Improving relations with Indonesia requires a significant attitude change by the Australian government on issues of national and regional security, writes BEC STRATING.
In recent months Australia and Indonesia’s bilateral relationship has suffered several high-profile setbacks. In April and May, Australian political leaders from all sides swiftly and forcefully condemned Indonesia’s execution of two Australian citizens, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. The Abbott government recalled the Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson, in protest.
Ambassador Grigson’s return to Jakarta five weeks later coincided with allegations that Australian officials paid people smugglers to return a boat carrying asylum seekers to Indonesia. Indonesia’s officials variously described Australia’s conduct in handling people smuggling as a new low, inappropriate, endangering lives and tantamount to bribery.
The alleged payments came under the Abbott government’s highly secretive Operation Sovereign Borders policy. This is not the first time this policy has contributed to tensions between Australia and Indonesia. Prior to becoming Indonesian president Joko Widodo promised to be stronger on issues of Indonesian sovereignty and referred specifically to Australia’s unacceptable incursions into Indonesian waters under Operation Sovereign Borders. In light of these diplomatic setbacks it is important to consider how Australia might act to improve relations with Indonesia. At a fundamental level, Australian leaders need to reconsider the balance between domestic and international priorities.
Throughout recent events, senior Australian ministers have publicly emphasised the importance of the bilateral relationship with Indonesia. However, this rhetoric has not been supported with substantive actions, and concurrent public discourses have demonstrated Australia’s willingness to sacrifice its relationship with Indonesia for short-term domestic political gain.
At times Australian ministers have demonised Indonesia’s actions in order to provoke nationalist sentiment among the Australian public.
For example, Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared that his government would be ‘prepared to do what’s necessary’ on the issue of asylum seekers, even if this affects Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. This mentality typifies the attitude problems of the current Australian government: while it attempts to shore up domestic legitimacy through hardline border security enforcement, these policies and public statements clash with other long-term national interests.
While scholarly literature often assumes that the structural constraints of the international system and the bureaucratic nature of states renders them rational and relatively consistent foreign affairs actors, the Abbott government’s dealings with Indonesia demonstrates an alarming tendency to compromise strategic interests for short-term goals of maintaining power. At times Australian ministers have demonised Indonesia’s actions in order to provoke nationalist sentiment among the Australian public. While political leaders might be directing popularist rhetoric to a domestic audience, in reality it is impossible to distinguish between domestic and international audiences: Indonesia hears what the Australian public hears.
Impasse in relations
The use of foreign policy and public diplomacy to promote nationalism is indicative of the Abbott government’s weak domestic popularity, a problem that also constrains the choices of President Widodo. These dynamics have created an impasse in Australia and Indonesia’s bilateral relationship as domestic leadership concerns play an increasingly important role in shaping the foreign policy choices of both states.
In order to move beyond these tensions, Indonesia and Australia should invest more substantially in communication, information sharing mechanisms and cross-cultural exchanges. While the importance of knowledge and cultural exchanges is recognised in the Australian government’s New Colombo Plan, Australian leaders have recently publicly refused to engage in constructive information sharing with Indonesia. Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi requested clarification on Australia’s alleged payments of people-smugglers.
In response, immigration minister Peter Dutton and other senior ministers refused to comment on ‘operational matters’ under the guise of national security, claiming that releasing information on payments of Indonesian people smuggling would impact upon Australia’s foreign affairs. However, it is precisely the lack of information sharing that exacerbates distrust. Australia’s unwillingness to clarify its conduct was taken by Indonesia as a confirmation that illicit payments had been made.
Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has noted that in the past, communications between the two states intensified in times of crises. Australia and Indonesia’s relationship has been stronger at times when both sides have made an effort to share information and collaborate on substantive issues. As middle-power democracies, both Australia and Indonesia should emphasise shared values and cultivate common interests and goals. Repairing relations with Indonesia requires a significant change in the attitude of the current Australian government towards communication and information-sharing on issues of national and regional security.
Ruptures in the relationship occur when Australia makes unilateral decisions that impact upon Indonesia’s sovereignty with little consultation. Operation Sovereign Borders is a unilateral policy that has shifted the responsibility of asylum seekers onto Indonesia. As such, the policy as it stands will continue to cause tension for Australia and Indonesia’s relationship.
In an international society, one in which transnational global issues like refugees, climate change, terrorism and so forth require increased cooperation among states, acting unilaterally and being unwilling to burden-share is problematic. States can no longer act and talk as if they are wholly independent agents. The tensions between Australia and Indonesia provide a useful case study in how issues of recognition and respect can impact upon foreign relations. Indonesia and Australia seem caught up in an identity dilemma characterised by repeated failures of both states to recognise and respect the self-descriptions, claims and demands of the other.
Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s vision of foreign policy released prior to 2014 election emphasised the importance of Indonesia’s archipelagic sovereign identity and its role as a middle power in the Indo-Pacific region. As the world’s largest archipelagic state, maritime issues are central to Indonesia’s foreign policy and its understanding of its place in the world. The Australian government’s disregard for Indonesian maritime sovereignty in its asylum seeker policies reflects a failure to recognise Indonesia’s core identity concerns.
Tensions over asylum seekers
This was also evident in Australian foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop’s statement that any complaints about Operation Sovereign Borders would be best dealt with by Indonesia enforcing sovereignty over its territorial borders. Deferring the blame to Indonesia by pointing out deficiencies in its sovereign capacities is not only counterproductive and likely to offend, but also unreasonable given the sheer expanse of Indonesia’s archipelagic maritime borders (approximately 81,000 kilometres).
Rather than criticising Indonesia, Australia should commit itself to emphasising co-operation on the issue of asylum seekers as a pathway to improving its relationship with Indonesia. Indonesian officials have repeatedly demanded regional solutions to the issue of asylum seekers. Ambassador Grigson’s claims that Australia remained committed to cooperating with Indonesia on people smuggling were challenged by Indonesian officials who asked Australia to prove their commitment by addressing the issue collaboratively.
The Southeast Asian migrant crisis, where Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and migrants from Bangladesh landed on the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, could have provided Australia an ideal opportunity to demonstrate regional leadership and goodwill through burden-sharing. While Malaysia and Indonesia reversed their initial policy of turning back asylum seeker boats due to international pressure, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s response to the suggestion of accepting refugees was ‘nope, nope, nope’. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsuni condemned Australia’s unwillingness to share the burden.
In recent news, Indonesia has decided to reduce the number of permits for live cattle imports from 200,000 to 50,000. This may well serve as a reminder to Australia of the importance of Indonesia and its markets to Australia. Improving relations with Indonesia requires a fundamental rethink about the interplay between domestic and international priorities, and Australia’s treatment of Indonesia. Compromising Australia’s relationship with Indonesia for domestic political pointscoring does not serve the national interest.
An example of an Australia government advertisement in its Operation Sovereign borders campaign to ‘stop the boats’. Operation Sovereign Borders has shifted responsibility for asylum seekers onto Indonesia, causing tension for Australia and Indonesia’s relationship.