Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 06:31 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 06:31 | SYDNEY

Indonesia: Speed dial is not enough

15 March 2012 18:23

Everything was very friendly today in the joint press conference between Australia's and Indonesia's foreign and defence ministers in Canberra. This was a chance for new Foreign Minister Bob Carr to meet his counterpart Marty Natalegawa, and Carr held his phone aloft to reporters to show that they had swapped numbers.

But an op-ed today by the Indonesian Foreign Ministry's Director of Information and Media, PLE Priatna, in Indonesia's main Indonesian language national daily Kompas, explicitly timed to coincide with Natalegawa's visit, painted a much more nuanced picture of Indonesia's position. It was a statement that the two countries must have a 'special and close' relationship, but not simply on terms of Australia's choosing.

'Australia must be good neighbours with Indonesia', Priatna said. Carr and the Australian Government must convince the Australian public, Priatna continued, that 'only through egalitarian, mutually beneficial cooperation on equal terms would Australia gain a place in Indonesia'.

Priatna characterised bilateral relations as 'quite strong', but qualified this by cataloguing frequent 'startling' Australian policies. These were:

  • The ban on live cattle exports.
  • The travel warning.
  • The detention of Indonesian juveniles in Australian prisons.
  • The inclusion of Timor-Leste in the Pacific seasonal workers scheme; Indonesia was omitted.
  • Obstacles to Indonesian horticultural exports to Australia.
  • Thirteen cases in 2010 of temporary stops on the import of certain Indonesian food products to Australia.
  • Priatna also noted that Indonesia had delayed its plans to limit fresh food imports to four ports to give trade partners (explicitly naming Australia) time to ready warehouses and transportation.

Priatna also wrote against positive Australian press perceptions of Carr's Indonesia credentials, citing a negative online piece on Carr last week that characterised him as 'ambivalent' towards Indonesia. 

That piece, which ran with a caricature of Carr in admiral's garb peering across the waters through a telescope, acknowledged Carr's place in the 'golden era' of Australia-Indonesia relations under Keating, but criticised Carr's perceived use of the Bali bombings for political gain, drawing quotations from a biography of Carr. After initially calling for tolerance in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Carr had played upon Australians' fear of Indonesia as a military threat, the piece said, by drawing an analogy in a 2003 Australia Day speech between the deaths of 88 Australians in the bombings and Australian military losses in Asia during World War II.

None of this means Carr and Australia cannot continue to build strong relations with Indonesia. But it underlines the fact that, behind the public handshakes and swapping of phone numbers, Australia faces real challenges in working through bilateral issues with our key regional neighbour.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Minister.