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 Australia and Indonesia

Good Neighbour, Bad Neighbour. What's the difference?

Richard Woolcott AC

Uniya Seminar Series 2006
Xavier College, Melbourne
2 August 2006

 Uniya seminar series 2006

It is an honour and a pleasure to have been invited to address this seminar, which is part of the Jesuit Social Justice Centre series, especially as I doubt whether I am in a state of grace but also because it brings me back to this august institution, Xavier, College after many years.

Our subject this evening – Good Neighbour, Bad Neighbour: What’s the Difference? – is both timely and important . The first two points I would make about Australian – Indonesian relations are that Indonesia is - and always will be - of paramount importance to Australia and that there is, of course, a huge difference between a good and a bad neighbourly relationship.

Prime Minister Howard said in 2003 our most important relationship is with the United States, although the Government’s own White Paper on foreign and trade policy of August 1997 was deliberately careful not to differentiate between our four main relationships with China, Japan, Indonesia and the United States. I believe this was an unwise and unnecessary change of emphasis, which sent the wrong signals to Indonesia, China and Japan.

No doubt the tragic attack on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11 had a profound influence on Prime Minister Howard and drew him closer to the Bush Administration. But 11 September did not change our geographic location in South East Asia. The resource rich Indonesian Archipelago of some 13,600 islands of which about 1000 are inhabited, stretching a distance from Broome in our West to Christchurch in New Zealand, lying across our Northern approaches and our main air and sea lanes to East Asia and Europe, must always be a country of great and special importance to Australia.

Over the last few years with the democratic election of a Parliament (the DPR) and of President Yudhoyono the relationship with Indonesia has become much more complex and less predictable. It is even more in need of sophisticated management and greater public understanding than ever before. Moreover, our relationship with Indonesia is more immediate, simply because of its size and proximity compared to our other major relationships, such as those with China, Japan, the United States and India. There is no doubt in my mind that both countries must make a special effort – given our cultural and social differences – to be good neighbours.

While there is a great focus at present in government, academic, and media circles in this country on the opportunities for Australia provided by the booming economies of China and India and on a resurgence of the Japanese economy, as well as on the established relationship with the United States, it would be foolish if Australians were to downplay the importance, the opportunities and the potential for us in our immediate northern neighbour, as we did in the late 1990s.

The late 1990’s and early 2000’s were a period of upheaval in Indonesia. The East Asian economic crisis in 1997-8, seriously damaged the Indonesian economy. The resignation of President Soeharto in May 1998, opened the way to political change and three consecutive erratic presidencies before the election of President Yudhoyono in 2004. The country had also experienced the bloody separation of East Timor in 2000 and the Bali bombings in 2002. Indonesia appeared to many Australians to be more unstable, more unpredictable, and generally less important to Australia – except for the need to cooperate in combating people smuggling and terrorism – than it had been throughout the eighties and up to the mid nineties. Such an attitude was short sighted and mistaken. Our relationship with Indonesia is far too important to be allowed to drift.

I intend this evening to set out five guidelines, or markers, on how I consider Australians, including the Howard–Costello-Vaile Government and the Opposition should handle the relationship with Indonesia in the future.

Firstly, we should not expect too much too quickly from President Yudhoyono’s Government. When the former American Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, visited Sydney last year he described Indonesia as “ a fantastic success” because it had become a democracy, because President Yudhoyono has close connections with America and because of his government’s opposition to Islamic extremism. The reality is, however, that SBY is a cautious consensus builder. He calculates what he can do politically and what he thinks would be too disruptive to attempt.

Indonesia is a fragile democracy. SBY’s party holds only 55 seats in the Indonesian Parliament of 550 members. His strength is derived from the size of his popular mandate rather than his parliamentary support. He received 60.62% of the popular vote at the Presidential election but Golkar, led by Vice President Jusuf Kalla and the PDI, still led by former President Megawati Soekarnoputri, can if they combine, defeat legislation introduced by the President. This is why SBY has chosen to act against issues such as acts of terrorism, gambling, drugs and corruption, which can command wide parliamentary support. Countries like Australia sometimes overlook how long it can take to fashion a stable democracy. Indonesia deserves more credit than it has been given for the political reforms that have taken root in the last few years.

