21 July 2013

Jakarta-centred foreign policy

I thought "a Jakarta-centred foreign policy" was more hollow bullshit from Abbott, but after reading this I understand what it means: the Coalition would escalate hostilities with Indonesia to the point of diplomatic standoff, if not armed skirmish, and more importantly diminish our ability to engage with an increasingly important neighbour. Yes, dear reader; Tony Abbott would have a Jakarta-centred foreign policy in the same way that Churchill's first term as British PM had a Berlin-centred foreign policy. If you ramp up the pressure it is easy to underestimate what that would mean, so let us face it squarely.

The Indonesian economy is still smaller than that of Australia but it supports a population ten times bigger than ours. Indonesia's economy is set to grow by more than 6% this year, which gives it the possibility to become the seventh-largest national economy by 2030. Australia's trade with Indonesia is increasing exponentially and defence/security ties have increased in strength over the past two decades.

Even with cutbacks to the teaching of Indonesian at Australian universities, no other country devotes such resources to studying Indonesia than does Australia. Indonesian is one of the languages canvassed in the Australian Century White Paper as important for Australian schoolchildren to be taught. While much is made of Australians visiting Bali and making little contact with the local culture, this isn't the only type of cultural exchange; the sheer numbers of Australians visiting Indonesia means culture-to-culture contact is engaging a wider proportion of each country's population. A growing Indonesian economy will most likely see more Indonesians visiting Australia, deepening two-way engagement.

Much has been made of Australia's status as a "middle power"; in many ways Indonesia is our equal in different global spheres of influence. Indonesia is a major regional power, playing a leading role in ASEAN and other forums in Southeast Asia. Australia's increasing role in those forums depends heavily upon the goodwill and advocacy of Indonesia. Its long association with the Non-Aligned Movement (an association of post-colonial nations during the Cold War that sought to demonstrate their lack of affiliation to both the USA and the Soviet Union), as well as being the most populous Muslim nation, means that it has built strong links over decades with the sorts of countries toward which Australia gives little consideration - until we want something like a spot on the UN Security Council, or to host a big sporting event, or even a bagatelle like a reduction in refugee arrivals.

To picture the real damage that a stand-off with Indonesia could do to Australia's future, forget about a full-on shooting war. Tensions surrounding a refugee boat will not eclipse either close co-operation at the level of the two countries' armed services or international covenants designed expressly to avoid this sort of thing. What they will do, however, is make a mockery of both the promises that the Coalition has made to this country, and the promise that the country has in itself (provided that it resists the urge to vote in a deliberately bad government).

The first thing that will happen is that planeloads full of the very sort of blue-collar conservative voter that Abbott is targeting will be turned back from Bali, without compensation or apology. The actuality of one of Australia's favourite overseas destinations being closed to our nationals will override the spectre conjured up by tabloids and gruntback radio of asylum-seekers as threats. No amount of smarm or statesmanlike-veneer from a PM Abbott or a FM Bishop could or would counter that.

It will be seen as a real failure of foreign policy if Australians are booted out of Bali - and elsewhere, such as mining industry professionals and conservationists scattered throughout the archipelago, or builders and bankers from Jakarta. It will disengage this country from a fast-growing and promising neighbour. It will throw away decades of preparation for the reaping of dividends at exactly this moment and the foreseeable future, long years of maintaining the official relationship during and immediately after the difficult Suharto years in order that Australians might be there in spades once Indonesia got its act together.

The Coalition has promised a restoration of the beef trade to Indonesia, reversing the hurried ban on live exports by the Gillard government in 2011 following a Four Corners story (which was almost entirely outsourced to non-journalist animal rights activists). That will be off if the Indonesian government is sufficiently aggrieved and embarrassed, all for the sake of a few asylum-seekers.

The whole "foodbowl of Asia" thing, with billions of dollars for dams and what have you, depends entirely on Indonesian goodwill in order to return any dividends in the short or long term.

