Little time left for reform Duncan Graham
Is disturbing news about Australian-Indonesian relations so commonplace it hardly warrants attention?
That’s the obvious conclusion following the Lowy Institute’s latest survey of attitudes to those living south of Latitude 10.
The independent international think tank released its findings Shattering Stereotypes last month (March). Apart from a few broadsheet reviews it’s been rapidly yawned off the public agenda.
That doesn’t mean it’s been dumped into departmental recycling bins in Jakarta and Canberra, or the few campuses that still teach Indonesian studies. Diplomats and academics are clearly worried about the latest Lowy findings. Whether politicians will translate anxieties into remedies is another matter.
The poll results are more gado-gado (vegetable salad) than nasi putih (white rice). First the happy news: Indonesians generally feel warm towards Australia and the temperature is rising – 62 per cent compared with 51 per cent six years ago, though still behind Japan, Singapore and the US.
The downside is that almost one third believes Australia could be a threat, eight percentage points above perceptions of communist North Korea. More distressing is that 12 per cent favor the Indonesian government encouraging militant groups to attack Australia.
Survey author Fergus Hanson noted dryly: “This minority of extreme anti-Australia sentiment will continue to concern Indonesian and Australian policy-makers.”
He might have expanded his statement to include all who live in the target area. Twelve per cent is small until translated into numbers – a nightmarish 28 million potential provocateurs is more than the population of Australia.
Fortunately most Indonesians reckon the land next door is an advanced economy, a good place to study and likely to act responsibly. Despite the growth in economic nationalism that’s worrying mining ventures a majority welcome Australian investment.
The data was garnered last November and December by interviewing 1,289 Indonesian adults face-to-face. That was just after Australia announced that Darwin on the north coast would house up to 2,500 marines, but before news that a naval base near Perth could harbor US nuclear submarines and that the Australian territory Cocos Islands might become a base for American drones.
These are the pilotless high-altitude spy planes used so effectively in Afghanistan.
The Australian government is playing down these proposals, saying the base (which would be just 1,300 kilometers south-west of Jakarta) is just pie in the sky, not drones on launchpads. Unfortunately such subtleties don’t count much in forming public opinion based on headlines rather than the qualifying small print.
Defence analyst Alan Dupont, Professor of International Security at the University of New South Wales was quoted as saying he supports the US Alliance, but Australia again risks being seen as America’s ‘deputy sheriff’ in the region.
(Ten years ago the then Liberal Prime Minister John Howard won the badge for a bellicose comment suggesting Australia would consider pre-emptive strikes against neighbor nations if it felt threatened.)
“I am 90 per cent sure the Indonesian government was blindsided on this and they are still not fully in the picture,” Professor Dupont told the Lowy Institute according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
“They will look at Cocos Island, which is closer to Indonesia than Australia, and will think, good God! In Jakarta there is a well-disposed government but they will be scratching their heads and wondering where the Australians are going on this.”
Clearly Australia is going for boosting ties with the US as it starts focussing on the growing might of China. The problem is that between the southern continent and the South China Sea lies another nation whose leaders don’t seem to get consulted.
Commenting on his survey Mr Hanson, program director for polling at the Lowy Institute wrote scathingly in The Australian newspaper about Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. He rated it as “one of our greatest foreign policy failures” with Australian politicians treating Indonesia “with reckless abandon” and showing “patronising short-term thinking.”
Two years earlier on the eve of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s successful visit to Australia where he addressed Parliament, Mr Hanson was saying much the same in a thoughtful policy brief titled Indonesia and Australia – Time for a Step Change.
“Mutual public distrust and stereotypes are so entrenched that dramatic leadership gestures are needed to produce a step-increase in relations,” he wrote.
Although the relationship with Indonesia was one of Australia’s most important, “stagnating relations” were focused around “a mostly negative set of security-related issues … business-to-business links are underdone and mutual public perceptions are poor.”
So what to do? In 2010 Mr Hanson offered four options:
§ A long-term vision for the economic relationship that’s more ambitious than the Free Trade Agreement.
§ A greatly expanded education aid program twinning Australian universities with Indonesian campuses and increasing the number of Australians studying Indonesian.
· Overhauling traditional approaches to public diplomacy.
· Developing an outward-looking agenda of positive cooperation.
What’s happened since then? Not a lot. Australia continues to be the biggest aid donor, but the Lowy poll shows Indonesians are unaware of this generosity, believing Japan and the US top the list. AusAID needs to build its image along with schools and health programs.
The number of Australians studying Indonesian is in free fall. More than 80 per cent of Australian visitors to Indonesia don’t travel beyond Bali. Less than 200 Australian undergraduates are studying in the archipelago. Travel warnings continue despite Jakarta’s protests.
While Indonesian citizens have mixed feelings, the present leadership seems relaxed about its neighbor, readily stamping out sparks from frictions like drug arrests in Bali and cattle mistreatment, before they are whipped into firestorms by radio shock-jocks.
Vice President Boediono, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and the President’s politician son Edhie were all educated in Australia.
However in 2014 there’ll be an entirely different leadership that may not feel so benign or knowledgeable of Australia’s fears and foibles. There’s little time left for Mr Hanson’s reform remedies to be dispensed and swallowed, let alone take effect.