If all politics is not local, at least international politics is driven by domestic considerations. Even though political leaders travelling abroad appear to be talking with their counterparts, they are at least as much — or more — speaking to their constituents back home.
For the leader of a country that has an often troubled history of bilateral relations, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s visit to Australia is aimed very much at addressing Indonesian domestic concerns and much less about assuaging Australia’s primary interests.
Hence, while Yudhoyono has talked with Prime Minister Julia Gillard about asylum seekers travelling from Indonesia to Australia by boat, his main concern is the plight of Indonesian citizens who have been locked up in Australian prisons for crewing the boats. In particular, he is concerned that Indonesians formally understood as children are being held in Australian adult prisons.
Yudhoyono was pleased that seven under-aged Indonesians who crewed asylum-seeker boats had been released form Australian prisons. But he now wants the release of a further 54 Indonesian crewmen, presumably also under-aged.
Australian authorities arresting Indonesian crews from asylum-seeker boats does not play well in Indonesia. So the release of the 54, if he achieves it, will be a major publicity boost for Yudhoyono back home. This is especially important as Yudhoyono’s now somewhat lacklustre presidency grinds through the final two years of his two-term, 10-year leadership of Australia’s giant neighbour.
From Yudhoyono’s perspective, he is now looking at who will succeed him. He is therefore attempting to rebuild his credibility in the eyes of Indonesian voters so his as-yet-chosen successor will enjoy some of the legitimacy that accompanied his first term in office.
For its own part, Australia’s focus on the asylum-seeker issue consistently ignores that it is Indonesia that houses them in vastly larger numbers before their eventual departure for Australia or elsewhere. In this, Yudhoyono was keen to point out that to the extent that asylum seekers are a problem, they are not Australia’s alone.
For its own part, Australia’s gift of military transport aircraft is a muted gesture towards the controversial military relationship between the two countries. Indonesia’s military, the TNI, has long been keen to first re-establish and then extend its relationship with Australia’s military, with the support of both governments.
There is a theory that countries that train together tend not to go to war with each other. But more importantly, having a military relationship with Australia helps rehabilitate the standing of the TNI in the eyes of the world. The Australia link was instrumental in the TNI re-establishing training links, for example, with the US military.
What neither Gillard nor Yudhoyono have discussed, at least in public, is the extremely sensitive question of events in West Papua. There, Indonesian security forces appear unable to either extract themselves from the economic opportunities offered by the resource-rich province or their default position of torturing or killing West Papuans who might indicate they are troubled by any of that.
But approaching the end of his tenure as president, Yudhoyono does not appear to be willing to spend the political capital necessary to take on the TNI and find a durable solution to the West Papua problem. He has promised to do so but, as with reform of the TNI itself, that is one promise that now appears to have slipped off his political agenda.
For its own part, Australia has larger reasons for not wanting to get involved in the West Papua issue but, as with East Timor before it, such diplomatic comfort that Australia does enjoy with Indonesia is built on the foundations of complicity in repression.