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