Brittle bonds, wary views, slow trade: Rethink required
Just before Easter Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop opened her country’s latest and grandest Embassy.
The AUD 415 million complex covering four hectares of Central Jakarta is being billed as a marvel of modern technology married to sensitive architecture. There’s even an embrace of greenery and Javanese beliefs with four transplanted banyan trees.
Building colors represent minerals of the Great South Land. The walls are blast resistant; in 2004 a Jemaah Islamiah car bomber killed nine outside the former Embassy.
Bishop banged a gong and pronounced: ‘This is our largest overseas diplomatic post and will be a symbol of the breadth and the depth and the importance of this relationship between Australia and Indonesia’.
These are familiar lyrics which read well but never seem to catch on. ‘Underlying strengths’ and ‘bilateral ballast’ are other timeworn diplomatic standards, but not Golden Oldies. As Ross Taylor, President of Perth’s Indonesia Institute points out, ballast doesn’t help a ship go anywhere.
Inside the Forbidden City are tennis courts, a medical center, club and 34 four-bedroom apartments. A boon for some of the 500 staff who won’t have to dodge the Big Durian’s waspish motorcycle swarms, wade flooded streets and share the travel dramas of millions of commuters.
Following a tough day at the keyboard first, second and third secretaries can do lazy laps in the chlorinated pool not far from Ciliwung and its black tributaries which the poor use as laundries and lavatories.
Sometimes they might get a whiff of kretek (clove cigarettes) blown over the battlements from the mysterious kampongs beyond. Or hear azan, the ancient calls to prayer from mosques nearby.
Is Fortress Australia the right model for overseas engagement in the Internet Age, particularly with the people next door? Big isn’t necessarily better.
The days of translators gluing press clippings have gone the way of the fax and cassette tapes, along with chanceries spiked with aerials. Video conferences miss the subtle messages passed through handshakes, but they’re far cheaper and time efficient.
Professionals in Australasia are no longer tethered to static desks. Mobile offices are a smartphone and laptop hooked into the staffer’s HQ mainframe from wherever a decent coffee is brewed.
Counsellors and envoys scattered across Jakarta’s sprawl deny terrorists the big targets; the foreigners can mix with the locals, squabble about soccer instead of cricket, and see the view from the street, not the satellite.
Posted for three years, attaches analyse data, massage files and interpret reports. Their views and advice help craft policy in Canberra. This principally concerns the STD that infects Indonesian-Australian relationships – Security, Trade and Defence.
As an aside they mention aid, less so since the budget was slashed by 40 per cent, and the amorphous people-to-people relationships.
Last year Malcolm Turnbull popped into Jakarta on his way to Europe and showed how to relate, more by accident than design. It was his first visit as Prime Minister, seven months after Ambassador Paul Grigson was withdrawn when reformed drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumara were executed.
A high point of the stopover was accompanying President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo on one of his signature blusukan through a crowded and chaotic market. The walkabout delighted Indonesians surprised that a tie-free foreigner was meeting and greeting the wong cilik (ordinary folk).
Cynical Australians assumed the PM was being mistaken for George Clooney; who’d clap a politician they’d never elect? Sweaty Turnbull yanked off his jacket, grinned a lot and snapped selfies. Security looked hot and bothered.
The trip was a gate-opener for Trade Minister Andrew Robb and 360 business folk clutching order books. Major deals have yet to be trumpeted. As the Australians flew home a 1000-strong Japanese delegation jetted in with big construction projects in mind. They got to meet Jokowi – a favor denied Robb’s Mob.
Before Krismon the 1998 Asian economic storm that toppled President Soeharto’s 32 years of military-backed power, 400 Australian companies operated across the archipelago. Now there are 250.
Robb wants 750, but the journey will be all uphill. Australian directors are wary about risking funds in a country where the rule of law is exercised by might and mates. Corruption has deep roots drawing from the nation’s aquifer of graft. Positions on foreign investments are acrobatic and Jokowi’s mindset hard to fathom. Indonesians have the same problem.
