stability.

Canberra and Washington want Jakarta to play a bigger role in countering China's aggressive muscle flexing in the region.

Yet Canberra has also tended to either needlessly provoke Jakarta or fail to bring it into its strategic confidence at critical times.

Witness the Prime Minister's ham-fisted efforts during the Wentworth by-election in 2018, where he signalled his intention to follow the Trump administration's provocative decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Morrison ultimately decided against the move, but the damage in Indonesia had been done. The largest Muslim majority country in the world which has long expressed its support for the Palestinian cause saw Australia blindly following America and siding with Israel.

The Prime Minister is reported to have brushed aside Malcolm Turnbull's warning about a negative reaction in Indonesia, and the move threatened to derail the signing of a free trade agreement between the two countries.

In terms of strategic confidence building, recall Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's surprise at the Gillard government's 2011 decision to host 2500 US marines in Darwin. "I didn't know," he said, that Australia saw Indonesia as an "imminent military threat".

One of the new myths in the current debate is that Australia has solid regional company in encountering problems with China. But no other Asian nation has been frozen at the diplomatic level like Australia; no other country confronts Chinese economic coercion across so many export markets.

The Australian stance has brought forth sentiments of solidarity, particularly from the United States and Japan. That's reassuring, but it doesn't solve Australia's dilemma.

In his new book on Australian national restoration post-COVID-19, Reset, economist Ross Garnaut stresses that Canberra will have to remain deeply engaged with the ASEAN countries, especially Indonesia.

China is outcompeting

Current and future governments will need to "invest more in understanding and treating with respect Indonesian values and strategic perspectives", he writes. Garnaut's rationale for doing so is compelling: deeper ties with Jakarta will ensure that Australia avoids "isolation from Asia during a period of tensions with China".

Canberra and Washington want Jakarta to play a bigger role in countering China's aggressive muscle-flexing in the region. But as analyst Evan Laksmana points out, China is already outcompeting the US in Indonesia, in trade, investment and education.

Now Beijing is rolling out its COVID-19 vaccine across the archipelago. A strengthening US-Indonesia military relationship still makes it unlikely Jakarta will launch into China's orbit, but for Laksmana the question remains whether it will "embrace US overtures".

In an interview with Australian journalist James Massola in 2018, Widodo left open the possibility of restoring the Australia-Indonesia Agreement on Maintaining Security, signed in 1995 under Paul Keating.

At the time it attracted bipartisan support. In 1998, then defence minister Ian McLachlan said the agreement had "provided an umbrella under which we can talk more openly... nobody ever refers to it but it's there".

The agreement was terminated by Indonesian President Habibie following triumphalist Australian rhetoric in the wake of the 1999 East Timor crisis.

What is not at issue, though, is that the agreement removed fear of Indonesia from the Australian imagination. Up until that time, Indonesia was a state, says Keating, that had to be "strategically watched". His rationale was to tie Indonesia into Australia's northern arc, giving Canberra greater power in the event of any future military conflict.

It was predicated on shared strategic concerns: as Keating's own department emphasised at the time, Jakarta too would suffer in future "if Chinese power were not offset, and if Chinese competition with Japan was not constrained". How different might be today's strategic debate on China if the agreement was still in place.

While renewal of the 1995 agreement is unlikely to happen anytime soon, it could be a way to lock in a new era of strategic trust and co-operation.

But for that new era to be brought into being, Canberra will need to shed its sporadic but damaging posture of condescension towards its nearest, most vital neighbour. And invest more diplomatic capital in the relationship than ever before.

Source: https://www.afr.com/world/asia/end-the-condescension-to-start-new-era-with-indonesia-20210225-p575x