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We talk with Indonesia every day — but is anyone listening?

Indonesian feathers have been ruffled by Australia’s policy of sending back asylum seekers. Julie Bishop says our relationship with Indonesia is fine, but no one on the Indonesian side seems to agree.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop “insists” that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is “very positive”. But Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa (pictured with Bishop) is equally insistent that there is a serious problem with the relationship. If there is regular dialogue between Australia and Indonesia, as Bishop claims, it would seem it is being conducted at cross purposes.

Bishop says the two countries talk officially almost every day, but that does not seem to have thawed relations. They were talking when the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, was again called in for a “please explain” over Australia’s asylum seeker “life boat” policy.

But what Bishop is not saying is that these conversations amount to a one-way rebuke. The most recent of these negative statements is that Natalegawa will raise the “escalated” issue of Australia returning asylum seekers to Indonesia in Australian-supplied life boats with United States Secretary of State John Kerry.

The US is a partner in the Bali Process, established in 2002 as a regional response to people smuggling. The Bali Process includes as members those countries that are the principle source of Australia’s asylum seekers, as well as those countries they are transiting through.

However, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he is relaxed about this, no doubt because the US is unlikely to want to become embroiled in a regional spat between allies. But it does, again, indicate the depth of Indonesia’s concern over asylum seekers traveling from international waters back to Indonesia on Australian government-supplied boats.

There is no doubt that the Indonesian response to returning asylum seekers to Indonesia is, to some degree, playing to a domestic audience ahead of forthcoming elections. As with all countries, Indonesian foreign policy primarily projects domestic priorities. This does not, however, diminish the extent to which government mishandling of domestic concerns may wreck foreign relations.

Perhaps more so than most other countries, given its fractured geography, Indonesia has always been deeply sensitive about foreign powers impinging on its territorial sovereignty. Coming on the back of inadequately dealing with phone-tapping revelations — exacerbated by fresh reports that Australia’s phone tapping was much more extensive than first reported — and then Australian naval vessels entering Indonesian territory, putting asylum seekers on Australian government boats and sending them back to Indonesia now has Indonesia searching for possible responses short of expelling Australian embassy staff.

What Indonesia wants — and what the Bali Process was established to deliver — is a regionally co-ordinated approach to the asylum seeker issue. In short, Indonesia wants Australia to work collaboratively to stem the tide of asylum seekers, for those who do reach the region to be quickly and appropriately processed, and for Australia to accept greater regional responsibility.

That Indonesia wants to keep the Bali Process on track is part of the “very positive” conversation with Australia — and it is falling on deaf ears. Ahead of a change of government in Indonesia and thus charting less certain diplomatic territory, Australia is likely to remain similarly blind to the damage this issue is causing to the long-term bilateral relationship.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University

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  • 1
    negativegearmiddleclasswelfarenow.com
    Posted Monday, 17 February 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Why would any member the Indonesian establishment be listening to us and take what we say at face value.

    The Australian is reporting today more shameless ASD snooping, apparently this time to get the inside running on a US and Indonesian trade dispute. What’s this got to do with us?

    According to Des Ball the NSA and GCHQ operations in Australia are so closely interlocked with those of DSD Defence Signal Directorate, now calling themselves the ASD Australian Signals Directorate, that it is impossible to consider them separately.
    This is how we listen to them.

  • 2
    Moar Content
    Posted Monday, 17 February 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Surely the Yanks can’t stand idly by as Australia’s intransigence pushes Indonesia closer to China?

    Surely the Yanks can’t be happy that Indonesia happily allowed the Chinese fleet to go sailing jauntily through the archipelago?

    At what point does having a knuckle-dragging ape waving its dick in the face of of America’s regional partners begin to impede on the American interest?

    At what point does the regional sheriff demand that it’s over-reaching deputy pull their fucking head in?

  • 3
    AR
    Posted Monday, 17 February 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    re the pic - which one is the 70 Flipinocolada porn star and does it matter?

  • 4
    Ken Lambert
    Posted Monday, 17 February 2014 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    More drivel from Kingsbury.

    Marty pretends to be displeased and Julie pretends to be concerned.

    Why would Marty be displeased with our boat return policy?

    It is solving a people smuggler problem for Indonesia by choking off the pipeline isn’t it? Is that not the expressed preference of the Indonesian Govt? - the strain of all these smugglees on the limited resources of poor little Indonesia?

  • 5
    MJPC
    Posted Tuesday, 18 February 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Moar Content, Whilst I somewhat agree with your comments I consider that China’s fleet elements being allowed through Indo waters is more diplomacy by the Indo’s than thumbing their noses at the US.
    The Swiss have courted both sides of any European conflict quite successfully for many years.
    At any rate, this government’s subservience to US interests has not finished. I predict close on the training of US Marines in Darmin will be stationing of US fleet elements there, maybe nuclear subs?

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