tip off

Incoming government crashes into Indonesian diplomacy

The incoming Abbott government has learnt the hard way that it might not be a great idea to make foreign policy campaign promises without first talking to the principals involved.

To suggest that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has been marked by periods of instability would be less accurate to say the otherwise unstable relationship has been marked by brief periods of stability. After a few years of good relations, it again appears that Australia is headed into difficulties with its near neighbour.

Always highly sensitive around issues of sovereignty, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has rejected the newly elected Abbott government’s policy of paying villagers for information about people smugglers. He has also rejected the Coalition’s otherwise poorly conceived policy of buying potential people-smuggler boats.

Indonesia had already strongly signalled its opposition to the Coalition government’s policy of “turning back the boats” (“where safe to do so”). Its view is that, once boats are in international waters, they are not Indonesia’s responsibility, nor does it have the capacity to assist boats that might get into difficulties.

These new difficulties in the relationship result directly from a significant change in Australia’s foreign policy being announced as an election promise without first having been negotiated with the principal affected party. As the incoming Coalition government is quickly learning, there is a big difference between populist pre-election promises and post-election international realism.

Similarly, comments by senior Nationals member Barnaby Joyce that he will oppose the sale of Australian agricultural land to Indonesia to raise cattle for the Indonesian market will cause long-lasting offence in Indonesia. Indonesians will rightly point out that Australia has significant investment in mining and other industries in Indonesia, but hypocritically does not wish that investment right to be reciprocal.

Australia has enjoyed several years of generally untroubled relations with Indonesia. The relationship is officially described, on both sides, as the best it has ever been. That is probably correct.

However, a very large part of that positive relationship has been a result of the benign and pro-Western leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This has been assisted by the previous two governments’ more nuanced diplomacy towards Indonesia.

Under the surface, however, many of the longer-standing tensions and suspicions about Australia’s intentions and attitudes have remained among many senior Indonesians politicians. These suspicions, they believe, are now rapidly being confirmed.

The incoming government’s “bull in a china shop” approach to regional diplomacy was always going to test Indonesia’s patience. For senior Indonesians, and indeed many others, how one is seen to act is as important as the act itself.

But more importantly, any new tensions in the relationship will likely spill into Indonesia’s forthcoming electoral period. Yudhoyono steps down at the end of his second term next year, and his successor is much less likely to be as understanding or accommodating of Australia’s interests.

Indeed, there remains a good possibility that Indonesia’s next president will run a distinctly “nationalist” agenda, which will almost by definition be combative towards Australia. As Indonesia’s economy continues to grow strongly and its strategic value only develops in importance, how Australia engages will become increasingly critical.

Australia has long acknowledged that its future lies in closer engagement with Asia, confirmed yet again by the Asia century white paper. Good relations with Indonesia are central to that engagement. Australia’s new government would do well to remember that, and to act accordingly.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights and is the author and editor of a number of books on Indonesian politics

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  • 1
    Daemon
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    My apologies but much as I dislike the conservative side of politics I really do like the idea of not selling our land to Asian countries for any reason whatsoever. If you wonder why, try going over there and buying a block of land in your own name. Never happen. WTF should it happen here?

  • 2
    cnewt27
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    principals? And did anyone hear a journalist ask Tony Abbott whether he’d run the buying boats idea past any Indonesians? Looks like we’re back to megaphone diplomacy and “they understand our policies”. And perhaps back to the deputy-sheriff remarks and the “liberation” of East Timor that may, just may have had a bit to do with the Bali bombing.

  • 3
    Paddlefoot
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I have boats to sell - where do I apply for compensation ?

  • 4
    Griffiths Karen
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Why sell? Why not a 99 year lease?

  • 5
    mikehilliard
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Why not sign a lease for the land Indonesia wants. You never know, they could just decide to come & take what they want.

  • 6
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    This nation and it’s media frenzy over a few thousand refugees arriving quite legally by seat has become deranged beyond measure.

    With 46 million displaced human beings on the planet our pathetic racist belief that we can limit our so called humanity to 20,000 of them has to be exposed for the crap that it is,

    If we did the same amount of work as little Jordan we would have to take in over 2 million refugees, if were were Sweden it would be over 105,000, if Lebanon it would be over 6 million.

    Instead we moronically waste billions on illegal human trafficking to the Pacific Nations to dump just a few hundred people to rot.

  • 7
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    What is the matter with Damien Kingsbury? The point of having a country is that the land belongs to the people who live there. Australians have this ghastly attitude of ‘if it moves, shoot it. If it stands still, chop it down.

    We’ve had the attitude of the mining industry where the first thing people will say at a new mineral strike is. “We can flog it off to America!” We’ve flogged off our land at the first glimpse of a blade of grass, to England, America, China, and now Indonesia wishes to hop aboard.

    There’s only one way to feed everyone on this planet. And that is to restrict the breeding rate.

  • 8
    Raaraa
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Abbott government’s policy of paying villagers for information about people smugglers”

    Don’t think us Australians would be any happier if Indonesian agents went into our cities looking for the organisers and participants of the “West Papuan flotilla”.

  • 9
    klewso
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Sabre rattling (for the votes of folks back home) vs actual policy”?
    Which is Real Tony?

  • 10
    zut alors
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Ditto to the lease proposition. In practical terms leasing would still provide and deliver for Indonesia.

    Bob Katter and Cousin Jethro should be given their moment in the sun on this issue.

  • 11
    Francis Allen
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    My major concern with Abbott is his ignorance regarding international attitudes and sensitivities. I cannot imagine him dealing directly with the Japanese.

  • 12
    klewso
    Posted Saturday, 14 September 2013 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    It’s what he says to impress the media.

  • 13
    AR
    Posted Saturday, 14 September 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    With apologies to John Marsden, “Tomorrow, When the Sell-Off/Out Began”.
    Perhaps the asylum seekers could come, if only as ballast, on the boats that will return with the live cattle exports?

  • 14
    DiddyWrote
    Posted Saturday, 14 September 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Australian Foreign policy rarely diverges between Labor and the LNP mainly because the electorate doesn’t give a damn about events outside the country.
    Therefore generally both sides don’t start making diplomatic problems when in opposition.
    The cynical use of the asylum seeker issue to dog whistle votes by promising imaginary agreements with Indonesia will mark a major low.
    The reckless desire to win power by the LNP will now lead to a serious decline in the relationship between a country of 800 million people and a pushy continent of 21 million.
    Week one and the LNP have pissed off our nearest neighbour.

  • 15
    geomac62
    Posted Saturday, 14 September 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Diddy
    About 237 million Indonesians .

  • 16
    DiddyWrote
    Posted Sunday, 15 September 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks geomac, must remember not to rely on my unreliable brain and check my facts. Why was I so sure it was 800 million ………?

  • 17
    Cherie Gregoire
    Posted Monday, 16 September 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, thank you, thank you shepherdmarilyn for that breath of fresh air in this debate.

  • 18
    Karen
    Posted Monday, 16 September 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Abbots signature asylum policy falling apart at the seams and suddenly no rolling front page coverage of boats like before the election. Instead we are treated to ALP opposition woes, as a distraction. Wnat a cr*p partisan media we have.

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