The second marker to which I wish to refer is Islam. The direction Islam takes in Indonesia is of enormous importance to Australia. Our situation is, for example, totally different from that of the United States. We should remember that the United States is situated in a monotheistic hemisphere, which is nominally Christian from Alaska and northern Canada to Tierra del Fuego. In East Asia Christianity is a minority religion in a region of great diversity, which includes very large Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu communities. By population, neighbouring Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world. Malaysia and Brunei also have Islamic majorities, while Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, India and China all have substantial Muslim minorities.

While Australia needs to maintain firm opposition to Islamic extremism and to continue to work with Indonesia in opposing terrorism, we need a more sensitive and sophisticated approach to religious issues in our region. President Bush’s so called “global war on terror”, to which the Howard Government has closely linked Australia, is sometimes seen as a politically expedient slogan, even in the United States, which often serves to mask rather than define the real challenge.

What we are witnessing in much of the Islamic world, including Indonesia, is a struggle for the hearts and minds of Muslims between the moderates and the modernisers on the one hand and, on the other, the conservatives and fundamentalists, including extremists who are prepared to use terror. It is vital to Australia that the moderates and modernisers prevail.

SBY, despite his strong opposition to terrorism and to extremism has been reluctant to respond to politically motivated demands from Australia to ban Jemaah Islamiyah because of the danger of radicalising many of the moderates. As one prominent Indonesian said to me recently, “if you mishandle the extremist minority, you could radicalise a number of the moderates because they, like the extremists, share opposition to the American occupation of Iraq”. Moreover, since Jemaah Islamiyah has the inclusive meaning in Bahasa Indonesia of “Muslim Brotherhood” a blanket ban is difficult.

In respect of action against terrorism, we need also to draw a distinction between combating terrorist extremism - an objective which Indonesia shares- and the war in Iraq, which the Australian government supports and that the Indonesian Government opposed on the grounds that it would stimulate anti-Americanism throughout Indonesia, and would facilitate the recruitment of Islamic terrorists. Because the original invasion was led by the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia - all Western democracies – many Indonesians consider this has eroded their moral standing and has challenged the United Nations’ founding principal of collective security.

The third marker I would like to put down is that Australians should not think of Indonesia as a threat. I suspect this is a manifestation of the uneasy feeling of many Australians that, historically, the country has felt under threat and needed the protection of a major power. First it was Japan. Then it was communist China. More recently some of these fears have unjustifiably been transferred to Indonesia.

According to a recent Lowy Institute survey only 52 % of Australians had a positive attitude towards Indonesia. Other polls suggest that 30% of Australians still see Indonesia as a threat to our security. This is presumably based on a mixture of fear, because of Indonesia’s size, its proximity and the complexity of its society, as well as widespread ignorance and latent racism.

Indonesia does not threaten Australia. Indonesia’s armed forces are relatively small and do not have the capacity to attack Australia. If relations are strained, however, Indonesia can cause us considerable difficulties. It is the country most entangled in our domestic politics; more so than the United States, China and Japan.

Indonesia itself is a huge archipelago in which the maintenance of law and order is a major preoccupation. As a senior Indonesian General once said to me when discussing this question, “Indonesia has more than enough domestic problems with which to cope. The cure for ingestion is not to eat more”. I believe Australians should regard Indonesia as an opportunity, as the Howard Government currently regards China, not as a threat.

Unfortunately, such concerns exist on both sides. Nationalism is a strong force in Indonesian politics. A number of members of the Indonesian armed forces and members of Parliament, including members of the influential Committee I, believe Australia is a threat to Indonesia’s territorial integrity. They see our support for the separation of East Timor as likely to be followed by support for the independence of West Papua and even Acheh, despite Government and Opposition denials. Our military expenditure is more than ten times that of Indonesia and the clear superiority of our defence equipment and systems understandably troubles some Indonesian strategists. Some senior Generals still speak of Australia as a threat from the South.

