Shinzo Abe battles history; Myanmar presidential elections. By Hamish McDonald.

How do you solve a problem like Jakarta?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Are we investing too much in the Indonesian relationship, or too little? The question has immediately arisen from publication this week of an unusually cutting analysis of the way Canberra and Jakarta have interacted over the past decade.

Ken Ward has long been one of Australia’s most elegant and incisive writers about Asia, and Indonesia in particular, but until recent years his output was mostly in-house at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and then at the Office of National Assessments. At ONA he briefed many of our political leaders. His new Lowy Institute paper, titled “Condemned to Crisis?” reflects a cool, even sardonic judgement of them. 

Ward starts with a portrait of an Indonesia still trapped in an infantile world view 70 years after declaring independence: acutely sensitive to suggestions it is still a “coolie among nations” and open to foreign marauders; at the same time entitled to “respect” simply by virtue of its population size and far-flung archipelago in a strategic location rather than what it has done or made of itself. 

He dismisses a common notion that cultural incompatibility lies behind periodic crises in relations with Australia. Malaysia and Singapore arouse hackles even more in Jakarta. The problem on the Australian side is political communications. “The apparent belief that Indonesian politicians talk to and about each other unabashedly with the same lack of deference common among their Australian counterparts is a major obstacle to effective diplomacy towards Indonesia,” Ward writes.

There are plenty of examples here of Australian leaders talking down to Indonesian counterparts, or displaying double standards: John Howard saying Australians would feel “let down” if the Bali bombers were not executed; Tony Abbott refusing to apologise to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after the revelation Australia tapped his and his wife’s mobile phones; Abbott saying that Yudhoyono “of all people, ought to understand − does understand − just how seriously countries take their own sovereignty”.

There are examples here, from Downer v Rudd, to Bishop v Plibersek, of how our politicians attack each other “for both trying too hard to please Indonesia and not trying hard enough”.

Even without this, problems would not always be easily solved. For example, “it is very probable that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran would have been killed whatever the Australian government had said or done in 2015”. The blessing is that working relationships soon revert to calm, until the next flare-up. 

In Indonesia, the problem is the strength of nationalist impulses in its political system and public opinion. Governments have to stand up to foreigners. If we thought Yudhoyono was too sensitive, it’s worse with his successor, Joko Widodo. “This is because the new president himself is a channel for ‘nationalist impulses’,” using the word tegas (firm) to describe his own foreign policy stance and demanding a seat at top tables alongside the United States and China.

Under Jokowi, we’re in for “a more difficult time”, but at least the executions might cause Australian leaders to “drop their habit of lavishing praise unduly on the Indonesian government”. We should also be deterred from “embracing dreams of a grand strategic partnership in the foreseeable future”, or “seeing Indonesia as controlling Australia’s sole access to Asia”.

1 . Indon, more or less

Ward’s message that we should lower expectations with Indonesia has drawn responses in two directions, the most challenging from Aaron Connelly, an American scholar and Washington insider now with Lowy.

“If Australia and Indonesia are ‘condemned to crisis’ and cannot reasonably aspire to a strong friendship, should Australia continue to invest time, money, and effort in a better relationship?” Connelly asks in Lowy’s blog, The Interpreter. “Should its embassy in Jakarta remain its largest in the world, with a new consulate to be opened soon in Makassar? Should it continue to spend hundreds of millions in aid each year on Indonesia? Should Australians study Indonesian in school and work harder to learn more about their northern neighbour? Should Australian companies, as Julie Bishop has argued, step up investment in Indonesia and trade with Indonesia?”

The Australian National University’s Hugh White went the other way, suggesting Ward doesn’t see much beyond nursing along the status quo in the relationship. “But if we do not speculate about the future – even the relatively distant future of two or three decades ahead – then we miss opportunities to adapt to it, and risk finding ourselves stuck with old policies that do not work anymore,” White wrote. The risk is considerable with Indonesia because it would steadily build a much bigger economy than ours, and because the balance of wealth and power was shifting to Asia generally. Australian policymakers “should put higher priority on changing the basics of the relationship rather than just managing it”.

2 . Abe battles history

But if we think our leaders are gaffe-prone towards Asian neighbours, take a look at Japan’s prime minister, Shinzō Abe, who is currently steering bills widening defence powers under the post-1945 constitution and preparing a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War on August 15.

The bills authorise Japanese forces to join “collective defence” operations outside Japan, and take action itself against attacks on an ally, such as a North Korean missile heading towards the US. They were passed this month by a lower house panel and go to the upper house, where if not voted against within 60 days, they come back to the full lower house for final enactment into law.

The changes would be controversial anyway, but Abe has worsened the atmospherics with his persistent efforts to revise the interpretation of pre-1945 history to glorify Japan’s conquests. Even Abe’s supporters are exasperated with him, though he seems likely to retain the ruling Liberal Democratic Party leadership at its congress in September. A panel he chose to help write his August 15 statement seems unlikely to help: it met for the last time on Tuesday and couldn’t agree on whether Abe should state directly that Japan invaded other nations or apologise.

3 . Military man for Myanmar president

We spoke too soon about former general Shwe Mann shaping up as the next president of Myanmar after the November 8 elections, with Aung San Suu Kyi barred through a specific obstacle in the military-written constitution – even if her party wins a strong majority – and current president Thein Sein intending to step down. 

This week, military chief Min Aung Hlaing gave an unprecedented interview to the BBC. Asked if he would accept nomination for the presidency, he responded: “The duty of the soldier is to serve the country in whatever role”, adding that, “If people ask me to do this duty, I will decide then.”

As he selects 25 per cent of the parliament, in seats reserved for the military, he would have at least a launching pad. The general also declared his military had no intention to retreat further from politics until peace is made with all of Myanmar’s dozen armed ethnic insurgent groups. As the military has just blocked a constitutional amendment (requiring a 75 per cent-plus vote) to let regions elect their own governors, it’s hardly helping the peace process.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 25, 2015 as "How do you solve a problem like Jakarta?".

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