Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:01 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:01 | SYDNEY

Australia-Indonesia ties need a jolt


Fergus Hanson


8 March 2010 13:06

Whatever diplomatic niceties accompany the visit to Australia this week of Indonesia's president, both sides will be keenly aware the bilateral relationship is not as strong as it should be. Lowy Polling shows Australians don't have particularly warm feelings towards Indonesia, and Indonesians feel the same way about Australia.

Economically, it's as if Indonesia is on the other side of the globe — we do almost twice as much trade with New Zealand, which has less than 2% of the population and an economy about one-fifth the size of Indonesia's.

Both sides might point out that at least government-level linkages are in a good state. To an extent this is true — both governments do cooperate on a wide front and have regular exchanges — but just a few examples reveal it's not all that peachy. This is the third sentence from DFAT's Indonesia country brief:

Australia and Indonesia cooperate in practical ways on a wide range of international issues, including counter-terrorism, illegal fishing, people smuggling, avian influenza, climate change and interfaith dialogue.  

These may be valuable areas of cooperation, but they are also quite negative areas to highlight. Each of them focuses on threats to Australia (as well as Indonesia).

Another example is a speech by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith billed as 'Australia's vision for the future of the Australia-Indonesia partnership'. The headings that followed 'The current bilateral relationship' were: 'security cooperation', 'regional disaster response' and 'Indonesia's development challenges'. And this was delivered to an Indonesian audience.  

As I argue in a policy brief released today, there is a long list of reasons why Indonesia matters to Australia. But the relationship is also prone to being blown off course by frequent flare-ups, be it asylum seekers or Australian drug smugglers. To improve ties at the popular, business and governmental levels, major gestures are needed.

I suggest four options: seeking a multi-decade vision for the economic relationship that looks beyond, and is much more ambitious than, the proposed FTA; a new Colombo Plan for Indonesia – with both vocational education and university components aimed at educating thousands of Indonesians per annum; forging a more outward-looking cooperation agenda that looks beyond internal threats; and overhauling traditional approaches to public diplomacy.

Photo by Flickr user London Summit, used under a Creative Commons license.