Take a minute and read the joint agreement on the code of conduct signed yesterday in Bali. It won’t take long. The deal inked by foreign ministers Marty Natalegawa and Julie Bishop and witnessed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is barely two pages. This is diplomacy at work, where more is left unsaid than put on paper. Without the verbose title, it is less than 300 words, with two operative paragraphs and one key word.
Australia and Indonesia are talking like good neighbours again. Our spooks have agreed to play nice as we continue to spy on each other, as we have always done. In its two points of note, the agreement first commits us to do no harm. The second substantive paragraph says our intelligence agencies will talk more often.
Together, these words help to reset the relationship to where it was in November 2013 before the Snowden revelations that through the “Five Eyes” agreement we tapped the phones of the Indonesian president’s inner circle and shared it in PowerPoint presentations with our allies in Washington, London, Ottawa, and Wellington.
Sailing through this man-made storm is good, but we are still not on calm seas. Operation Sovereign Borders remains. If the boats come south, they will be pushed back. Indonesians do not like the policy or the attitude behind it. We still have plenty to argue about.
If diplomacy were a game, it would be important to keep score. But we are neighbours forever, there is no full-time whistle that signals the end of this relationship. Marking up this as a win for Team Australia is a short-sighted approach. Neither is it a victory for grown-up diplomacy.
Across so many levels of government, business, and private endeavour we need to deal with Indonesians every day until the plates move us elsewhere. Indonesia’s population is 10 times the size of Australia’s and growing; it is a G20 member like we are, and its large economy is destined to become huge. As history marches on, we will need them more than they need us.
Our diplomats are the oil that lessens the tectonic friction created by two asymmetrical countries placed together by geography. On both sides of Arafura Sea we spend more on fighter jets than diplomacy. While our expensive-to-train jocks practise shooting each other down in the multimillion-dollar flying machines, our envoys on modest public service salaries ensure this will never happen.
Brouhahas like this one exhaust the already under-resourced ministries and missions, making forward-thinking and creative diplomacy less likely. When they are in crisis control mode, so much business does not get done. If this is an objective of Australian foreign policy, this crisis was a waste of time.
“While the agreement signed yesterday saved the face of SBY, the real challenge of Australian diplomacy for perhaps the next decade will be getting Jokowi’s ear.”
The nine lost months of this latest dip in the sine curve of bilateral relations also squandered the goodwill of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. During his decade in office he has been a president well disposed towards Australia, with his most recent Australia-trained foreign minister another plus when Canberra wants the attention of Jakarta, which it needs more often than Australians think.
While technically an annex to the Lombok Treaty, the agreement has limited value, as SBY leaves office on October 20. Natalegawa might also be soon looking for a new job in the international system as the administration of Joko Widodo takes office.
What does Jokowi think? We have some idea from the third presidential debate during the campaign. “There is a problem of trust, which is what led to the spying problem,” he said. “We are regarded as a weak nation. It’s a matter of national respect, a matter of integrity.”
While the agreement signed yesterday saved the face of SBY, the real challenge of Australian diplomacy for perhaps the next decade will be getting Jokowi’s ear.
At home, he is distracted by the fuel subsidy issue. Domestic issues such as implementing universal health coverage and corruption will dominate his first term in office.
Driving hundreds of kilometres across the President-elect’s Central Java heartland this week, the problem was self-evident. Panic buying has lead to long queues for fuel and exhausted stocks. There was another leaders meeting in Bali this week that Indonesians really worry about. They want to know if, in their meeting in Bali on Wednesday, SBY and Jokowi discussed a fuel price rise. This issue has saturated the news in Indonesia this week.
What Australia might want in this context will be a low priority. Knowing the foreign minister well, even if Natalegawa gets reappointed, is not enough. Kemlu, as his ministry is known, is as marginal in domestic politics as DFAT is in Australia. If you want to get something important done in Indonesia, the president must support it. Foreign policy is a subset of domestic policy in both countries.
One reason there is a proliferation of summitry in the Asia-Pacific region is that personal relationships between leaders matter. In quick succession, Jokowi is expected to attend the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw in Myanmar from November 11-12, followed by the G20 in Brisbane from November 15-16. How he gets along with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be important for the relationship between our countries. How Jokowi performs, especially when not reading from a script, will determine if Indonesia continues to be taken seriously as an actor in international affairs.
*Jim Della-Giacoma is a visiting fellow in the Department of Social and Political Change in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.