The fourth marker is the need to acknowledge that important policy differences remain, notwithstanding improved personal relations at the head of government level. The stationary printed for the Australia Indonesia Ministerial Forum 2005 carried under the two crests the words “Close Neighbours; Strong Partners”. The first is a fact. But the partnership is a work in progress. The election of SBY, followed by Australia’s very generous and prompt response to the tsunami tragedy, the subsequent earthquakes in Nias, Sumatra, and most recently in South Java, as well as growing cooperation in measures to combat terrorism have created the opportunity to improve further bilateral relations. Indonesia strongly supported Australia’s recent admission to the East Asian summit, after we had belatedly and somewhat ungraciously agreed to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. But we should not forget the wise Malay proverb that because the water is still it does not mean there are no crocodiles below the surface. Important differences in policy remain.

I am not suggesting that a policy that might cause concern to our regional neighbours should be avoided, especially one clearly based on Australia’s interests. Clearly, however, relationships are closer if we find ourselves pursuing similar approaches to major international and regional issues. We need to realise, in this context, that we are seen by many Indonesians as more closely aligned with the United States - or with the Bush Administration - than ever before. This and some Prime Ministerial and Ministerial comments have nourished the perception of the “ Deputy Sheriff role”.

While countries in the region generally welcome constructive and consultative American involvement, there are still concerns in Indonesia that Australia is now a less independent voice than we were and that we do not use our position to try to influence American decisions that may impact adversely on our region. Indonesia is also concerned by Australian plans to acquire and deploy missiles, which will put Indonesia within range. The Prime Minister’s support for a right to launch pre-emptive strikes in South East Asia, although since qualified, and the original decision to create a 1000 nautical mile surveillance zone, which would encroach on Indonesian territorial sovereignty, have also caused anxiety in Indonesia.

More importantly we need to recognise that Indonesians, including the President, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister were all opposed to the invasion of Iraq. This cannot be reversed and the situation it has created must be addressed. Nevertheless, Indonesians remain concerned, as I have already noted, that the occupation has led to increased – not reduced - terrorism in the Middle East and that it has offered enhanced recruiting opportunities to Islamic extremists.

Unfavourable perceptions of our method of conducting our diplomacy still linger. Our style is often seen as assertive, moralising and intrusive. What Foreign Minister Wirajuda has called “megaphone diplomacy”, often invoked for domestic political reasons, is unhelpful. There has also been a distaste for what is perceived to be jingoism, an excessive emphasis on military heroics and triumphalism in relation, for example, to our intervention in East Timor in 1999.

The fifth guideline I wish to stress is that, although the Indonesian economy remains fragile and foreign investments is still sluggish, we should expect that in the longer term and with stable government Indonesia, with its population expected to reach 300 million by 2050, offers Australia considerable commercial and selective investment opportunities.

We need always to keep in mind, on both sides of the Arafura Sea, that the relationship between Australia and Indonesia is a complex and fragile one between two very different societies. It requires a continuing and special effort to sustain the relationship. With such an investment in it the government should avoid creating unnecessary misunderstandings and concerns, as it has sometimes done in the past, usually for domestic political reasons.

The meeting between Howard and President Yudhoyono on Batam Island on 28 June took place and a measure of cordiality was restored at the head of government level. We should, however, rely less on personal relationships between heads of governments and certain Ministers, which can mask important cultural and policy differences. John Howard himself said in a moment of frankness and without “spin” on 16 June last that, “it is a very difficult relationship”. We need, therefore at the government level to build a wider convergence of policies and, at the public level, a deeper and more general mutual understanding. Neither will be easy.

I consider it is imperative to change perceptions of Australia in Indonesia and perceptions of Indonesia in the wider Australian community. What steps can be taken to advance this cause? If I still had a policy-advising role, I would suggest the government take the following four steps.