An enormous percentage of Australia's trade in goods is routed through sea lanes which pass through Indonesian waters. The advantage that mining companies in Africa and South America from cheap labour and less stringent working conditions, as well as "red tape" and "green tape", is pretty much negated by the shorter distances from Australia to markets in northern Asia. If Indonesia forced Australian exporters to go around its territorial waters, the competitiveness of Australian exporters would be compromised to a far greater extent than any other action of government (like, say, those that indirectly affect the exchange rate).

The idea that the Liberals will recklessly increase tensions with Indonesia in order to pursue domestic political advantage comes from two sources: the culture of the Liberal Party itself and the psychology of Abbott.

In the 1960s Australia was beginning to develop relationships with Asian countries, relationships that appreciated the subtleties between what was said for political consumption versus what was in the longterm interests of those countries. From those relationships came the idea that the White Australia Policy of restricting immigration from non-Caucasian people had to go; Australia's political elite had to overcome its populist instincts to make that happen. It took them years and many argue the job isn't done yet. Those who wanted to hold out against being "swamped by Asia" pointed to two factors that helped slow our embrace of our neighbouring countries: "Red" China and violent, unpredictable Indonesia.

The changes to China since the Cultural Revolution and the pragmatic policies of Deng Xiaoping and his successors have been well covered elsewhere. In the 1960s Indonesia was seemingly in meltdown: it was gripped by ethnic and political turmoil, brought to a head in 1964-65 with the replacement of Sukarno by Suharto and chronicled from an Australian perspective (in fictional terms) by Christopher Koch in The Year of Living Dangerously.

Indonesia outplaced its internal tensions with occasional armed skirmishes against Malaysian provinces in northern Kalimantan during the 1960s. This conflict is now known by the Bahasa word that both Indonesians and Malaysians applied to it: Konfrontasi. Rudd's use of that word to describe Abbott's approach was deliberate, the Liberal outrage in response was pathetic. They never used to behave like that when Gillard or Swan went after them. Their avoidance of policy development leaves them with few options when attacked on policy.

As far as the Indonesians are concerned, the Liberals have oscillated between three responses to announcements from the Indonesian government: wariness, ignoring them, and overfamiliarity and false chumminess (e.g. Julie Bishop's reference to the Indonesian Foreign Minister as "Marty". Dr Natalegawa has a PhD from ANU, and when you understand what it took to make that possible, and how dismissive the latter-day inheritors of the Coalition are of that legacy, you'll understand how hollow Coalition rhetoric on "a new Colombo Plan" is). None of these, nor all three, are adequate for building Australian foreign policy.

If Australia can't build a productive relationship with Indonesia it won't build a productive relationship with any other country in our region either.

At the time Konfrontasi was known in Australia, the UK and in other countries that sent troops to maintain the peace as the Malayan Emergency. The Liberal Party contains many people whose perspective on Indonesia was shaped by the Malayan Emergency and The Year of Living Dangerously. It contains few with any actual (let alone deep and extensive) experience with contemporary Indonesia. When the Howard government sent troops into East Timor the conflict was wildly popular within the Liberal Party. It vindication of both their suspicion of Indonesian malevolence toward Australia, as well as interpreting as weakness the fact that the Indonesian armed forces did not fully engage as they might have to an invasion elsewhere in their country. By disdaining the Indonesians Abbott is playing to his base, as though that's more important than engaging with the future.

This is how Abbott works - by ramping up tensions to the point where the dreaded subtleties are lost, and where difference of opinion becomes treason. The sort of nuanced policy on regional co-operation being pursued by the incumbents is not the result of deft diplomacy genius by Prime Minister Rudd, but rather a recognition that he has no other choice.

Nuance is not only anathema to Abbott, but way too hard; he strained to achieve it as a Howard government minister and it deserted him throughout 2007. By 2009 he rejected it entirely. In 2013 he needs to cultivate the appearance that he can handle complexities, like Howard did over 1995-96 and Rudd did in 2007; instead, he's retreating to the base by being ever more dogmatic.

Ramping up tensions is easy and, if vindicated by the electorate, to be preferred over an outcome requiring give-and-take. It shows Abbott's economic illiteracy that he would put the issues described above at risk; how the visceral issue of 'border protection' trumps almost all of the export-oriented economy.