Opportunities abound. Two-way trade is worth AUD 16 billion a year, less than tiny Malaysia with only 12 per cent of its neighbor’s population.
Indonesia is hungry for Australian wheat and beef, administrative expertise and smart technologies. But problems are also abundant – the business arena is seldom fair and flat. White line boundaries are smudged. Spectators and players interchange and the goal posts can be erected anywhere. Or nowhere.
Indonesia ranks 109th on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business list. Singapore is tops and Australia number 13.
There’s hope a fresh recruit might give the whole show a shake. Harvard-educated Thomas Lembong is the new Trade Minister recruited last year in a Cabinet shake up that favored technocrats over politicians. He’s been in Australia claiming the tide of protectionism which has washed deep into the national psyche is now retreating.
If he’s right then foreign funds may start to flow. They are needed – the growth rate is around 4.7 per cent (Australia’s is three per cent). The Indonesian figure sounds phenomenal till measured against the World Bank estimate of eight per cent needed to meet domestic demands from 250 million consumers.
Lembong, a former investment banker, has been polishing the idea of a Free Trade Agreement with talks scheduled for later this year. If fruitful this Indonesian initiative will be some accomplishment. A similar attempt four years ago collapsed under the weight of misunderstandings, misjudgements and some gross gaffes.
Here’s one story: In 2010 Jokowi’s predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono gave a speech to the National Parliament in Canberra. Local media called it ‘forthright’, ‘touching’ and ‘transformative’.
"Australia and Indonesia have a great future together,” he said. “We are not just neighbours, we are not just friends. We are strategic partners. We are equal stake-holders in a common future, with much to gain if we get this relationship right, and much to lose if we get it wrong.”
The wrong rapidly followed when SBY discovered that his phone and that of his wife Ani had been tapped by Australian spies. The leader of the world’s third largest democracy was outraged and so were the citizens. To his credit SBY maintained his Javanese cool and is now a visiting professor at the University of Western Australia.
More blunders followed, like the abrupt halt of cattle exports following reports of cruelty, leaving consumers short. The most recent clanger was authored by former PM Tony Abbott. Recalling support for the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami he linked this generosity to an unsuccessful plea to stay the firing squad taking aim at Chan and Sukumaran.
Sore from smarting under Dutch rule for 350 years, Indonesians are on 24/7 alert for real or imagined remnants of colonialism, well aware their neighbor once ran a White Australia policy. They started collecting coins to pay back the aid.
The Embassy can’t be blamed for every offence, but some errors have been so stupid and damaging it seems either diplomats aren’t heard or are serving bad advice from flawed sources.
Saying Australia needs Indonesia more than the reverse is a cliché with limited truth. Although politicians on either side of the Arafura Sea tend to focus on parochial and separate interests, the far-sighted recognise that common concerns should prevail.
China’s military expansion worries both nations. There’s already been one high-sea clash with the Chinese allegedly using force to recover a fishing boat seized by Indonesia. Threats are unlikely to come through the Southern Ocean. Indonesia needs solid friends in the region, as does Australia.
The ten-member ASEAN (‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community’) should be a backer but has become what Indonesians call a NATO – No Action, Talk Only encounter. It’s neither an Asian version of the original acronym nor the common market and regional powerhouse once imagined.
Apart from foods, fuels, raw materials, tourists and services, what do Indonesians seek from Down Under? According to Allan Behm, former senior public servant turned security analyst and commentator, Indonesians want ‘respect, understanding, support, quiet engagement and constructive advocacy of their growing role as a regional and global player’.
Instead they get a citadel of ballast paraded as ‘a symbol of the breadth and the depth and the importance of the relationship’.
Three years ago Australian National University Professor of Strategic Studies Hugh White wrote: ‘Australia not only needs a new kind of relationship with Indonesia, but a new way of thinking about foreign policy’. The needs remain.
(First published in Strategic Review 4 April 2016, See: http://sr-indonesia.com/web-exclusives/view/what-next-for-indonesia-and-australia )