Firstly, the government should ensure that adequately funded programs are provided for increased language studies and people to people contacts, in both directions between elected members of the Australian and Indonesian Parliaments, academics, youth leaders, writers, journalists, moderate religious figures and other groups to provide an ever-widening range of contacts to help increase knowledge of each country in the other and to break down ignorance and prejudice.

It has been disappointing to note the sharp decline in Indonesian language studies. I understand that there are fewer than 40 first year University students studying Indonesian this year. The Australia/Indonesia Institute does valuable work in this regard. The main Universities also make a useful contribution but there is a need to do much, much more.

Secondly, we should consult more closely on important policy decisions, which can impact on either country. For example, we consulted Indonesia closely over our decision to participate in the first Gulf War in 1991 but we did not do so when we joined the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Thirdly, Australia and Indonesia should work towards expanding defence cooperation through wider exchange programs and by reinstating, with Indonesian support, the 1995 Agreement on Mutual Security or some similar arrangement. After all we do share a region and have a common interest in its security.

Fourthly, in addition to working to strengthen our bilateral relations, we should continue to consult and cooperate with Indonesia, whenever, possible in multilateral forums such as the United Nations, the Post Ministerial Forum of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), future East Asian summits, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings (APEC), the WTO and the Cairns Group. Even when we have different policies it is helpful to ensure that the reasons for the differences are understood on both sides.

Indonesia faces a complex of problems that most Australians cannot be expected to fully comprehend. Conversely, Australia enjoys a lifestyle that can only be imagined by most Indonesians. Seeking to build bridges between our very different societies is not something from which either side should shrink; but rather it is a national objective that should be seen as an exciting and worthwhile challenge. If we succeed, both Australia and Indonesia will benefit.

An active and important bilateral relationship is like a rope. It is made up of many strands. Some may be positive; others negative. Official diplomacy must operate in the world as it is and not in a world as it should be. There will always be tensions between principle and morality, on the one hand and, on the other expediency and the constraints imposed by existing realities. Often in foreign policy decisions have to reflect an appropriate balance between conflicting interests

For example, well- intentioned advocates of human rights and civil liberties, with genuine concerns, are unlikely to agree with those who want closer military cooperation with the Indonesian armed forces in the context of our shared regional security. Also, those who believe that the West Papuans were duded in 1969 by the so called act of free choice and that they should exercise self-determination, are unlikely to see eye to eye with those who believe that any further fragmentation, after East Timor, of the territorial integrity of the State of Indonesia must be avoided in the national interest.

Just as we do not allow our relations with China to be dominated by legitimate concerns about Tibet, Taiwan and the mistreatment of members of the Falun Gong sect; and just as we should not have allowed our close alliance with the United States to draw us into a costly, unnecessary, destructive and distant war in Iraq, we must not allow our relations with Indonesia to be held hostage to those who seek the unrealistic goal of an independent West Papua.

To succeed in our essential thrust into East Asia, Australia must develop a much deeper public understanding of our largest and closest Asian neighbour and in this context work to promote a major change in public attitudes towards Indonesia; a change which will reject both a negative and biased approach towards it and an overeager enthusiasm. This is a challenge and a national interest, which all intelligent Australians especially religious figures and academic and media commentators should work to assist rather than retard as some have done in recent years. This is not “appeasement“, as some commentators and our media sometimes suggest. It is practical common sense and a recognition of the realities stemming from our place on the globe.

I have no doubt that it is in the interest of future generations of Australians that the Government of the day and the Opposition, supported by the wider community, must pursue a constructive, balanced, more educated, more objective, more understanding and less self-righteous approach to Indonesia, without undertones of racism or religious intolerance. Indonesia is a very large and influential nation beside which we shall live for the rest of time.

Canberra 1/8/06

Richard Woolcott is a former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ambassador to Indonesia and Chairman of the Australia Indonesia Institute. Currently he is Founding Director of the Asia Society AustralAsia Centre. The views expressed in this address are his own.



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