This article by Justin Shaw is absolutely right on the failure of the Australia media to actually report on what Kevin Rudd actually discussed with Indonesia President Yudhuyono earlier this month. Because such meetings are tightly controlled, contemporary accounts of such meetings necessarily rely heavily upon official communiques, but the travelling press gallery couldn't even get that right. There is no grounds for believing that an extensive network of foreign correspondents would improve coverage of official visits either, with apologies to any journostalgists. This article by Michael Bachelard provides a bit of context and goes beyond setting up some silly pointscoring (as though President Yudhuyono were just another Canberra player), but is hardly sufficient. The effects of such visits can often be discussed only in retrospect - and there's no evidence of any follow-up, not even now.

When Bob Carr became Foreign Minister I thought he'd be the first to hold that role who would rarely venture further than half-a-day's flight from Canberra. I thought he would bring the electoral politics of western Sydney to bear on regional negotiations - my mistake. Instead, he's revelled in the UN role and the deputy-chair-of-a-subcommittee busywork arising from that, and when Australia's term on the Security Council expires in 2015 so too will Carr's federal political career.

As with his term as NSW Premier, it is doubtful Carr will have much to show for having been Foreign Minister in terms of shaping Australia's approach to the world in the 21st century: a dilettante, but a determined, focused and diligent one. As with his term as NSW Premier, whom he kept out of office will be as significant as what he did in it.

Indonesia has never taken any crap from Australia - not even in the late '90s, when they were waking up from a dictatorship and relying on Australian largesse to help them out of the Asian financial crisis. Abbott is all about resurrecting Howard, and if lording it over the Indonesians is part of that he's kidding himself and damaging an important relationship. A growing, stable Indonesia will be increasingly confident and assertive in foreign affairs, including in its dealings with Australia. Those who would govern Australia in coming years have no excuse not to realise that: the evidence is there and so are trusted advisers who make that case. Would-be governments must not only adjust their written policy pamphlets, but their daily behaviour across a range of issues, accordingly.

Australia needs a government that will build a strong and broad relationship with Indonesia. We will not get that from an Abbott-led Coalition, nor one where Julie Bishop plays a leading role. We might get it in fits and starts if Rudd is returned and someone other than Carr becomes Foreign Minister. Neither party - and no, not the Greens or any of the minors within electable range either - have any real idea how to build such a relationship.

We should have reporters who understand that relationship and can evaluate the actions of politicians and others against that relationship.

We are developing a population that can make their own assessments and share them, few of whom are within the politico-media complex as we know it today. The Australia-Indonesia relationship is far from doomed, but both the command-and-control fantasies of politicians/minders/lobbyists and the only-we-know-politics fantasies of the press gallery are.


  1. An extremely interesting and insightful piece. It highlights to me that the opposition's lack of policy development over the last few years is a real potential problem for Australia should, god help us, they be elected, rather than just a recipe for directionless domestic policy.

  2. Morrison stating that Dr Natalegawa had been intimidated into acquiescence by Bob Carr
    "Sussex Street style"was a diplomatic gem..

  3. Thanks Andrew - this is an excellent piece, which must really scare the faeces from the hacks. I love the term "gruntback radio". Is it an original elderism?

  4. Andrew, do you ever get tired of so effectively nailing the topics you turn your eye and 'pen' to?

    Excellent article again, but every commentator who recognises that Australians seem to wish to live in a great big Antipodean blind-spot is 'seeing' the real issue.

    But then, "every" is a very skinny group when you start counting...

    Bwana Morrison virtually declared war on Indonesia about 'who chooses which boats will be turned back and to where' a week or so back. And has continued in the same vein ever since.

    A mouthpiece with an urgent desire to be so much more, Morrison must be stretched agonisingly between 'times suit me' gratitude to have a leader like Abbott out front, while simultaneously (and demonstrably, watch him over Abbott's shoulder at doorstops) certain he's the 'real guy in waiting'.


  5. Hi Andrew - I assume this results from a slip of the keyboard fingers, but the Malayan Emergency was the suppression of (mainly ethnic Chinese) communist insurgents in the 1950s, famously (and humourously) chronicled in The Virgin Soldiers. The confrontation with Indonesia in the 1960s was known at the time as The Malaysian Confrontation. Other than that, your analysis is spot on.

  6. Very interesting and quite worrying. Perhaps another 6 years in opposition is required to develop some policies,diplomatic skills and the understanding that Abbott as Prime Minister is going to be a disaster for this country.

  7. VoterBentleigh23/7/13 6:59 pm

    In the speech which you link to, Abbott's comments on our nearest neighbours are condescending. He also seems strangely concerned about unnamed malevolent influences upon these nations. To which bogeymen is he referring?

    We can learn from history, but Abbott's speech suggests the Coalition want to re-live it. Like Howard attempting to be Churchillian, Abbott appears to want to be the new ANZAC hero leading Australia into Asia to prevent Asia's take-over by the forces of - well, he doesn't say.

    He also tells blatant falsehoods, such as the claim that the live cattle export industry was suspended due to a panic over a TV programme, implying by the use of that phrase that the cruel slaughter was fictional. No, it was suspended due to video evidence of animal cruelty in abattoirs which ought to have been overseen adequately by the Australian industry supplying the trade. I take it from the Coalition's stance on this matter that they would have denied it ever happened or allowed the barbaric methods of butchering to continue. Impressive!

    As for the rest of the Coalition's foreign policy, as outlined in its “Plan” brochure, it's reminiscent of paternalistic colonialism with its focus upon what can we get out of Asia, rather than an engagement with rising Asian nations on an equal footing with a view to co-existing in a mutually beneficial manner. Nowhere does the Coalition consider that Asia may wish to make profit from us.

    Just like their devolution of education and health to the states, which equals no federal policy (and therefore no funding), there is really no intelligible foreign policy. Instead, they have the guru's mantra: “stop the boats”; repeat it often enough and you will have inner calm.

    When Turnbull vengefully refused to support the off-shore processing of asylum seekers in Malaysia simply because the ALP had dismantled the Pacific solution, it was clear that the Opposition were not concerned with people drowning, not concerned with border protection and not concerned with off-shore processing. They were only opposing it because it was not their solution. Add to that their description of a supposed/alleged “convicted terrorist” as “Jihadist” and “Eygptian” thereby deliberately insinuating any Islamist or Middle Easterner could be a terrorist and the Liberals' foreign policy is in tatters. The Liberals claim to be for liberty and decency, yet Abbott compares asylum seekers with drug runners and refers to them like vomit, by saying the boats are “disgorging” asylum seekers on our shores. He also implies that, unlike other migrants, asylum seekers are not skilled and would not be “team” players. Yet it is clear from the Tampa asylum seekers have become highly valued members of New Zealand society. According to the Abbott, to the Coalition humanitarian considerations are not important in determining which migrants should be given priority; what is important is whether a migrant is “good for business”. Abbott claims his is not a Stalinist party, but it is sure starting to look fascist to me.

  8. Lachlan Ridge23/7/13 8:48 pm

    It's a typo. What Abbot is proposing is a Jakarta scented policy.

  9. I originally found this article thought provoking BUT strewth that was before I read about


  10. Thought this article a bit of a stretch until I watched Abbott at today's press conference talking about setting up a para-military unit reporting to the Minister for Immigration.

    Does Australia really want an Indonesian "Kopassus" type unit.

    Talk about Abbott the loose cannon.

  11. "Operation Sovereign Borders": No shark left unjumped.

  12. Exactly Notus...!!

    Abbott today was weird in his press conference with the military

    So he's scared and playing dumb politics is his best move??


    Hilarious and ridiculous strategy.

    Might as well just blow up the boats !!

  13. So did a certain pollster read this back in july and think, there's an idea?

  14. Is he playing games today?

  15. This post was extraordinarily prescient. The problem is this strategy will win TA even more of the blue collar vote.

    From some of the comments by right winger types on Twitter etc it seems as though they're lapping up the idea of 'telling the [insert racist slur here] a thing or two'.

    1. See my latest post: these characters evaporate once the govt starts looking clumsy.